Fred Penner has a storied musical career that spans 45 years, 12 children’s albums, and countless live shows. He’s a family entertainer, singer and songwriter, composer, actor, writer, author, TV host, and keynote speaker. His message of positivity and self belief have helped shape children over the decades and is a testament to his ability to make a difference in the life of young audiences the world over.
I remember growing up in the 1980’s and watching him magically popping out of a tree on Fred Penner’s Place. Younger readers may remember him in the early 2000s on Sing with Fred. And for many of us, life has come full circle as we find ourselves introducing our kids to his lovely music.
He will grace the stage in Ottawa this September 16 at Cityfolk Festival. Ahead of his performance, Apt613 got the pleasure of sitting with Fred and talking about life, music, and everything in between.
Apt613: For the few that may not know, can you tell us a little about yourself?
Fred: I’ve been doing what I do, which is making music for families, for 45 years of my life. I started in Winnipeg in the early seventies and I’ve toured extensively mainly across North America. Your listeners may know me from a TV series called Fred Penner’s Place.
Is it true that, early on in your career, you planned to be an economist instead of a musician?
I never really planned on that, it’s sort of the way things evolved. My father had always wanted to go to university, but was not able to do that because of war, and a family and the ways things evolved for him. I was the first of my generation to be able to do that. So essentially I was living part of my father’s dream and I wasn’t a great student and economics seemed to be the only discipline where I could get a job with a BA.
So I was actually primed in the early 70s to work for Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation as a civil servant and then as fate would have it, my sister, who is a Down syndrome child, she passed away in the early 70s and my father died a year later. So I was faced with two ultimate moments of devastating transition in my life and realised that I did not want to be an economist.
Perhaps my bliss really lay in the world of music and entertainment so I started playing the lounge bar scene and hone my skills in performing and guitar and that ultimately led me to my conversation with you now.
Were you into music before those tragic events, or was your music an outlet for dealing with your sister’s and father’s death?
No, music was always part of my life as long as I remember. From birth, I have had a very good musical ear for music and I would hear the songs that my parents were playing. The classical music and the swing music from the 40s, from their generation. And then my older brother and sister; they’re 9 and 10 years older, they were playing the boy bands and sounds from the 50s. I remember hearing all these different sounds. Now I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 15, but I learned cord structure and the creation of music on piano from my sister and sister-in-law.
I was also in every choir I could access, from grade three all the way to high school and university. Gospel choirs, church choirs, madrigal choirs, anything, because it just gave me a real sense of fulfilment doing that.
What were the key moments or events that were set in motion that took your passion for music and launched it into a career?
They were not conscious decisions. It wasn’t something where I went: “I want to be a television performer” or “I’m going to do a TV series for almost 13 years”. I began from the inspiration and from the mortality that I mentioned earlier and just kept following the leads that often other people would give me. I just learned to be part of the whole flow of music and it guided me into the path of where it is now.
I just learned to be part of the whole flow of music and it guided me into the path of where it is now.
I remember watching Fred Penner’s Place as a child and wanted to know how you came up with the central theme of “belief in what I can do”, because it had a big influence on shaping me as a child.
That probably evolved from my sister who was a Down syndrome child. I would see how music could literally get inside of her to the point of tears. She loved to sing, she loved music. She didn’t have verbal skills, but she loved to make sounds and just participate in anything musical.
I also did a lot of work with physically, mentally and behaviorally challenged kids in a number of treatment centres in Winnipeg and learned, at a critical time of my own development, how music can make a difference in the life of a child. And that has become almost a mantra for me.
I know from personal experience, how the songs, how the message is, how the lyrics, how the musical pattern can get into a person and make them think a little bit.
There’s a number of people who have come up to me to talk about the song “Proud”. It’s about who you are and how you approach life and many of my songs have the same kind of energy to it. We all, in truth, are in this insane life together and the more that we are able to support each other through whatever means possible, the stronger we are as an individual and as a society.
You have also been given the Order of Canada, the highest recognition given to a Canadian citizen. What was going through your mind when you received the award?
I remember the thought that went through my mind when it was happening was: “why are they giving this to me? What have I done that warrants this?”
The bizarre thing was the other people receiving the award that day were journalists, scientist, I mean people from every walk of life and we were all in a very similar position wondering what makes us more special than anybody else.
I felt a very deep humility in receiving that (award) because I don’t do what I do for accolade. I do what I do because I believe in it and because I believe there is a strength in positivity.
What keeps you going and gets you out of the bed in the mornings these days?
I always look forward to the next performance for a number of reasons. There will be a new combination of people who will be there to share the music, the excitement of people reconnecting and, for their children, a chance to hear new music. I feel rejuvenated when I perform because I feel an energy from the audience as they support what I’m doing. It’s not just nostalgic, even though part if it is, it is about connecting with their humanity.
This has been a surreal experience and thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
You can catch Fred Penner this Saturday September 16 performing on the RavenLaw Stage.
CityFolk runs from September 13-17, 2017 at Lansdowne. Visit https://cityfolkfestival.com for the lineup and schedule. Keep checking back for more Apt613 CityFolk and Marvest coverage and follow us on Instagram for the latest photos.