One-on-One with Alden Penner

By Jack Derricourt

Not many people are as comfortable with the phrase “up in the air” as Alden Penner is. Regarding plans for the future, his intentions for his newly compiled LP Exegesis, and even the lineup he’ll be playing with for the upcoming Wavelength Music Festival, the seasoned songwriter seems quite happy to let fate unwind as it will. If things continue to take shape for him like this year’s new full-length release, it’s going to turn out quite nicely indeed.

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Many people will recognize Penner’s aethereal vocals and poetic sentiments from his early days in the Unicorns. Since that band came to a close, the tunesmith has broadcast a tantalizing range of music. His work with Clues offers listeners an intriguing, abstract collection of lyrics and musical arrangement. The watercolour painting of a solo creation that is Odes to the House (2011) invites the audience to sit on the floor cross-legged and take the music in slowly. Last December’s Precession EP shows a new batch of electronically inclined Penner tunes — which have in turn become the vehicle for material from past years in the form of the full-length Exegesis. There’s even talk of a wicked rave album in the works. Well, maybe just some softcore gabber. Either way, it’s a very exciting time if you’re a fan of Penner’s work old or new.

While originally from Quebec, Penner’s musical stylings blossomed in the isolated wilderness of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. It certainly wasn’t all lumberjacks and salmon tacos. Penner spent his formative teenage years hopping between Courtney hardcore punk shows and Quadra Island hippy jams. It was the ethic of DIY that chiefly interested him.

“The environment and overall attitude towards life definitely influenced me,” says Penner. “The idea of creating a local scene and putting on your own shows. The isolation made for more self-determination.” Maybe that’s partly why one of his karaoke staples is “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond.

There are no Diamond covers on the new release, but there are plenty of gems. The material inherited from the Precession EP was composed over the past year, and stems from a desire to create something public.

“Before I was kind of comfortable with the songs existing in my head, or as basic demo versions,” says Penner. “This feels more like a discourse with a public or the music world.”

That discourse includes a satisfying mosaic of lyrical content adopted from other writers. Lines by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Maritime poet Alden Nowlan, and even words from the Bahá’í text of The Hidden Words all make appearances. Penner is direct about his sampling from other texts.

“I’m borrowing poetry from other sources. I feel a strong relationship to those particular pieces, and that I can communicate something new by using them.”

When it came to penning his own lyrics, Penner had a wise hand helping to steer the wheel in the form of Laura Crapo, who suggested he keep the material as close to the form of haiku as possible.

“I describe a very simple thing in a short period of time, and make it about that one thing, which diverges from some of the other things I’ve done. I definitely think that’s an important element for a song to be powerful and to communicate something — at once it’s very specific but it can hit on many different levels. I think that’s somewhat true of Precession.”

The result is a captivating group of pop tunes, soul-stirring in their simplicity of form, and slightly spooky — see the movie epic that is “No Peace.”

The powerful remainder of Exegesis comes from every corner of Penner’s last decade — ever since the folding of the Unicorns. “Lovely Legs” is a glorious highlight from this group of material, blending swaying organ lines with jittery guitars and faraway vocals. While only seeing the light of day now, it’s obvious that these songs were made to be heard by an eager public, and it’s gratifying to see Penner releasing them now.

He’s not sure what form the live show will take (the ghost of a drummer might take shape), but on Thursday, February 13th, Penner will take the stage at the Silver Dollar and unleash the haiku fury of Exegesis. Make sure you save those pennies up for your Colin Stetson tickets, but do not miss Alden Penner: he’s sure to lift your spirits, up in the air.

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