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Fred Penner grows with his fans

Venerable children's performer reflects on building a 40-year career

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Many of the musicians who collaborated with Fred Penner on his latest album, Hear the Music, watched him crawl through a log.

That is, they're just old enough to have seen the venerable children's performer on CBC TV before his long-running show, Fred Penner's Place, went off the air in 1997. (For a dose of feel-good nostalgia, watch the opening sequence to the program in which Penner gleefully wanders through the forest before shimmying his way through a fallen log that serves as the entry to the magical land where his show takes place.)

"Many are people who grew up with me or whose children connected to me," Penner says, over the phone from Toronto. "They were pumped to be part of it, and I'm really pleased with how it all worked out."

The album — which occupies a unique space between high-level kids' music and simple, catchy songs parents can also listen to — reads like a who's who of Canadian indie music. Collaborators range from legendary songwriter Ron Sexsmith to Latin-inflected Alex Cuba and indie darling Basia Bulat.

"The list was massive," Penner adds. "There were so many people ready to jump in. These are people I've met and known over the years... You could hear how certain songs would work with (each one of them)."

Aside from writing children's classics like "The Cat Came Back" and "Sandwiches," the Juno Award-winning musician also boasts remarkable foresight that's allowed him to build a 40-year career. He's achieved that, partly, by growing and changing with his core audience, he explains.

"After Fred Penner's Place went off the air in 1997, I was still doing minimal touring and festivals and occasional events," he explains. "I was still very, very busy, but part of my mind was thinking, 'What's the next phase? Where is this going to go?' The audience was starting to grow up."

Partly inspired by fellow CBC children's performer Mr. Dressup, who occasionally visited fans at their colleges, Penner decided to head to campuses across the country. "I started getting emails from that generation who were now going to university. In discussion, talking about the influences (they) had in a lifetime, often it would go back to, 'what about that guy who used to crawl out of a log?'" he recalls. "They would look me up and track me down and I would send them messages saying, 'Thanks for thinking of me, great to hear from you. What are you doing now?'"

The campus tours were a hit from the beginning. At the very first show at McGill University in Montreal, around 200 people crammed into a 100-person-capacity venue. "From there, it's since evolved," Penner says. "I've played every major university from coast to coast. That's slowed down a bit because those people are now the parents having their own families... It's taken these little spikes along the way as the generation goes through their changes."

That's meant a new adjustment. Penner's look has changed too — from a wholesome, comforting figure to a stylish singer-songwriter, complete with a pork pie hat, full beard and chambray button up.

And now, he's coming to a theatre near you. In Whistler at least, that includes a daytime show for kids and a specially curated "after dark" show for his legion of loyal millennial fans.

"The biggest difference is in the evening I do songs from my background, songs that I grew up with, tunes that I've written that I would not normally do for a family audience," he says. "I tend to become a little more philosophical in the evening, talking about how this music has worked for me and how and why it's relating to you, the audience."

Afterwards, if you feel compelled to tell Penner about how his music impacted your childhood, don't worry. He's used to it.

One example: after playing a small, grungy venue in Edmonton, a giant man — "probably 6'4", a couple hundred pounds at least" — came around the corner. "He's got this great smile on his face and he says, 'Can I give you a hug?'" Penner recalls. "I said, 'of course.' I'm a hugging guy. I've got four children and hugging is important. But for him to come around the corner with that space that he's filling up and suddenly be taken down to a very personal, emotional moment of wanting to have a hug from his old pal, that's a beautiful level of communication."

Catch the Fred Penner family show on Saturday (Feb. 3) at 5 p.m. (tickets are $10), followed by Fred Penner After Dark at 7 p.m. (tickets are $15). Both shows take place at the Maury Young Arts Centre. For tickets visit artswhistler.com.

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