Ask Alden Penner what he does for a living, and you will get a different answer every time. This is not because Penner is a compulsive liar; this is because he does not believe in labels. Penner, 28, may be known by the masses from his stint in a band called The Unicorns, but tonight, Penner will be known to a small group of delighted children as their youth group leader.
The fact that Penner works with young people does not mean that he has put up his guitar for good. For him, this is anything but the case. He currently plays lead for The Hidden Words, his third band, but don’t let him hear you use the word “lead.” Penner, a devout member of the Baha’i community, refuses to place himself above anyone else.
This is a far cry from the wise-cracking antics of the Alden Penner who a decade ago could be found shamelessly reveling in his 15 minutes of fame underneath NME and Pitchfork spotlights.
Penner’s then-band, The Unicorns, exploded into public consciousness overnight when Pitchfork called its debut (and only full-length release), 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? “innovative.” The band sold out performances on both sides of the Atlantic and toured with Hot Hot Heat. However, it wasn’t long before The Unicorns succumbed to the pressures of being young and playing in a rock band.
“I had certain delusions about what [fame] meant,” Penner explained earnestly. The regret in his voice is raw, tangible even. “I think the sound of [The Unicorns] and the whole way that I operated was very much based on confusion.”
By 2004, mere months after Cut Our Hair was released, The Unicorns had broken up. Penner went on to start another band, Clues, with friend and former Arcade Fire drummer Brendan Reed. The other two-thirds of The Unicorns, Nicholas Thorburn and Jamie Thompson, founded the band Islands. Years would pass before the three former Unicorns were on speaking terms.
“[There] was less of a conscious effort to value friendship,” he said.
“I think that’s the sign of a maturing artist. They are paradoxically less of themselves, but also more of themselves.” — Alden Penner
Still reeling from the traumatic breakup of his first band, Penner witnessed history repeat itself as Clues gradually fell apart.
“There was a failure of finding proper closure in [The Unicorns],” he said. “It was kind of like making the same mistake again. If you don’t properly deal with a problem and the mistake you made the first time, you’re going to keep running into it again.”
After releasing one album in 2009, Clues went on an indefinite hiatus.
Distraught, Penner turned to the Baha’i faith of his childhood for answers.
“I discovered a lot of things that I already agreed with, but that were articulated in a way that I found very empowering,” he said.
Penner hasn’t been the same since.
“When you join a high standard of moral rectitude, then you let that inform your thoughts about everything,” he said. “It radically shifted my thinking. There’s so much dwelling on the dark side of human nature that we forget that the opposite is possible, too. We have a higher nature and a capacity to do really amazing, generous things.”
Energized and inspired, Penner reached out to his former bandmates.
“Years later, out of the blue, I got a call from him,” Thompson recalled. “We talked about our experiences together, made apologies, and came to the conclusion that we should make music together.”
Thompson noticed Penner had been writing melodies to Baha’i writings as a memory aid, and decided to start working with him on those writings because, as he said, “They were so beautiful that it seemed like the most interesting and fruitful direction to go.”
The resulting project would be The Hidden Words, which derives its name from the Baha’i Sacred Texts that injected Penner’s life with newfound meaning.
“I see The Hidden Words as emerging out of a necessary Clues,” he said. “For me, the name Clues implies search. The search after truth.”
The Hidden Words, as much a lifestyle as it is a band for Penner and Thompson, offers some answers.
Penner tells Pop ‘stache that the band’s recently released full-length, Free Thyself from the Fetters of This World, was recorded more than a year ago and has been sitting on the shelf since. Rather than polish the recordings, Penner is instead opting for bare-bones minimalism; if it can’t be recreated organically in a live setting, it won’t be heard on the record.
With band No. 3, Penner is playing things differently. Unnecessary theatrics are thrown out the window in favor of the essentials; the only equipment seen in live performances are Penner’s acoustic guitar, a violin (played by friend Marie Claire-Saindon) and Thompson’s self-described “suitcase drum” (see the video below to witness the homemade concoction in action). Elsewhere on the record, bass, piano and horn instruments can be heard, but they are used sparingly. What should sound dull and lifeless instead comes across as crisp and refreshing as a mountain stream, something unquestionably attributable to Penner’s devout faith.
For Free Thyself from the Fetters of This World, Penner won’t be seeking the support of a major labels, but he will instead distribute the release through Bandcamp, generating buzz through word-of-mouth. As for how the record is to be received critically, or whether it receives press at all, Penner is indifferent.
“I feel more assured than in the past about not getting too caught up in that sort of thing,” he said. “If people like it, then that’s good. If they don’t and they won’t write about it, then that’s fine, too. I’m very comfortable with what [the record] is and putting it out there.”
Penner’s main concern is his relationship with those who are listening; he aspires to create music more directly for fans.
“I don’t even like the word ‘fans’ because that implies there’s a separation between us and them,” Penner said. “But how do you create more direct relationships between the people creating and those listening? Because the whole experience is a creative experience.”
This burning desire to use his creativity for the benefit of others is what distinguishes the Penner-Pop ‘stache talks to on the phone with the Penner who made jokes in The Unicorns a decade ago. Today, Penner is attentive, humble.
“I think that’s the sign of a maturing artist,” he said. “They are paradoxically less of themselves, but also more of themselves.”
In Penner’s eyes, his ministry and his music are one and the same—labels need not apply. He strives for the best in himself so that he may find the best in others, a goal that, to him, is an act of worship.
“There is a lot of doubt about everything, which hinders a lot of creativity,” he said. “Creativity occurs when you renounce these lower states of limitation and doubt. You actually open up your mind and your heart.”
Free Thyself from the Fetters of This World is available on The Hidden Words’ Bandcamp page for $5.