Since the late 1980s Michael Penn has been steadily making some of the finest rock albums of the past 25 years, works of sustained pleasure, intelligence and emotional grace. His music builds on the groundbreaking mid-60s flowering of The Beatles, The Zombies, The Kinks and others who harnessed craftsmanship to boundary pushing gusto. Penn’s records show the same kind of attention to detail and life-enhancing observations about the human condition that mark the best work of his forebears. Things are exposed in creative language, imaginative arrangements, and gorgeous melodies that illuminate one’s walk through this rocky world, arming one with songs against the darkness and doubt, a sonic hand to hold as the clouds gather and a familiar chill settles into one’s bones. The light that Penn sparks in his music is real and thus actually warms us unlike the dazzling but ultimately thin glow that most pop-flavored rock has today.
Over the course of five enduringly excellent albums and his ever-increasing soundtrack work – most recently as the composer for the HBO series Girls as well as Showtime’s Masters of Sex – Penn has evolved a catalog that’s rich in feel, music of haunting texture and emotional delicacy that lingers, increasing in quality and depth the longer one spends in his soundscapes. His is a careful hand and the music reflects the smarts and time that go into it but never sacrificing heart and feel for anything cerebral, his work a beautiful balance of elements delivered in one of the Impound’s all-time favorite rock voices, a seductive set of pipes right up there with Paul Carrack, Glenn Tilbrook and young Todd Rundgren for pure, immediate power.
Michael Penn was kind enough to spare DI an hour of his time to discuss making records (including why he hasn’t made a new rock album since 2005’s Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 – an unsung classic of the early 2000s), his work on Girls, what it means to make a living making music in the modern times, and more.
In 1989, I didn’t feel like The Beatles had won whenever I listened to the radio, and then your first record came out and I thought, “Yes, this is what it sounds like if The Beatles won.”
[Laughs] That’s a very sweet way of putting it.
From the beginning it seemed like you weren’t aiming to be part of what was on radio at the time, that you had a higher standard you were aiming towards.
I don’t know if it was aiming higher but it was certainly aiming at a different place. I grew up listening to a lot of music from the 60s. I grew up in the 70s but my musical appetite was such that I grabbed everything I could. And while I appreciated a bunch of stuff from the 50s and a bunch of stuff that was happening in the 70s, I really gravitated towards the mid-60s era, which was so fertile. For me, the benchmarks were The Beatles and Dylan, primarily – Dylan for lyrics and Beatles for melody – and my focus was not just songwriting but record making. Someone like George Martin was as important for me as Lennon and McCartney. The thing that really got me about that period, particularly as it moves into what’s known as the psychedelic period, was rock music got to a place where it was all about eclecticism. You could do anything. You could do an Indian rock number followed by a vaudeville homage.
The Beatles’ White Album is a shining example of the weird spray of styles possible under one roof.
It’s like someone said, “You’re free. You can do anything.” That, to me, what was so great about that period, and it stuck with me. Then, I got bored with pop music and got really into things like this movement in the 70s called RIO or Rock In Opposition. It was almost a punk aesthetic but with art-rock style music. It was very intentionally avant-garde, and I was immersed in that for years. At some point, I came back to writing songs and had this band that I kind of knew what I wanted to do with it but it was definitely not what was going on at radio at the time [laughs].
The process of exploring the past and finding something relevant and exciting to the present is a dynamic common to a lot of great art, to till the field and see what grows from old soil tilled by new hands.
I think that’s a part of my personality. In many ways, I feel like a steampunk. There’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis where he says if you’re on the wrong road then progress can mean going backwards. So, that’s kind of the way I looked at it, and a lot of the music that was happening when I was younger wasn’t reaching me. I didn’t like synthesizers, and as that palette took hold I just wanted no part of it.
Having Patrick Warren and his arsenal of vintage keyboard sounds on your early records was a real breath of fresh air in that era.
The worst part was when they tried to have a string section that was a synth sound. There’s just no way that isn’t cheesy. So, I became obsessed with this guy Harry Chamberlin, and I worked for two summers to buy his instrument called the Chamberlin, which is a keyboard that can actually give you strings because it’s an actual recording of strings on tape. So, that instrument became a very prominent sound on my records because it had some of the textures I felt the music should have.
You sent me down a rabbit hole learning about Chamberlins and other vintage instruments in the same vein after seeing the names in the liner notes of your records. Are vintage instruments still a passion of yours? There is a soul and power to them that’s different than modern instruments.
Absolutely! Even in terms of synthesizers, the tube oscillator synthesizers that were around in the early part of the 20th century are cool like Ondes Martenot or the one Hammond made, the Novachord. Some of those things just sound remarkable and have such a texture to them because they’re not trying to be something else; they aren’t imitating strings or something.
