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- Posted on Aug 11th 2010 5:05PM by Ian Gormely
Fred Penner, who released the classic kids song 'The Cat Came Back' in 1979 and later hosted a long-running CBC/Nickelodeon children's show, knows this well. These days, he's trading on the nostalgia of the kids who grew up on his music, playing a series of adult festivals this summer. Penner appeared at Evolve in Antigonish, NS last month and will share the stage with the likes of K'Naan and Martha Wainwright at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival in BC this weekend. Spinner caught up with him to find out more about his transition from children's singer to cult entertainer.
You're playing festivals not known for booking children's acts. How did you get these gigs?
In the last while I've been getting back into, not just family concerts, but university special events and the occasional pub things. There seems to be a new wave coming on, partly because of the longer-term connection I have made with that generation. The '80s kids are now the young adults who grew up on 'Fred Penner's Place' and my music. My name has some recognizability.
Was the decision to start playing in front of older audiences a conscience one?
Since my main focus over the years has been working with kids and families and family television, it's sort of at a point now where it's like, "What's the next phase of my onstage life?" I'm doing lots of songwriting and collaborative work with others. The foundation of my world is pretty vast, from book publishing to recording, to television, etc. As I look at the whole spectrum, I still need to make a living -- I have children at university. So where am I going to try and generate some more energy? The university kids are sending the emails on a daily basis saying, "I'm going to this campus and some friends and I were doing some Googling and we came upon your site, and we did some Youtube stuff on you..." You feel that connection coming in from the 20-plus [year-old] young people and the thought inevitably comes: if they're still connected on that level then it would be good to do a concert.
I have done an occasional university gig along the way, for homecoming or orientation week, but it's gone a step further than that. I've been doing evening gigs, which is a little unusual. It's been a while since I played anything past eight o'clock at night. I've been doing 9:30, ten o'clock concerts, solo in 500 seat pubs. And they've gone over really well. The audience likes to flash back to the earlier days. And there seems to be more and more momentum building on that side.
Do you change your sets for the older audiences?
A little bit, but not substantially. It's basically the songs the audience wants to hear. They'll yell out 'Sandwiches' and 'The Cat Came Back' -- there's a whole raft of songs they remember from their childhood, that's part of the deal. There's a good vibe about going back to an earlier time. And as well, I bring in tunes from my generation, songs that influenced me in the early days, folk ballads, light rock stuff from Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. And I'll also throw in a batch of originals on top of that and it makes for a pretty interesting evening.
Do you throw in newer songs from the '90s?
Yes I do, absolutely. I wrote a variation of 'Take Good Care of Each Other.' The verses go into a little bit of a flashback. "Who'd have believed we'd come this far/In the blink of an eye and here we are/A log and a bird and a magical space that brought us face to face" is the first verse. I do try and contemporize some of the material, but still try and give the positive message that's always been part of my presentation.
When you were starting out did you ever pursue adult audiences or was being a children's entertainer always your goal?
When I began in the '70s I was doing theatre class for four years -- I was playing in a comedy-soul band that played pubs across Canada from coast to coast. I played that circuit for four years. I had a lot of acting gigs, straight character roles. In the late part of the '70s, my wife, who's a modern dance choreographer and teacher, started a children's dance company called Sundance in 1979. We collaborated and she choreographed shows for children. We'd do performances in local theatres. That was really the instrumental turning point in my career. A benefactor came to one of the shows -- they had a couple of kids and they liked my music and they liked my voice and basically offered to finance an album for me. That became 'The Cat Came Back.'
Then the CBC was looking to develop a new series and basically there was a phone call out of the blue: "Do you want to do a TV series?" "Sure, why not?" It was almost as simple as that. I wasn't shopping myself at that point; I was just doing what I enjoyed most. I love performing, I love the interaction and the participation and suddenly the series was on my lap.
I knew this was going to be an early morning television show and children were going to watching this. That's where the series evolved, with clarity, understanding, and commitment to the audience. Not condescending -- building the philosophy of how you want to approach this most vulnerable segment of society. And being very analytical of how this works. It's not singing a couple of songs and being silly, it's completely the opposite. It's trying to bring as much integrity into the picture as possible.
It seems like a lot of Canadian children's performers emerged in the late '70s. Why do you think that happened?
It was a definite environment. It was the post-war generation, the boomers, who were making their swath across the planet. The post-war generation was the largest generation in history. As that generation was starting to have children, a collective consciousness emerged: "My kids need to have good music and good books to read."
That evolved into Dennis Lee and Robert Munch, who started writing books for children. The musical side, that's how Raffi got into it. His mother-in-law was working at a daycare centre; Raffi was on a path to becoming a folk singer -- he was playing at Grossman's Tavern [in Toronto] and so that was his path, and then his mother-in-law came and said, "I have no songs to play to my kids." Prior to this there were no specifically children-focused things. There were old folk songs -- Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger and the old folk singers -- but there were no new songs specifically for this generation. So Raffi went to the songbook and did the 'Singable Songs for the Very Young.' And it went through the roof -- it did double platinum in a short period of time.
You were talking about the philosophy you adopted when performing to children. Was that something you'd discuss with other children's entertainers?
We would get together and our conversations were really more about bringing quality and integrity to the work. Our respect for the audience is there -- I don't know if the respect is on the same level nowadays. I see some of the entertainers for children who get into the condescending roles. It's all about the high energy and quick hits and it's all about a very buoyant and fast-moving pace, which overwhelms the audience.
A dialogue is very much what I consider my shows to be. I'm asking questions of the audience, we're talking about things that lead into songs. It is a pretty important level of communication, I think. That doesn't happen very much in concerts today.