Cam Penner tore up the blueprints when he and Vancouver producer Jon Wood started work on To Build a Fire, but there’s no denying that what they’ve made has a wild and ramshackle charm. It’s also going to be slightly shocking for those familiar with Penner’s earlier records, marked as they were by well-crafted story songs that drew on the former Albertan’s work with the homeless and dispossessed. There aren’t many linear narratives here; instead, the spare lyrics are composed of a few fleeting, but powerful, images. Meanwhile, the folk-style strumming of yore has given way to electric guitars, often possessed by a kind of discordant beauty.
Penner still quotes Woody Guthrie in his liner notes, but the artist To Build a Fire most calls to mind is recent-issue Tom Waits. And that, says the now B.C.–based singer-songwriter, represents a welcome and unavoidable transformation.
“I guess I’d come from that roots-country-folk thing, but things change,” Penner explains, calling the Straight from a Medicine Hat pit stop. “And playing with Jon Wood, you know we’re searching for things. We’re searching for different things, we’re travelling a lot, we’re touring a lot, and you get influenced by language, politics, geography, music that you hear, sounds that you hear, and you’re becoming your own thing. You’re becoming your own person, and the other things that were so important in your life aren’t so important anymore. So now you’re really zeroing in on what you want to say.”
Wood—a fixture on the Vancouver indie scene who’s worked with everyone from “psychedelic western noir lounge” act Coal to spoken-word genius Ivan Coyote—has gone through a similar transformation, and over the course of a number of duo tours he and Penner have cemented a strong working relationship.
“Me and Jon are both at a point where we’re going, ‘This is who we are; this is what we do. And if people don’t like it, it’s okay,’” Penner notes. “It doesn’t matter to us anymore. I don’t have a label, I don’t have a booking agent, and it’s never stopped me from moving ahead and doing my art and trying to create something that I think will move people—and pull the rug from under their feet as well.”
He and Wood have accomplished exactly that with To Build a Fire, which—in another departure from orthodoxy—was recorded in the Kootenay cabin Penner shares with his sweetheart and their one-year-old child.
“I kicked them out, said ‘Go away, we’re making this album,’” he recalls with a chuckle. “Jon pulls up with a truckload of gear, we set up the mikes, we have some whisky, we have some smokes, and we start playing, start stompin’ the floorboards. And it was emotional. There was stumbling, there was holding people up, there was crying.…We were letting everything out.”
The result should be as cathartic for listeners as it was for the two men who made it. “It’s a really immediate and honest and intentional album,” says Penner, and he’s right in every possible way.