“The inescapable reality of being an artist is that you’re always going to make a self-portrait,” Alden Penner tells me about halfway through our interview. We’re speaking about his new album, and his long, winding career.
Penner’s career. It’s weird for me to talk about it, because I was part of it for a while. About three years ago he and I played together in the Hidden Words, a spiritual folk group. I was just twenty when I joined the band, and I quickly came to respect Penner as a songwriter. He had an unfailing inner compass directing his songs. Once, during a rehearsal, I deviated from the agreed arrangement and started noodling around. Penner looked straight at me and softly said, “No.”
Before Hidden Words, he played in Clues, a kind of Montreal underground super group. And before this, of course, the Unicorns, the twitchy freak-pop band that remains Penner’s most recognized iteration. Apart from these touchstones, there have been a ragtag bunch of mysterious side projects, false starts and bands that imploded before they could blow up.
He spent last year in a state of hermetic intensity, crafting his new record Exegesis. In many ways, the album is a culmination of these above projects, culling songs that date from each and synthesizing them into an artistic statement that is cohesive and compelling.
“It will always be a self-portrait,” Penner repeats with amused resignation. But through this process, he tells me, “something else emerges that’s beautiful in its own right, and irreplaceable, and unique.”
It was March 2003 when he arrived by bus in Montreal. Penner had three guitars, his beloved Jupiter 4 synthesizer and his luggage. He and his girlfriend at the time were able to caravan this collection of musical tools to the Fattal loft buildings, infamous in Montreal for their cheap rent, custodial negligence and infestations of misfits, artists and crust punks.
It was fertile ground for a blossoming indie music scene. “My first apartment I lived in with Nick, who I started Unicorns with, and Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire,” Alden says. “I was pretty focused within that world. I was discovering so much through [it] that I didn’t really have time for anything else.”
In the same year, he went on tour with the Unicorns, not to make money so much as to save it. He “crisscrossed the country maybe four times, just because we didn’t have anything else to do and we wanted to avoid paying rent or having a place to stay. So we did that as kind of an initiation into the brutality of Canadian touring.”
The Unicorns were plucked from the rolls of Canadian indie arcana when Pitchfork gave their album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone an 8.9 rating out of ten and a “Best New Music” designation. Suddenly there were line-ups around the block to see Unicorns shows. Soon, the rock 'n’ roll clichés started piling up: sudden success brought creative and personal tensions between band members into sharp relief, constant gigging became exhausting and the media attention grew surreal. The Unicorns collapsed in 2004.
“I was confused about seeing myself reflected in a different light within the media apparatus and being confused about who I was, and kind of withdrawing from that, because it’s shocking initially… But again, I think that’s somewhat of a vain reflection, because it comes and goes too, the attention.”
Since that bruising introduction to fame, Penner has kept a pretty low profile. It’s tempting to hail Exegesis as a comeback; it has provoked the largest and most flattering wave of attention he’s received since his work with the Unicorns. But in Penner’s case, the “comeback” narrative is too pat. Exegesis is just another step on a march that Penner has been making unrelieved since he first started producing music in Campbell River, British Columbia as a boy. Penner may sometimes work in silence, but he has always worked.
The significance of this latest album is better understood in terms of what its making meant for Penner, rather than through the tidal hype cycles of the music press. Enter Laura Crapo, Penner’s co-producer and girlfriend, who “midwifed the album,” in his words. In previous interviews about Exegesis, Penner has referred to Crapo not simply as a musical or romantic partner, but also as a healer. “I think the album itself is the testament to that,” he tells me. “For my condition before making the album, which was one of utter despair of ever doing any kind of music again, a place that I’ve returned to many times. But it’s sort of a self-indulgent attitude about it. And she came in and was able to orient my life purpose around music … when you’re in a place of weakness it’s important to have a voice when you can’t hear your own voice, like your ideal self telling you those things.”
Through Crapo, the album became not merely an act of creative self-expression, but of spiritual regeneration. “That’s maybe the most important role that a producer can play: it’s not really a comprehension of the frequency range of a microphone, but kind of clearing the space, allowing that level of comfort and confidence to happen,” Alden says. “I’d way rather listen to a great, badly recorded record that has great performances, than the many shitty records that sound excellent.”
Given Penner’s tumultuous relationship with the press, I was curious about how he thought the album would be received. While he is gracious about its generally positive reviews so far, he seems newly indifferent to the pronouncements of music critics.
“I think things are changing, and the power of established centres of music journalism are not that important anymore. And certainly won’t determine what people actually enjoy, and what the live performance brings. The sanctity of music is understood, and will always exist, will always be there.”
Penner takes this sanctity seriously. When he and I played together, he would work with a feverish diligence, often completing several songs in a day. There was a period when the music was coming to him so fast that he would write through the evening, set his alarm clock for 4 AM, wake up and work for a few hours and then go back to bed.
And yet, for all his manic intensity, Penner discusses his process as both meditative and deliberate. “It’s a balm for the kind of continual assault of existence,” Alden says, laughing. “And included in that is the existence of rogue thoughts that are trying to torpedo your best interests. And sometimes that finds its way into the song. But because it’s in song form it’s like, you win, because you’re playing it, and you’re like, ‘Ha ha! I’ve contained you! You’re in the bottle now!’ You know, then you put the cork in, then you put it on the shelf. You can achieve a great deal of meditative distance from the sort of thinking that happens every day that is destructive.”
Maybe calling Exegesis a self-portrait is deceptive, then. Because for Alden, art is not simply a representation of the self, but a way to shape it, to channel it into a condition of stability and grace.
“That’s sort of the state of peace that you achieve when you’re actually in the moment of creation,” he says. “You forget about trying to represent things with an agenda, and you’re just doing it.”