When BBC viewers tune into Scottish novelist Iain Banks’ miniseries adaptation Stonemouth, they will be serenaded by Blewett musician Cam Penner during the opening credits.
“I got this text from Charles Martin, the director, a while back and I thought ‘cool, maybe he’ll use it in the background or something’ but then he came back and told me I want to use `House of Liars’ for the theme music,” Penner told the Star.
“Then he says ‘send me your whole catalogue’, and he ended up using ‘Curiosity’ for the final scene and `Hour of Need’ from my previous album Gypsy Summer.”
And now that Penner’s seen screeners of the end result, he’s thrilled to see the way his tracks complement the story-line.
“It’s kind of awkward because in one scene it’s this couple in a van, they just blew something up and then I start singing and it’s like I’m there in the backseat or something,” he said, with a laugh.
And in another moment one of his songs accompanies a bombastic, violent outburst from baseball bat-wielding lead actor Peter Mullan.
“Peter Mullan is ****ing awesome. He’s the drug dealer from Trainspotting, and he was just in this show Top of the Lake, and he just carries the show. He’s got this really great, sublime anger.”
Penner said though his music’s inclusion in the show is a career coup, he’s trying to focus on the next album rather than resting on his laurels. He plans to record his latest, Sex and Politics, with his long-time touring partner Jon Wood in September.
“I like to say sex and politics are the only two things that matter. I mean, I worked with the homeless for most of my life from Chicago to Brandon, Manitoba to Calgary. And I don’t want to call it the dark side, but it’s a subculture I got to be a part of.”
And his experiences working in shelters have provided him with plentiful inspiration.
“I’m doing it again here in Nelson, at Stepping Stones, and for me that’s where I feel comfortable. It’s raw, it’s honest. It goes from addiction and horror to beauty too. That stuff will always been inside me.”
And it makes him angry.
“A lot of my songs are about revolution, because there’s a revolution going on and I want to be a part of that. We’ve got one of the worst governments we’ve ever had and it’s more important than ever to fight. We should all be rallying.”
And though Nelson is much more progressive than Calgary, where he used to be horrified by the hyper-consumerist culture, he feels like there’s still plenty of work to do here.
“I’m inviting people to understand the darker parts of society. When I lived in Calgary, it was such a big-money town and there was so much ugly shit going on. There’s still stuff going on here—like we have a huge homelessness problem—but the biggest thing is we’re not providing affordable housing.”
Penner believes that would be the first step in addressing the Kootenays’ intensifying mental health crisis.
“You take dignity away from people, you take away affordable housing, and no wonder we’re in this situation. This is an expensive, rich town. But I don’t like being direct, you know? I’m not a story-teller. I grew up going to church and I didn’t like that directness.”
Instead he tries to paint an audio-image for his listeners.
“Okay, so John is a crack addict—but we already know that. The real question is how does he feel? What is that like?”
And the way he gets that across is idiosyncratic.
“I’m not a learned musician, so I don’t understand the language most musicians use. For me it’s how I’m seeing it, how I’m feeling it. I’m painting a picture. That’s why I travel with Jon, because he understands my language.”
Penner said he can’t wait to get into the recording studio with Wood, and he’s planning to produce songs with a potent emotional kick.
“The best part of my day is getting up on that stage and trying to pull the rug not only from under the audience but also from under myself. I want to be moved, you know? I want something to hit me in the chest.”
Penner said his music has evolved over the last 15 years from a roots-y, country singer-songwriter vibe to something “darker and bigger”.
“Now my stuff has a little bit of Tom Waits-y vibe, lots of soundscapes and ethereal shit. We can go big as we want, but we can also make it fragile.”
He said his sound wouldn’t be possible without Wood’s contribution.
“I’ve played with so many amazing players, and it takes a long time to find someone like that who can make your songs come alive. He really tries to serve the song, and every time we play it’s something different.”
And, Penner said, he’s having lots of fun.
“I never want to kiss myself. At 75, maybe, then I can pat myself on the back…but the main thing is I’m having fun. It started out as a dream, and now it’s a business, but I feel rich because I get to travel, I get to own a place out here in the Kootenays, and I just keep doing it and doing it.”
Penner will play MarketFest on July 24, Spiritbar on July 24, Unity Fest on July 25 and Ponderosa Festival on August 22.
For more information on Penner’s work visit campenner.com.
Lyrics from ‘House of Liars’
“Down at the scene of the crime they’re working overtime,
they’re fueling the fire, feeding the wire;
what sounds like a choir is a house of liars,
I’m still looking for one good and honest person for hire.”