A voice that transcend the years – pure, honest, uncompromising and true. www.pennylang.com
“a superb singer of sardonic folk material… hugely entertaining”
“Penny really is remarkable. Absolutely distinctive. Listen to that voice for two seconds and you think, ‘That’s Penny Lang.'” Roma Baran, co-producer of “Stone & Sand & Sea & Sky.”
Penny Lang isn’t ever gonna be 100% cool, but she is one of the few singers today that evokes thundering accolades that go far beyond the customary comments made about artists.
As fellow Montreal singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester once remarked, “I first heard Penny sing at the Montreal Folk Workshop..I heard passion, I heard vulnerability, and I heard complete candor about pretty much everything.”
Lang’s eighth album “Stone & Sand & Sea & Sky” on Borealis Records caps a remarkable four decade career during which this delightful 63-year-old singer/guitarist has evolved from being a coffeehouse draw in her Montreal hometown to being one of Canada’s leading roots-based artists.
Through her career, the fiercely unconventional Lang has played for the fishermen in Newfoundland; the farmers in Alberta; and played to audiences in coffeehouses and festivals throughout North America. She has also toured Australia, Italy, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom.
Lang is also the subject of a 1999 documentary “Stand Up: On High Ground with Penny Lang” by Jocelyne Clarke. In 2003, she received the first Prix Folqui awarded by FOLQUEBEC.
Assessing her career, Lang says, “I’m not a big star. But I love what I do. Often, I am referred to as a folk or blues person. Or as a Pete Seeger type singer. People may have a particular idea of what I do but it is not necessarily what they will hear when I perform. I do material from all types of music.”
This 13-track album–Lang’s second recording for Toronto-based Borealis–follows the 2001 retrospective “Gather Honey” that pooled live recordings, demos and radio shows from 1963 to 1978. This is Lang’s first studio release in seven years.
Lang’s first six albums were recorded for the Montreal-based She-Wolf label, a boutique label Lang operates with her tenacious manager Heidi Fleming. This catalog includes: “Yes” (1991), “Live at the Yellow Door” (1992), “Ain’t Life Sweet” (1993), “Carry On Children” (1996), “Penny Lang & Friends Live,” (1998) and Somebody Else (1999). In 2000, Lang signed a license agreement with Borealis Records.
Lang’s staunchest admirers might blanch at news that her new album was recorded over a two year period. That it was co-produced by two meticulous New York-based perfectionists-producer Roma Baran and engineer Vivian Stoll who favored a more polished and warmer sound than Lang’s previous recordings.
They would until they listened to the album which includes backing by her son Jason Lang, as well as by Kate McGarrigle, Ken Pearson, Michael Jerome Browne, Dave Clarke, Gaston Bernard, Rachelle Garniez and others.
There are no tracks here less than beautifully-crafted. Each track seems put together with hands knowing just when and where to leave things out. There’s both craft, and insight in the songs picked and the production and repertoire are tailored to the contours of Lang’s distinctive full voice, now fused with an intimacy rarely heard in her recorded work.
Brimming with unbridled enthusiasm, Lang acknowledges the album is significant step for her.
“Every aspect of this record was done differently than what I’ve done before,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve had time to prepare and give serious thought to what was going on. All of the other times recording had to be done within ten days or so with little rehearsal time because of budgets.”
“Stone & Sand & Sea & Sky” contains an exquisite Lang original (“Diamonds on the Water”) as well as her interpretations of songs by Canadians Rose Vaughan (“Stone & Sand & Sea & Sky”), Linda Morrison (“Room To Move”), and Ken Pearson (“It’s Not Easy”) as well as songs penned by Bob Dylan (“One Too Many”), Rosalie Sorrels (My Last Go Round”), Bruce “Utah” Phillips (“If I Could Be The Rain”), The Greenbriar Boys (“High Muddy Waters”), and Les Barker (“Sudden Waves”).
There are also superb renderings of the traditional “Careless Love” and the gospel standard “Let Me Fly.”
