Fred Penner: Music is his calling

By Melanie Cummings

While waiting in a Calgary airport on route to a show in Winnipeg, Fred Penner is considering writing a how-to book for travelers.

After 45 years in the music business, he’s learned a thing or two about life on the road, including how to eliminate travelling stresses. He relies on a Buddhist practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to help with the unpredictability of travel life.

Surprisingly, being on the stage in front of fans of all ages is where he is most at ease. No matter the venue – from church halls to auditoriums across the country — he loves every aspect of show life: from the sound check to meeting fans afterward. “It’s all a blessing,” said the longtime children’s entertainer.

Even with four Juno awards bearing his name already — for Children’s Album of the Year in 1989, 2003, 2015, and 2018 — he continues to write and perform. And he said he has no plans to retire anytime soon.

“I’m happy to be this age (72) and still able to do this for a living,” said Penner.

His latest release is “Somebody Believes”, a song the World Vision ambassador wrote after meeting Edgar Gonzales, a former sponsored child from the Philippines who now works for World Vision. In the course of his impassioned speech Gonzales said he escaped his life of poverty because “someone believed in me”.

Penner took the phrase to heart and wrote the song in an hour. He performed it the next day. “The song is a celebration of the role all Canadians play in sparking positive change globally. When we believe in a child’s potential, we transform lives, around the world and here in Canada too.”

The road of life will twist and turn /

And maybe we’ll lose our way /

But faith and hope are always there /

To listen to what we say /

Brothers and sisters /

Side by side /

Doing what must be done …

His long-standing support of World Vision is testament to his philosophy to never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child. “I carry that with me through my music,” he says.  

He has always taken pride in his constant respect for the intelligence of his young audiences; to provide them music with a deeper, more direct message than some of the condescending, dumbed-down material that fills the airwaves. He does this without glitz or glam, just a guitar and a fun, interesting story to tell his rapt audiences. This attitude was ever-present in his television show, Fred Penner’s Place, which aired in Canada from 1985-97, and in the U.S. from 1989-92.

While music was ever-present in Penner’s childhood, the first person who taught him its therapeutic value was his sister Susie. She had Down Syndrome and she had a genuine love for music. “It set a good foundation in me,” said Penner.

Susie died in the 1970s. She was only 20. A year later Penner’s dad died.

“The mortality check caused me to go deep and examine my life. Music emerged as the most powerful route for me to take.”

His songs resonate with audiences of all ages, including grandparents, parents, children and ‘Fred Heads’ — Generation Y and millennial hipsters who grew up listening to his music and continue to show up at his concerts.

The Number 1 song requested by his fans is “The Cat Came Back”. Number 2? “Sandwiches”. “Happy Feet” is a close third. Penner said he doesn’t stick to a hard and fast set list. “The middle usually takes care of itself.”

He’s even collaborated with Fred Heads who are artists in their own right. On his 2017 album, “Hear the Music”, he worked with Ron Sexsmith, Bahamas, Basia Bulat, Alex Cubas, and The Good Lovelies.

Penner also performs Christmas shows with his four children Damien, Danica, Kendra and Hayley who are now in their late 20s and early 30s and each “beautiful singers”. Daughter Hayley Gene Penner is a singer and songwriter in her own right as well. To be sure, his three grandchildren — who will soon number five by the end of the year — will inherit the family’s musical genes.

For a guy who graduated from the University of Winnipeg with an economics and psychology degree, was a social worker and started a children’s dance theatre company in his early working life, he’s built a multi-faceted career in the arts, singing, acting and writing. Along the way his contributions to Canadian music made Penner a member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and member of the Order of Manitoba, his home province, in 2011.

“I seem to have been meant to do this, although I never would have guessed it would be my career choice. It’s a calling. And I can honestly say it’s been a beautiful trip the whole time.”