That makes me think of Pierre Henry’s stuff, which feels very alive and alien because it isn’t trying to be anything but its own strange thing.
I love that stuff and if I had money and room I’d be accumulating a lot of these things!
As you’ve moved further into the field of soundtrack work has it freed you up to explore more of those Rock In Opposition ideas without the constraints of the pop-rock songwriting format?
In tiny ways it has. I don’t want to have an agenda going into a project. It has to be a really good fit and be right for a project. Some of my more – for lack of a better word – experimental ideas do get some play in the soundtrack world. It was always a treat for me to find moments to do that on my records, too, to have moments within a song that aren’t so traditional. But for soundtrack stuff, it’s really about finding the right thing for the specific project.
It keeps you busy but I have to ask why there hasn’t been a new song-oriented rock album since 2005?
To be honest, it’s very hard to think about making a record when that’s just not what you do anymore. And for me, there’s a bunch of stuff that’s made it a less alluring prospect to sit down and write and record 10-15 new songs. It’s a completely different world. So, I can continue to be a songwriter if I want to keep touring the rest of my life, but if I want to be a record maker, well, recorded music for its own sake is no longer viable.
There are still plenty of people out there making great albums but they’re not making money from that. They’re making money from touring, and that’s a bargain I’m not that interested in. Touring was not my favorite part of the job to begin with. I’ve got my own issues and being on the road isn’t necessarily healthy for me. And it’s not what I got into it for, which was to make recorded music. Soundtrack work allows me to do that though I’m not a songwriter, which I miss very much. I hope at some point to have the time and money to do that again but I am enjoying the work I’m doing these days.
Maybe the modern era may offer some opportunities to do singles, EPs and albums offered directly to listeners and fans via the internet without a label or other intermediary. Radio may not welcome these variations of formats but there’s a potential audience that might.
It plays to some of your strengths. I’ve often thought you had singles on your albums in the classic sense that maybe don’t jive with the modern meaning of singles. Your melodic sense means you’re writing singles for the Great Jukebox In The Sky and not VH1.
The way my head works on that is a single is just a great song and I’m always trying to write a great song. So, it’s always sort of the goal, but at the same time, I know I can be a bit odd in terms of my melodic structures. The last thing I want to do is repeat myself or do something somebody else has done. When you’re dealing with 12 notes in a scale and a basic harmonic sense engrained in me it does become challenging to find something new to say in an emotional way. It’s not about radio. It’s about coming up with something that’s dynamic and makes you feel something. That’s what a great song should be.
You’ve put out a tidbit here and there like ”The Count of Pennsylvania”, which show you’re as on-point as ever as a songwriter. Are you compiling material for some future day?
I write when I feel the impulse, but I haven’t really recorded anything in years besides my soundtrack work. Again, it’s gonna be a moment where I have a little breathing room. The good part is when I do get to there it will be because I want to do it. It won’t be for any reason other than that.
You’ve been doing music for the HBO series Girls for both seasons. You hit the right mood for the series, and I dug the song that closed season one [listen here]. Has it been a good experience working on the show?
It’s been really great. Lena [Dunham] is just fantastic to work with. Her writing is so sharp and so smart. It’s been a fantastic gig.
I find her writing to be a real frog-in-slow-boiling-water experience, where I’m initially not sure if I’m digging it and then when it all ties together at the end I’m generally impressed.
She has real insight and gives a shit.
It’s fun to make art in conjunction with another art form, to let different disciplines speak to one another.
That’s something I really enjoy and it’s something I never get from making records. When I make records it’s a very solitary thing. It’s not like I’m in a band. I tend to produce myself. I write it and often play a lot of the instruments. It’s very solitary. [Soundtrack work] is much more collaborative and that’s fresher to me at the moment.
Having others as a catalyst for what you do takes some of the weight off from constantly generating ideas, angles to work, etc. I’ve been impressed with your evolution as a soundtrack composer. It’s a very different language than rock.
It is. There are certain things that are similar in terms of emotional content where you’re trying to use melody to reach people. That part of it is the same. It’s been really great on Girls because there’s a tendency with a lot of score work to really try and stay neutral because you don’t want to direct the emotion of a scene unless it’s appropriate. Oftentimes the moments composers get to have when they score stuff and guide you through a scene emotionally, a lot of those moments are now taken up by songs in movies and TV, those moments are taken away from the composer. But, even though there are a lot of songs on Girls, there’s also been a lot of opportunities for me to do that.
I’m a big fan of the classic soundtrack guys like Bernard Herrmann, Mancini, and Nino Rota, and all these guys had a sense of personality that emerged in their work. That’s a much bigger challenge in an era, as you point out, where neutrality is more the rule than the exception. Do you feel you’ve developed a personality as a soundtrack composer?
