Alden Penner – Quiet Stalwart of the Indie World

By July 5, 2015



Alden Penner is a quiet stalwart of the indie world. As one half of art-pop duo The Unicorns, he was part of an outcrop of Montreal-based artists responsible for putting their Canadian city on the musical map. In more recent years, his solo work has stood apart in its purity, artistry and heartbreakingly delicate vocals. Before his show at the Belgrave Music Hall, Alden and I find a grassy spot to settle down and talk new material, working with Michael Cera, and how touring is a bit like going to Mars…

[Image courtesy of aldenpennersongs.bandcamp]

Alden’s creative consideration for the intricacies of human emotion is just one of the ways in which his music manages to grip its listener by the heartstrings. Canada in Space, his newly released E.P., finds its conceptual grounding in the feelings conjured for him by the proposed Mars One mission, which intends to send a group of volunteers to Mars indefinitely: ‘It fills me with all kinds of different emotions but it’s just kind of a jumping off point for considerations that are largely present in the human psyche, regardless of where we find ourselves. I think that space travel is just a particularly intense aspect of our existence. For example, I’m way more interested in movies by Tarkovsky about space than Hollywood movies like Apollo 13 and stuff that’s all about action.’ By moving beyond the squeaky clean Hollywood representation of space travel, the record offers a murkier space in which to consider the breadth of feeling intrinsically linked to the human need to explore beyond what is known. And it has heft. The sprawling soundscapes of opener ‘Breathe to Burn’ and closing track ‘Meditates’ sit against the lush melody of ‘Candy’ and lulled introspection of ‘Exegesis’. Vintage synths are interspersed within this melting pot of referents and seem to evoke a bygone era of space exploration. Of changes in thought on space travel, Alden considers: ‘I think it speaks to the impact of social media. There’s a vanity to it. It’s definitely a different generation now than the initial wave of space explorers.’

[Courtesy of James Grimshaw]

His innovation, however, spreads far beyond his endeavours in the studio – even as far as Leeds. His current project, a tour of the U.K. and Europe with actor and burgeoning musician Michael Cera, is testament to this, their live show an amalgamation of their admittedly differing styles: ‘They’re all kind of threaded together. They’re all kind of interweaving. […] It’s quite an operation, you know, and it’s kind of like exercise because we’re all switching instruments as well from song to song so you’ve got to get yourself in a completely different headspace for the following number.’ Their collaborative efforts are a delight to witness on stage; whether backing him with trumpet, or adding his signature intricate electric guitar, Penner helps to take Cera’s acoustic weird folk in exciting new directions: ‘We’ve definitely helped his songs to evolve to a place they weren’t at before. I think when we get back we might think about going into the studio after the tour. It would make sense to try to document what we’ve done at the very least if not record the songs from more of a studio perspective. I like both experiences but I do like the idea of experimenting and taking the time to see how a song can really work within a studio context.’


[Courtesy of James Grimshaw]

The creative benefits of touring with musicians who are making their first forays into each other’s styles is evident. However, Alden is quick to admit the practical difficulties of doing so. He likens it to the Mars mission that serves as his E.P. concept: ‘Touring’s like that a bit…you get a group of people together in that pod right there [points to bus]. It’s kind of a similar thing where we all have to manage our needs to the daily requirements of everybody as a group. It’s sometimes hard to do. I mean, you strike a balance eventually.’ However trying this pod-like setup was initially, after seeing his Leeds show it is safe to say that it paid off. The collaboration with Cera and the incorporation of new material from both artists made for a performance tingling with promise. Of Canada in Space, he admits: ‘That was a way for me to participate in that idea without actually committing to the mission itself. I would never do that,’ he laughs. ‘I’m committed to the earth. I would like to stay here.’ And very glad are we at TSOTA too – with his hints of a brimming pot of ideas at the ready, Alden Penner is comfortably orbiting the next frontier in his musical journey.

Charlotte Gray