Canadian singer/songwriter Fred Penner brings family entertainment to the area
He didn’t have to crawl through a hollow log to get here, but that doesn’t mean Canadian icon Fred Penner’s visit to Labrador West was any less magical.
© Photo by Ty Dunham/The Aurora
Children’s performer and Canadian icon Fred Penner thanks eight-year-old Holly Williams for coming to his show at the Labrador West Arts and Culture Centre on March 15.
The family entertainer held two sold-out shows at the Arts and Culture Centre Saturday, March 15, playing his signature tunes to children and their parents who grew up watching him on Fred Penner’s Place.
A national celebrity, the level of connection with an audience spanning across his career is unparalleled. Penner said he’s often approached by young people with tears and hugs with the need to express something deeper, such as the single mother of two he met in Florida.
“She came up to me and said that all the men in her life had been real duds, abusive and unpleasant role model for her young boys. She was so thankful for her boys to be able to see a male figure with positive energy, so they didn’t grow up thinking that all men were duds. She really needed me to know that was a value.”
Penner described the connectivity between himself and the audience as anything but casual, and was often personal and very specific. Speaking to his young fans like he speaks to his own kids, Penner attributes the deep connections to being non-condescending.
“I’ve always been very accessible. I don’t assume any other character on stage or in television. It’s always, ‘Hi! Come on in. Yeah, I’m talking to you, let’s go!’”
But Penner never intended any of the accolades or the applause when he first began.
“I don’t know any performer who starts that way, because then you’re off the track. I’m doing this for me; this makes me feel strong. My creativity is nurtured in this world. I see things in my own perspective and allow that to come through me into song.”
During a show he’s looking to make those connections, to find a gem that will generate a smile or a tear, he said.
“Interacting with the audience on all those levels is a constant challenge with me. But I’ve learned to be spontaneous. I know how to play toward moments.”
Playing in front of a large room full of children can lead to spontaneous moments, not to mention chatter and hopping around, but Penner said that’s part of the show.
“I don’t even think of it anymore. Kids don’t really want to sit in a space for a long period of time; their job is to be out there active and learning, so it’s an odd thing to bring them to a theatre in the first place.”
When the children begin to get antsy Penner has a series of tools specifically designed for the child to bring the focus back to the front, such as singing the Itsy Bitsy Spider, or teaching sign language before moving onto the next song.
“I do that at paced times through the course of the show to bring the audience back in. But even if they do get squirmy they’re taking in the energy and the music.”
Born into music
Penner has been taking in the energy and the music as long as he can remember.
“It’s been in me. I think I was born with the ability to hear and reproduce sound and music around me.”
Surrounded by a wide variety of music growing up, Penner’s parents listened to classical and swing music and invited keyboard players over. His older brother and sister were into the early rock and boy bands of the 1950s.
“I had a really interesting, vibrant exploration of music that was with me all the time. I would hear sounds and I would duplicate them and imitate them.”
After his sister-in-law taught him chords on piano, he then learned how to make the sound with his voice and hands and how the cacophony of sound could turn to creation.
By age 15 he was playing guitar in coffee houses in the 1960s from high school through university. It progressed into the 1970s, when his sister died and father shortly after. He finished a bachelor of arts in economics, but knew he did not want to be an economist as a lifelong career.
“I had no formal training and I thought, ‘Well, the only thing that gives me bliss and personal joy in this world is music.’”
He started playing in bars and lounges, connecting with friends and building a band that played across Canada through the 1970s, which led to developing work for children with his future wife, Odette Heyn.
Then came The Cat Came Back. He first discovered the 1893 song in an encyclopedia while jamming with his cousin and brother and made it his own.
“There was no turning back after that. It’s the best signature tune ever. I’m so grateful that came. It’s the kind of song that has character to it.”
A big break
Penner was approached by the CBC in 1985, following a run of successful children’s albums and music festival appearances.
“They came out of the blue and said, ‘We’ve been enjoying your music, would you like to do a TV series?’ And I said, ‘Oh, sure. Really? How do I do this?’”
The television network granted Penner a number of creative freedoms that led to the iconic Fred Penner’s Place.
“The log was my idea, and that kind of open environment. The idea of having a place where you could relax.”
Penner said his childhood, including his time as a Boy Scout, was an inspiration.
“I remember clearly, there were parts of my backyard I would sit under a tree and just take in nature and be relaxed and in my own zone. It was a protected area and I would feel comfortable there and just be happy.”
It was the kind of space Penner said every child, and adult, needs.
“To get to Fred Penner’s Place had to be a journey. So the journey is across a field, over a fence, you go here, you go there, say hello to a bird, and eventually get to the log. You lift up the branches, make sure nobody is watching – because it’s just you and me – and crawl in.”
Once inside, the viewer is protected, he said.
“The log was both a physical and metaphorical transitional point. And because I’d change my clothes getting in and crawling out the other side, it had a magical quality.”
Entering the log became one of the most recognizable television series openings in the history of Canadian television. The show was a hit, airing almost 1,000 episodes from 1985-1997.
“It was a lot of work, and a lot of really wonderful energy. I would still be doing it today if they hadn’t decided to move in another direction. It had something really unique and special.”
An adult audience
Since the show’s end Penner continued to make children feel special through song. He also rekindled those feelings with the older generations.
“I’m playing lots of adult shows in the bar scene across the country. In the past four or five years I’ve played every major university starting at 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., doing the same material.”
He also throws in some originals, as well as 1960-70s folk hits from artists such as Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell, and it’s something he can see himself continuing in the future.
“I suspect in the next number of years at this point in my career I will be doing more songs that perhaps are not specifically for the child.”