Until Baran, notes Lang, she hadn’t had a producer who had an overall vision for her recordings or who could give her firm direction in the studio.
“Roma had a vision for this CD,” says Lang. “She had worked with me as a musician in the Sixties, and knew what I wanted to try to become.” After leaving Montreal Baran had moved to New York where she produced most of Laurie Anderson’s recorded work, from “O Superman” in 1982 to Grammy-nominated “Strange Angels” in 1989.
Baran first convinced Lang to sing in a lower register than normally. Then she had Lang sing less than two feet away from a wall to hear the full effect of her voice.
“It was a good exercise,” recalls Lang. “Performing in bars over the years I had learned a lot of bad habits. I’ve also sang through horrible microphones to people who some times didn’t listen. So I had to be a belter to be heard. Often, I’ve been singing in keys that were not really for me.”
The first three songs completed in the Montreal sessions-“Sudden Waves,” “Prairie Sky,” and “It’s Not Easy” were recorded line-by-line with over 15 takes each. Baran wanted Lang to hear exactly how she was singing so she’d be consistent with her vocals throughout the album.
“I would never have done that for anybody but Roma,” says Lang laughing. ” I trusted her.”
“Penny is a complex person; I’m not sure if her previous records showed all of the parts of her,” explains Baran. “We wanted to do something different. We wanted something more intimate.”
The first song completed was “Sudden Waves” which Stoll says, “set the tone for the album.” She adds, “I really love that one. It has a wonderful feel to it.”
Lang first started performing publicly at age 10 with her family-four cousins and her father John who hailed from Scotland — in a revue called “The Irish and Canadian Musical Revue” that played legion halls, theatres, hospitals and even prisons.
“It was like an Ed Sullivan show,” recalls Lang. “We had everything from comedians to jugglers and tap dancers. It was great training.”
Even at 10, Lang was convinced she’d have a career in entertainment. “I’d go to bed at night and dream of standing on stages,” she says.
Lang learned about singing and storytelling around the family’s kitchen table with both her family and friends. The first performers she was attracted to were favourites of her father and included Hank Snow, Jimmy Rogers, The Carter Family, and The Weavers.
There is a compelling scene in “Stand On High Ground” in which Lang accompanies her parents-since deceased– in the kitchen. Her father’s dobro playing-despite age and arthritis-is superb.
In the early 1960s, Lang left school after grade nine. She got a job as a typist, first at an insurance company, and then as a secretary at the YMCA. “In those days the attitude was, ‘Girls don’t go university. Go out and work and you will meet some guy and you will marry and he will take care of you.'”
While at the YMCA, Lang became intrigued by the contemporary folk music scene and began listening to the recordings of Pete Seeger, Odetta, Mose Allison, Bob Gibson, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. She also began listening to such emerging folk songwriters as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Lang soon decided to take a shot as a performer herself. She’d worked day jobs, completed high school through evening courses, and had attended Sir George Williams University for a year but was restless. Recalls Lang, “I had my guitar and I thought, ‘Well you’ve always dreamed of playing concert halls. If you are going to try this why not try this now?'”
In 1963, Lang auditioned at Café Andre, a bar near McGill University that featured folk performers. Lang went on to work there lasting for three years. For three weeks in a month, she set a grueling pace of 4-5 sets a night, 6 nights a week for only $5 per night.
“I played for my own age group, and we all liked the same music,” says Lang. “And after a few beers they didn’t always pay attention.”
Baran, however, recalls being captivated by Lang at Café Andre. “I was mesermized by the energy she had,” she says. “It didn’t sound like folk music. It had balls to it. She had a guitarist who also had a day job. I figured he wasn’t going to last long. I waited for him to keel over so I could step in.”
After awhile, Lang did need a new guitar player and Baran got the job for five years. (She would later also work with Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Borealis co-founder and Bill Garrett.)
Following her Café Andre stint, Lang became a full-time touring musician performing at major festivals, and countless coffeehouse, and clubs throughout North America.
