As a child, I knew Fred Penner. At least I felt like I did.
Every day, rotating between Skinamarinks and Bananaphones, he spoke to me, not at me. That was always Fred Penner’s strength. Like other family entertainers, Fred Penner was often silly and irreverent, but beyond that, he was also real. Even as a kid, Fred Penner felt more like an uncle or distant relative than a celebrity. As a result, Fred Penner’s Place, and Fred Penner’s music, felt more like a conversation than a lecture.
“Very pointedly, I do not condescend when I talk to children. I love talking to a child with full sentences,” Penner tells me. “I think children are so much more intelligent than often we give them credit for.”
The Cat Came Back was a favourite cartoon of mine as a kid, a close third behind Ren & Stimpy MuchMusic marathons and The Big Snit, a frenetic National Film Board cartoon that featured a couple’s Scrabble fight distracting them from an impending nuclear war. Yes, I was a weird kid. And so when I learned that Fred Penner sang “The Cat Came Back,” not the version from the cartoon, but a version of the same song, I felt a connection. Connecting is Fred Penner’s strength.
My adult self had met Fred Penner before, briefly. When he hosted the Polaris Music Prize in 2015, an event that saw him crack jokes about Kathleen Edwards’ potty mouth and call critical darlings Fucked Up “Fuddle Duddled Up,” he’d occasionally come through the office, sometimes with a guitar, usually with a backpack. Once that backpack contained the Word Bird. I’ve never seen a room of thirty somethings beam so earnestly. Could you blame them?
I’ll say to start that he’s potentially the nicest person you’ll ever meet. When I first arrived for our interview, he sat, looking tired – he’s 70, and had been in a gauntlet of interviews all week; the day before, he’ll tell me, he had done 11 in a row. But as soon as we got to talking, and as soon as I let him know I was there to talk to him, he opened up. His big, blue eyes lit up. While we waited for the room for our formal sit down, we talked about the news; on CP24, we saw that Drake’s “One Dance” was named biggest song of the year. We talked about Beyoncé; he’s a big Lemonade fan, which, I mean, obviously. We talk about how powerful the album is long before the cameras start rolling. And yeah, as I’ve been known to do, I asked him if he thought a hot dog was a sandwich. Spoiler alert: he does.
That’s Fred Penner, I learned. The man you see on screen isn’t far off from the man off of it. Sure, off-screen Fred Penner obsesses over Better Call Saul, binges Netflix (he loves The OA) and begrudgingly submits to his dessert addiction. But the core tenets remain the same: He’s a real person who talks to people like they’re real, too. There’s no disconnect between him and his audience. And that’s what’s made him reliable, and relatable, for so long. It’s why his audience has grown up with him, not past him; why he performs with Hollerado and enlists Basia Bulat and Ron Sexsmith and Afie from the Bahamas for his new album, Hear the Music, which was released this spring. Penner’s ability to connect is ultimately what saved his career. 2017 marks the 20 year anniversary of Fred Penner’s Place‘s cancellation, and only now are those clips popping up, in an official capacity, on YouTube. In the interim, Fred Penner played for his usual audience—children–but increasingly, he played for their parents, too; at music festivals, like Guelph’s Hillside, and at bars, like the Rivoli and Drake Underground.
Penner’s versatility is in part thanks to the distinction he makes between being a children’s entertainer and a family entertainer. It’s what affords him the comfort of talking to me about how much he likes watching Mike Ehrmantraut dismantle his car and hatch a plan to catch his trackers. He can just as easily reminisce with me about the hollow log I watched his surprisingly tall body crawl out of in my formative years as he can talk about his favourite beer in a Reddit AMA. In the same breath, he’ll talk about jamming with a small child at the Today’s Parent offices and being high school classmates with Neil Young.
At 70, Fred Penner’s career hasn’t slowed. If anything, the door is open wider for him than ever. Because not only can he now talk with children (but never at them), he can talk to parents, too. People who grew up with him, like I grew up with him. And he can talk to me, a kid at heart, with no kids, who left half-an-hour interview with his childhood idol beaming, like so many before him, from ear to ear.