Well, I don’t think about it but I certainly hope so [laughs]. I think can be objective enough to say that I do. It’s certainly idiosyncratic enough that would make sense, so let’s just hope that communicates.
You said touring isn’t really your bag but what does lure out to do the occasional show. I caught you a time or two at Café du Nord in San Francisco. What prompts you out?
New songs. That’s the one foot that has to be followed by the next foot. For me to think about going out and doing a tour, to think about playing a bunch of shows where most of the songs, at the newest, are 5-6 years old, doesn’t really get me charged up. If I had a batch of new tunes I’d be completely up for it. It’s really a matter of me deciding the time is right to woodshed a bunch of new songs and then try to get them recorded.
The intimacy of you and a guitar is great, and it’s where truly good songs live or die. If the bones of the thing aren’t sturdy you’ll know it right away in that setting.
No question, and for me that’s always the way a song has to begin AND then the fun part begins with the arranging and recording. Again, that’s as much of why I got into this as writing the song, finding a way once you have the song to paint it out and have it live in its own world. That can be something really simple like a guitar and a voice but it has to be dictated by the song. That’s what I miss more than playing live.
I’ve always gotten the sense that you listen to your songs well. There’s an emotional truth and organic grace to the way you dress them and send them into the world. Sometimes sounds serve things on a subliminal level we can’t reach with language.
I think that’s true, and I also think it’s a way of experiencing the song, for lack of a better word, that’s more cinematic, where you can create an environment that can hopefully absorb you as a listener. But a lot of this is coming from what I’d guess a lot of people would consider a very old fashioned view of music, which is music as a shared experience in front of a hi-fi, where you’re listening through speakers rather than through your phone or earbuds, it’s enveloping you and it becomes a participatory act of really listening to something and getting into it, which is the way I grew up and listened to music with my pals as a teenager, sitting around on a good evening where we got together specifically to listen to records. I’m sure in 30 years there will be people bemoaning the wonder years of videogames where people actually sat together and played them in the same room. Those are the sort of shared experiences that have moved into other realms. Music is a more isolated thing. I’m not talking about live music; I’m talking about recorded music.
The iconic image of the whole family gathered around the radio during the 1930s and 1940s goes right to this point.
It’s a different way of listening. You can hear the music in any number of ways and it takes different forms. It’s an attitude issue.
Picking up on somebody else’s enthusiasm for a particular piece of music has been essential my evolution as a listener and appreciator of music. So, you have “1947” in the title of one of your records and you’ve done a cover of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Is there some longing in you for an earlier time?
No, I don’t think that’s it. For me, I may be completely wrong about this but it just seems like music serves a different function in society than it once did. Maybe I’m wrong but it feels that way to me. It’s shifted somehow, and the symptoms of that shift can be seen in how it’s not a viable commodity anymore because it can be downloaded for free very easily. The reality of most people listening to music on YouTube and not paying for it has to be dealt with it. The rise of popular music and its evolution as a corporate commodity probably devalued it. There was this golden age I got to live through but I have to remind myself that it’s gone. When I grew up there were huge stars but they weren’t just huge stars because they were funded by a big company but because they had musical worth and people saw value in what they were doing. But, in 1920, the biggest star in the world was a magician, so clearly these things change over time [laughs]. The tricky thing with recorded music is realizing that music as a commodity is not that old. Before that there was sheet music and that was the original souvenir. Then records followed and became their own art form. My relationship to it is I’m not into being beholden to my past and my relationship to music I had in my youth but I still want to approach it with respect.
You can honor the past without having to be constricted by it.
The business started to change dramatically in the seventies but the seventies were also the last era where the business was run by people with actual musical backgrounds. The things that were being signed were not only getting signed for completely crass, commercial reasons because the people making those decisions were music people. That started to change and the music people who survived were the ones who understood that we were now in a blockbuster mentality where the measure of success had to be so enormous to justify the machine they were building to promote it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t serve anybody very well. And then there was just a horrible lack of foresight with music and how to deal with the realities of the digital age. The industry was just blind about it even though many others readily saw what was coming. They went from selling a wave form embedded in an object to just selling the wave form. Without having thought that one through they shot themselves in both feet.
It boils my blood that people claim to love a musician and then take their music for free. It seems like it would be self-evident that one needs to support an artist with dollars as well as enthusiasm if they want that artist to thrive and continue making music they claim to love.
But it’s not really self-evident, especially to someone growing up now because it’s already a different world. The notion of music as a permanent object is non-existent.
I know, I know. I sound like Old Man Cook yelling at the kids from my porch.
I’m absolutely certain I sound like that but I’m comfortable with my porch.