Penn likes crafting a tune into a solid musical structure

POPULAR MUSIC

September 25, 1992|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Some pop musicians find songwriting to be embarrassingly easy; others find it sheer torture, as they fret and stew over whether inspiration will strike.

But for Michael Penn, the writing process is actually a bit of both. "I don't have a difficult time coming up with material, but it comes at its own pace, and its pace is not the fastest in the world," he says, over the phone from a Los Angeles studio. "I wish I was more prolific."

Maybe so, but what Penn might lack in quantity he certainly makes up in quality. "March," his 1990 debut album, earned him near-unanimous critical acclaim. The single "No Myth" helped him snag Best New Artist honors from MTV. And the sharp-tongued and tuneful material he compiled for his new album, "Free-for-All," seems likely to further his already impressive reputation.

Still, he admits that he's "not the most disciplined person" when it comes to his songwriting routine. "I can't set certain hours to sit down and do it" he says. "It's not like a job. It's more a case where I have to be available to act on any spark of inspiration."

That sort of freedom is much easier to maintain at home than when on the road, as Penn learned to his dismay while on tour behind his first album.

"One thing that I discovered after going out on tour for seven months is that I'm dismal at writing on the road," he says. "That time was not productive for me, writing-wise. It was sort of frantic, having to be ready for traveling all the time, and not being able to set up a little area in a hotel room with my guitar, tape recorder, pad of paper and pencil.

"That doesn't suit my process particularly well."

Penn, as it turns out, is basically an old-fashioned tunesmith. Rather than take the modern approach of layering sounds over a rhythm track until you've got something catchy, he believes in the song itself -- a good melody, thoughtful lyrics and solid structure.

"It has become very easy to make very professional-sounding records, and sort of forget about the step of the song," he says. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot of records that I really, really like that are not necessarily great songs, but they're great records.

"And there are certainly people who can write in the recording studio and create great songs. I think Paul Simon is one of them, I think Peter Gabriel's one of them. I think the studio is the equivalent of their piano. But they're people who are well versed in songwriting, who are going in it with that knowledge -- as opposed to people who just keep building stuff up and then arbitrarily add words.

"That's not what I do. That's not what I'm interested in doing."

Besides, what Penn really wants for his songs is the sound of a rock and roll band, and there's really no way to get that from the synths-and-sequencers method. "Everything I do is written with the vocabulary of a rock band," he says. "I'm always thinking in terms of a band, because that's the only way I know. It's not very hard to go from the writing or the record to a live situation."

No matter how he made his album, however, he had the comfort of knowing that his record company was with him all the way. "They actually pretty much left me alone, and I'm not asking questions," he laughs.

"When I got signed to RCA, it was every songwriter's dream meeting. The guy who signed me said, 'Look, I would release your demos if that's what you wanted to do.' Which meant to me that not only did he like one or two aspects of what I was doing, but he liked the total package of the way I saw the songs.

"It was a level of trust that I really, really appreciate."

Michael Penn

What: Free Fall Fat Tuesday Fun Festival.

When: Sept. 27. Festival begins at 1 p.m.; Penn goes on at 5 p.m.; other acts include Moon August, Rhumba Club and disappear fear.

Where: Fat Tuesday, 34 Market Place.

Admission: Free.

Call: (410) 727-4822.

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