With help from friends, she broke into New York, working primarily at Gerde’s Folk City but also appeared at The Bitter End. She played in New York about four times a year for about three years. There she was caught up into a circle of folk musicians in Greenwich Village that included Patrick Sky, Dave Van Ronk, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
A strange young girl in those days – an all-around golden girl – Lang was running around discovering life for the first time. “Everybody playing around the Village would end up at a restaurant called The Tin Angel at 3 A.M. for breakfast,” recalls Lang. “To some of those folks I was a bit of a giggle; a naïve Canadian girl. People would say the word ‘fuck’ and I’d cringe. I hated that word. I’d ask people not to use it.”
Back in Canada, Lang played such prestigious folk clubs as The 5th Dimension, The Yellow Door, The Penelope and The Finjan in Montreal; L’Hibou in Ottawa; and The Pornographic Onion, The Riverboat, and The Penny Farthing in Toronto.
By the time Lang had arrived in New York however, folk music’s front runners Bob Dylan, Ian & Sylvia, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs had moved on as their recordings impacted on the mainstream. And despite her growing popularity, the breaks didn’t unfold.
“I came in on the second wind of players,” recalls Lang. “I wasn’t doing any recording. I didn’t get picked up by anybody.”
However, while performing at Gerde’s, she was approached by a pair Warner Bros. executives who heard her sing Leonard Cohen’s then unknown “Suzanne.” They asked if she’d record it as a single with an electric band. She balked at the idea.
A few years earlier Lang had been approached for guitar lessons by the young Montreal poet who had just started playing guitar at summer camp.
Recalls Lang, “My manager called saying, ‘There’s this poet Cohen in Montreal who wants to learn to play guitar.’ When Leonard called he said, “I’m Leonard Cohen. I was told you’d teach me guitar.’ I said, ‘Not today. I’m very depressed’ and I hung up on him. It was the last time we spoke. I didn’t know who he was, and I wasn’t a guitar teacher. It was at the beginning of my manic-depressive cycle.”
In the early-70s, as her personal life became a series of interruptions, Lang, now a single mother with her son Jason, retreated to Morin Heights, a small village in the Laurentian Mountains, immeasurably social light years away from the music business. Occasionally, she played at Rose’s Cantina, a tiny coffee house there.
Lang returned to Montreal in 1980 but performed publicly only rarely. In 1989, however, she picked up the guitar again when invited to play at The Golem coffeehouse. Soon she was back into the full swing of a musical career.
Today, after returning from a stroke six years ago, Lang is certainly leaning toward working at a different pace. She recently moved to rural British Columbia near Madeira Park.
“This decision took about 20 years to finalize,” Lang says. “I have never made any kind of a home, really. Home has always been somewhere I visit. But it is so beautiful here.”
“An incredible record. I totally get her now – the communication, the vulnerability. The arrangements are stunning – a world class package. I really, really, really, really like it!”
Canadian Bureau Chief, Billboard
“Lang’s vocal depth and projection enhanced by her flawless interpretation of the song message borders on being of divine right as she attracts the listener to her inner sanctum..”
“One of Canada’s undeniable treasures.”
Montréal International Jazz Festival
“Most of us never get the chance to turn back the clock; many wouldn’t want to even if it were possible.
Fortunately for those who enjoy music that defies the tarnish of time, Montreal’s Penny lang has put together a collection of 16 songs spanning 15 years, from 1963 through 1978.
Gather Honey brings together previously unreleased material (both live and studio recordings) beginning with the first recording a a Leadbelly tune she cut when she was a 21 -year-old secretary at the YMCA who just happened to possess a voice to die for.
Lang had a great ear from the get-go, as is indicated by the songs she covered from the pens of Bonnie Raitt, Buffy Ste.-Marie and Janis Ian, not to mention many important songwriters of the day including Bruce Murdoch, Chris Kearney, Paul Lauzon and Chris Rawlings. Although she has never been a prolific writer, an early original, Senses of Your Life, is also included.
But it’s the voice that transcend the years – pure, honest, uncompromising, true – whether alone with guitar or in the company of other musicians.”
Robert Reid, Roots Music
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