Longing for home, or at least reminiscing about it, has long been a favourite topic among songwriters. Joel Plaskett’s done it on his new record, The Weakerthans famously chronicled their home town in I Hate Winnipeg, and now Andrew Penner, lead singer for the Sunparlour Players, has tackled this topic on his group’s new record, Wave North.
“It’s the fact that you leave and think about the areas that affected you,” says Penner, who grew up on a farm near the small town of Leamington, which is part of the Sunparlour district in southwestern Ontario. “If I still lived in the area I grew up in I wouldn’t be writing these songs.”
One track, Battle of ’77 is, on the surface, about two dueling farming families separated by a road. While Penner’s family didn’t literally fight with their neighbours, it’s still about the problems with small town life.
“For me that song is about people killing each other with kindness in small towns,” he says. “All they do is smile and nod, but never really talk or engage.”
Other songs can be more explicitly tied back to Penner’s personal history. The song Nuclear is about growing up near the Fermi 2 reactor, while Mersea Community Horn Club is about the township the songwriter grew up in.
But, while there is a strong sense of longing in these songs, he’s not championing where he came from. “This whole idea of nostalgia — I don’t think it’s about glorifying the place I came from. It’s more like I’m trying to illuminate it. When you put a light on something, it can show the beauty in it but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”
With vivid imagery and thoughtful lyrics strewn all over the record, listeners won’t be able to help think about their own hometowns. That’s also partly due to the grounded and folky musical style the group has become known for. It’s Neil Young-meets-Canadian alt-country with a dash of Adam Duritz-like vocals — an ideal recipe for songs about home.
Penner points out that the record’s not all about his past; a main theme relates to buildings, both in the physical and philosophical way. “There’s a lot of stuff about building things and taking things down,” he says. “That’s a huge part of life once you leave home, because you’re building another one, recreating the while idea of home.
“There’s a lot of conflict in rebuilding and the fact is you’re trying something,” he adds. “You might necessarily get it, or be successful, but at least you’re trying.”
Catch Sunparlour Players
– Toronto: the Horseshoe Tavern June 26.