Cam Penner Spins Road Stories On 'Gypsy Summer'

Dec 16, 2011
Originally published on December 28, 2011 7:35 pm

When your grandfather is a bootlegger and your family runs an illegal small-town roadhouse, you must have a lot of stories to tell. Cam Penner does, and he tells them in his music. The Canadian singer-songwriter's latest album is titled Gypsy Summer.

Penner grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. When he was 18, he followed a group of friends down to Chicago and ended up staying for a year, living on a local commune. It was there that he first started working in shelters for the homeless, a habit he would maintain for years to come. He says the experience gave him much-needed focus and perspective.

"[Shelters offer] raw honesty, which is sometimes the most beautiful thing," Penner tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I never saw it as 'working' with the homeless. I thought of it just as hanging out with these people who had something to say, and they lived it out. It brought direction to my life."

Though the album was released on CD, the jacket for Gypsy Summer separates the tracks into two "sides," as if it were a vinyl record. Penner says it's his way of reminding listeners of the bigger picture.

"I don't want it to be just a collection of songs. It was an album to me. It was an experience: the way we recorded it, how those songs came to me that summer," he says. "It's a celebration of hot summer nights, tequila, dancing on the porch, letting the floorboards creak."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When your grandfather is a bootlegger and your family runs an illegal small town roadhouse, you must have a lot of stories to tell. Cam Penner does, and tells them in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIFTWOOD")

CAM PENNER: (Singing) It's gonna get worse before it gets better. I wrote it down in a love letter. Sang it for you. And all that love is only between us, everything else is just made for leavers, everything else...

SIMON: That's the opening track, "Driftwood," off of Cam Penner's latest CD. It's called "Gypsy Summer." And Cam Penner joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Calgary, Alberta. Thanks very much for being with us.

PENNER: Well, enjoying it already.

SIMON: Well, you're just on the surface of it. Any one paragraph description of your life is so fascinating. I almost have to take it phrase by phrase. Do you mind?

PENNER: No, go ahead.

SIMON: We already - grandfather, a bootlegger, right?

PENNER: Um-hum. Absolutely, yeah.

SIMON: I read you grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba.

PENNER: True.

SIMON: So, I'm told you hit the road at 18, wound up in Chicago, right? Well, go ahead.

PENNER: Absolutely. No, when I was 18, my friends were going down to Chicago to check out this Jesus hippie commune, and I thought, wow, I can go to Chicago and catch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, maybe catch some music. So I went down there with them. And - so, anyways, yeah, I went down there for a year. And then I got to start working with homeless people there. So, it was an amazing experience and it kind of formed a direction for me.

SIMON: Tell us about working in homeless shelters.

PENNER: Well, the thing about it is it's raw honesty, which is sometimes the most beautiful thing. And I never saw it as working with the homeless. I just I was just hanging out with these people who had something to say and they lived it out. And it brought me direction to my life listening to these people. And I think that's what it was for me - you were listening and you responded. And it's like I have 10,000 stories inside me 'cause I've met so many people that got these ghosts living inside me. And now it comes out in my songs and my lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GYPSY WOMEN")

SIMON: Let's listen to your almost title cut, "Gypsy Women."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GYPSY WOMEN")

PENNER: (Singing) Gypsy women, gypsy hearts, dark brown eyes, tattooed arms. You may find them in the taverns and the bars, with long hair down, shaking all around, getting lost...

SIMON: How'd this song come in your mind?

PENNER: You know what, I got such a sweetheart of a woman and she's great. And I started touring really hard about six years ago, and I said, Jenny, why don't you come back from London - she was out in the U.K. And I said we're going to go out on this tour, a six-month tour. So, we toured six months across North America living in a van and playing shows and stealing from hotel buffets and sleeping at road stops. And it was fierce and it was great and it was romantic. And she's a gypsy like me and I wanted to celebrate that. And part of it is ode to my folks as well who kind of lived that way too, and with their roadhouses and with their dances.

SIMON: Listen to a bit of another one of your songs if we could, "Flesh and Bone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLESH AND BONE")

PENNER: (Singing) Row, row your boat ashore. Don't you say it anymore, no need to start a war, just go build yourself a home. You don't need to be alone, not even on your own and lone. We're only flesh and bone. Just water through the stone, we came upon our own.

You always be awake to the world. You have to be mindful of it. And things happen out of compassion and love, the great things in life, and I wanted to express that in that song. And we're such a wayward group of people that, you know, just to dress things, and you do it out of goodness.

SIMON: This is your fourth CD, but I gather it's the first that you produced on your own.

PENNER: Yes, it is.

SIMON: How does that change things?

PENNER: You know, I spent so much time in my studio writing, you know. I was writing them. I had the ideas and I wanted to make sure that that happened. And when we went to record the album, we didn't rehearse the songs, and I didn't want them to be rehearsed. I wanted to get it live off the floor and do that. But I also had my own ideas. And, you know, I felt confident in my ability to direct and to allow things to happen naturally.

SIMON: I am curious about this: CD lists songs one through six as being Side A and seven to eleven as Side B. And I tried flipping it over.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PENNER: Nothing there.

SIMON: I believed in your songs, so I believed in the instructions on the jacket cover too, right? Nothing there, yeah.

PENNER: No, no. I want it to be an album, and I don't want it to just be a collection of songs. It was an album to me. It was an experience the way we recorded it, how those songs came to me that summer, and I believe in albums. I believe in a work of art. And it's a photo of that summer and spring and fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROW YOUR HANDS UP")

PENNER: (Singing) She got love and a phone, fire in her hips, she shake it to the right, then to the left. I want to hold her, to get to know her, lips taste like gems, skin like summer. I feel (unintelligible), I see the light, I need you honey, wanna buzz around your hives. She lets me smile, she's all obscene. She turns around and backs off then leaves. Throw your hands up, let your dress fall...

SIMON: This is quite a song, clearly the product of the travel in you. Tell us about this.

PENNER: Well, I rarely listen to the music that I play. I don't really listen to a lot of that. And I was listening to a lot of Al Green and Gladys Knight, a lot of soul music, but lots of underground hip-hop. And I didn't want to be afraid of throwing beats down on that album. And, again, it's a celebration of hot summer nights, tequila, dancing on the porch, letting the floorboards creak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROW YOUR HANDS UP")

PENNER: (Singing) We close our eyes shut and start to drift off. Our dreams, they carry us, into the night.

SIMON: I got to tell you, Mr. Penner, you're doing a lot for Mennonites by emphasizing the fun you have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST CAR")

SIMON: One more song we'd like to listen to if we could, "Ghost Car."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST CAR")

PENNER: (Singing) Ghost car waiting on the side of the road, underneath the lights of a city's glow. Black tar rolling out miles and miles, lead me up to the mountain land, sugar pine, sugar pine. We're the land of the brave and the home of the free...

SIMON: You write a song every day?

PENNER: Yeah, I think I do. Like, not necessarily that I write a song from start to end. But, you know, I got this great job when I'm back at home. And, you know, I'm a janitor but it's a nice - it's kind of very meditative and I do the left to right with the broom, with the mop. I'm thinking, I'm walking, I'm thinking of things and a beat's in my head and my keys are dangling off my belt clip and they're hitting my leg and I'm finding a rhythm. And then I'm thinking about things that happen or that I see and it's great. So, you find things in that and I'm always writing, I think.

SIMON: Joining us from the CBC in Calgary, Cam Penner. His new album, "Gypsy Summer." Thanks so much.

PENNER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST CAR")

SIMON: And there's more of Cam Penner's new album to be found at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.