At 70, Fred Penner’s beautiful hands strum his guitar like it’s an extension of his fingers. The twinkling eyes we remember shine out from an older, but no less appealing face, framed with the most welcoming smile—a smile that five decades of kids have loved and trusted.
My not-quite-three year old son was transfixed when I played the title track video of Penner’s new album for him. His busy hands settled into his lap, eyes wide and his pretty mouth turned up into a small smile. Watching Fred Penner weave his magic is the simplest of joys, and one, it appears, that we relate to universally. Affectionately dubbed the “Canadian Minister of Positivity” and legitimized with the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba—the man is a national treasure of the True North.
UM: If you think back to when you were Little Freddie Penner—what made you happy? What did you love about life?
I loved to play with my friends. Exploring the world round me, swings and sandbox. I loved the music in my life. Lots of wonderful sounds and styles of music from the record player and the radio.
UM: You stand apart from a lot of “children’s entertainers” in that many of the other guys will go over the top for laughs or thrills, whereas you seem to hit kids with sincerity. Is this your performance philosophy or is it the real Fred Penner?
I respect people, families, parents and children. Communicating a thought or feeling through words and music is very important to me. Talking to a child in the same way I would talk to anyone, not condescending, but speaking directly and honestly. I don’t have to put on a different hat to be Fred Penner. I am the person you see and hear.
UM: With a musical career spanning more than four decades, you’ve connected with the spirit of several totally different generations. How do you connect with the kids of today?
My philosophy has always been the same, “Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child.” Children still need the basics in life: love and respect, understanding and appreciation of who they are and the deepest feeling they have. The challenge is learning to take the time to really engage the child in conversation, not just filling their lives with ‘things to do’. Calm, quiet time for self-awareness and introspection is vital. That has never changed, but the world is moving very quickly—and we can slow it down through meditation and breathing.
Music is my most important form of creative expression, but I do like to paint and draw. I don’t think I’m very good, but my wife Rae Ellen assures me that’s not the case! ‘The Arts’ in all its many forms is critical—not just important—but vital for a child. Not to become a performer, but to become aware of the beauty around them in music, visual art, dance, writing, drawing, and painting. This is how we express personal perspectives that are deep inside each of us. Perspectives that need to see the light of day.
UM: Moms and dads often play very different roles at work and at home. As a parent and an entertainer (beloved by countless children), has it been difficult to unite or distinguish these two parts of yourself?
Being in the public eye has been challenging for me over the years in respect to my family. My children would come home from elementary school and ask for autographs for their friends! I made it clear that I was their father first and foremost, and the TV/Music guy was my job. I would visit and perform at their schools occasionally, but keeping the dad/performer roles separate was difficult at times. Ultimately, I have tried to be a good man and a caring father.
UM: I’m sure there were a number of amazing artists lined up to collaborate on the new album. Tell me a little about how you knew some of the chosen artists were the right fit for Hear the Music?
There were many performers who were hoping to be part of my new CD…but it was important to connect the right song to artist. For instance, my Spanish song La Vida was a no brainer for Alex Cuba, who I have known for several years and I knew he would give the song his authentic feel. Ron Sexsmith has become a friend and River Will Bend and This Is My World were lovely tunes that we felt would suit his harmonies. With the performers we selected, I knew their sounds, but more importantly I knew their positive energy and love for what they do. The most exciting part of the process for me was how thrilled these musicians were to be part of my project.
I remember watching Fred, on a much smaller and lower definition screen, when I was young. I remember how he reflected the wonder I felt inside as he interacted with the world around us and explained things in powerfully simple ways—alternating between words and song. He was never patronizing and never foolish, he was genuine and he was real. Kids can always tell real.
The proof is in the generations of dedicated fans, both young and old, who have followed Fred Penner devotedly through the decades. With the release of his new album Hear the Music, I ask Penner if this record is the bookend of his long and beautiful career or if it’s just the beginning of the next era of Fred Penner. “Who knows?” he answers brightly. “The creative process is constant and there are lots of songs inside me…waiting to be written.”
“Dear Mr. Penner” A Speed Round Q&A from the Little Fans
What’s your favourite food? Chicken Soup
What was your first pet’s name? Peter
What type of pet was it? A budgie
Have you always had a beard? When I was born I didn’t!
What’s your favourite time of day? Morning, when the sun’s coming up and you get that beautiful morning glow.
Where’s your favourite place to sit? In a comfy chair in my sunroom where I can put my feet up and look at the trees.
Do you know how to swim? I do.
What’s your favourite song on your new album? I like them all, but the one I’ve been singing most is the title track “I Hear the Music”
Where’s your best place in the world to be? Right here and right now.