Interview: Cam Penner – “We want to make a real joyful noise”

Glasgow’s international celebration of roots music, Celtic Connections, kicks off this week and for this writer, one of the highlights will be the return of Cam Penner’s unique music. Accompanied as usual by his musical partner Jon Wood, a sonic wizard and master musician, their stage show has been described as, “Mystery and menace, love and humility, savage blues and tender romances, sounds one can imagine primitive man heard, allied with tribal ritual and chain gang hollers, delta moans and sylvan murmurs. All summoned up by these two Canadians armed with guitars, a drum kit and tape loops.”

Penner and Wood are playing at the prestigious Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, not the main auditorium but still a bit of a step up from their usual haunts and in anticipation of their appearance Cam spent his lunch break from his day job at a homeless centre in Canada’s British Columbia talking to Americana UK.

Hi Cam. When you last played over here you were promoting your latest album, ‘At War With Reason’. This time it’s a one off showcase at Celtic Connections so can we expect some changes to the show?
We’re still playing a lot of the last album but when Jon and I toured locally a couple of months ago we were picking up on a lot of older songs, in particular some stuff from ‘Sex & Politics‘. We’ve really been focusing  on the political stuff because that’s where my heart’s at, that’s what keeps me going right now. So we’ll have a quick rehearsal for this show and maybe work on some new songs and if it works it works, if not, then we have a bunch of old songs we can pull out. So, it’s going to be a different show, whether it’s old or new songs there’s going to be a different energy to it, Jon always plays something different anyhow, even from the night before.

You mention politics and certainly, on the last album, ‘At War With Reason’, you wrote about the wave of school shootings in the States on ‘Lights On (High School Musical)’. Are you becoming more of a political writer?
That’s always been in there. I’ve just done four shifts at the homeless shelter this week and I’ve been doing that for like, 20 years now so in a job like that you can’t ignore politics, working in the poverty field. So I can’t really not think about that when I’m writing. I mean, sex and politics, what more do you want to talk about especially in this day and age of foolish leaders and more warfare. To me, art is a way to combat that, to rally against that, it’s my tool to do that.

When you started off you were working very much in a traditional folk singer-songwriter style but over the years and in particular, on the last two albums you’ve been adding electronics and tape loops along with rap and trip-hop to your songs.
I find trip-hop and the like very interesting and I’ve been listening to a lot of it, a lot of weird sound-based stuff and I try to think about how I can put my songs into that sort of field so I play around with it, getting ideas. I’ll set a mic up and play some beats, fuck around a bit with some keyboards and feedback, different instruments. I want to be excited by what comes out, I want to be moved by it. I realise that it’s not going to be everyone’s taste but the older I get I don’t care so much about whether my music will appeal to a lot of people. I just want to make the art I want to make, that’s important to me.

What is it about trip hop which excites you?
I think it’s limitless, that’s what I really like about it. There’s this atmosphere that you can build on. I mean I have my guitar and I’ll play that but I don’t want it to be just that. I’ve been doing that for a long time now and I just like the idea that there are endless possibilities opening up as I get more into these sounds. It sparks up ideas and I share them with Jon and we both feel comfortable in that we can do whatever we want to do with it. We want it to sound cool, we want it to sound refreshing and we want to challenge not only ourselves but to challenge the audience. I could sit down and write songs like I did 20 years ago but it’s not inspiring to me so I’m looking for soundscapes and drama and emotion. I don’t want to be a typical topical songwriter and for me, on the last two albums, it’s been so far, so good.

So you and Jon hunker down and come up with these weird atavistic soundscapes.
It’s all about heightening the emotions. That’s one of the great things about Jon; we’ll talk once or twice a week by phone with a whisky in our hands and he’s always got some great ideas. I mean Jon is always working on something in his cave. He sells instruments, he makes beer and he makes great music, that’s his thing, he’s always trying to expand his knowledge. I’ve said that me and Jon make musical love and I think that’s what happens when we’re playing together. When Jon comes up to my studio, for the first day, 12 hours or so, we break out the instruments but we’re not playing our songs. It’s just making noise and allowing whatever we’ve been talking about to come together, throwing it at the canvas to see what it looks like. It’s really just pure enjoyment for us, we have some whiskies, some smoke and just go for it. We accept each other’s ideas and we really hold each other in that moment of playing, and when we play on stage, it’s just really intimate.

For just two folk on stage there’s an amazing array of instruments, pedals and tapes which you use to conjure some extraordinary sounds.
It’s a lot of fun but it’s just held together by a really thin piece of string. It’s like being on a trapeze, you don’t know if you’re going to fall, if the music will break apart, but you just trust that it will work and most times it does. You allow it be that fragile because life is like is like that and we’re not afraid anymore. It was really difficult when we started this transition into all these different sounds and doing things such as bringing a drum kit and tapes onto stage but once we had it just fit like a glove. Whenever we think about getting some more musicians involved we eventually say, fuck that, we can do it, we’ll make those sounds, we don’t need anyone else. We don’t want to open up our relationship; we’re not really polyamorous that way.

Penner & Wood bringing the voodoo down at Celtic Connections 2016

So it is fair to say that there’s a musical bromance going on?
Yes! Jon and me, we’ve held each other up through recording and playing and through loss in our lives. Besides my family, he’s the guy I live with the most. We’ve shared so many things and spent so much time together. I mean, touring is fragile, not just the playing but driving around escaping car crashes and rolling into places and wondering what the fuck is going on here, it’s a bond. It’s almost like a comedy at times, I mean, it’s hilarious that we’re flying out to Scotland for two days to play one show in a grand concert hall and then we’ll fly home and probably play a small little yoga studio somewhere in the mountains. But that’s what keeps it fresh for us. We’re always searching for new things, trying to keep it different and that’s how we keep falling in love with each other.

You mentioned earlier on that there might be some new songs in the set this week. Have you any new recordings in the pipeline?
I’m hoping to have a new album out later this year but right now I’ve just been demoing and sending stuff to Jon and we’ve just been passing that back and forth. Once we actually get together, we’ll mess around a bit, I’ll have some song titles and ideas and we’ll throw all of that at the wall. I think it’s going to be quite a personal album; as I said, working at the shelter you see a lot of things and it hits hard at times. It’s a battle between the light and the darkness and the album’s going to pick up on that.

I know you and Jon dig Scotland because of the whiskies but it must feel good to be invited back to play Celtic Connections just a couple of years from your last appearance.
It’s wonderful. We’ve been lucky with things like the BBC using my song, ‘House Of Liars’, for one of their shows and our agent works really hard, but I think it’s a bit like where someone asked Harrison Ford, “How did you make it so big?” and he said, “I just kept doing it.” And that’s us, we’ve just kept doing it and sometimes people take notice of that including the folk at Celtic Connections. They know we’re a bit different, we are sort of Americana but there’s something different to it, we are rock’n’roll but there’s something different to it. I say we play folk music, that is, music for the people. What we do has been pretty hard to sell sometimes, people don’t know where to place us and unfortunately, people like to have categories to tell them what to like. That’s what’s so good about Celtic Connections because it’s so diverse and I’m so thankful to them for bringing us over. It’s a big hall we’re playing and I’m hoping we can draw a crowd and bring everyone together. When you get the chance to play a larger venue you do want to make a real night of it, you want people to walk away with a memory; we want to make a real joyful noise. For us, we enjoyed our last time at the festival with shows in theatres and pubs and then late shows. This time we’ve only got one night to do that so we’re not going to be in our hotel much, we’ll try to cram as much in on Friday as we can.

Cam Penner plays Celtic Connections on Saturday 18th January, tickets available here.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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