When Michael Penn released his 1989 debut album, March, he scored a hit with “No Myth,” his very first single. “What if I were Romeo in black jeans?” he sang in that song’s memorable chorus, showing a knack for creating intelligent acoustic-based alternative rock. His subsequent releases were also critically acclaimed, though he hasn’t released a full-length album since 2005. Instead, he has pursued a successful career as a composer for film and television. But on October 2, Penn gave fans a happy surprise when he suddenly released an inspiring new song, “A Revival,” which shows he’s still a highly adept singer-songwriter.
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Calling from his Los Angeles home, Penn says that “A Revival” came about because of the pandemic. “Hollywood basically shut down,” he says, which in turn stopped the demand for his film composing work. But that “presented this opportunity for me to either sit and be incredibly bored and worried about the politics of America, or take some kind of action. So I started writing. And a lot of what I was writing about was what I was observing about the country.”
The lyrics for “A Revival” are a thought-provoking rumination on the current political situation in America – but ultimately, the song delivers an uplifting message. “I feel like I have an optimism that I’m not exactly sure I can justify,” Penn says, “but going out into some of the protests and reading about the action that people are taking, it almost makes you forget that half the country actually voted for [Trump] again. But I think that people can be convinced with new information, and I’m hoping some of the other side will come around.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve had a political bent,” Penn continues. “I was really drawn to a lot of art that had some kind of political message behind it, [such as] early folk stuff like Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan. And I was really into a movement in Europe in the late ‘70s and ‘80s called Rock in Opposition, which was this political anti-corporate movement. So it’s always made sense to me that these are important things to be thinking about.” Penn is backing up his beliefs with action, giving all proceeds from “A Revival” to the Poor People’s Campaign (www.poorpeoplescampaign.org).
As for why it was so many years since Penn’s last release as a solo artist, he says, “I take a long time writing and recording, just because I do. It’s one of the reasons why I could never really have a career as a singer-songwriter, because I take too long for the way the cycle works to keep yourself in people’s minds.”
Another factor, Penn says, is that “I don’t want to tour and be away from home and have that kind of life. If you’re somebody who really enjoys playing live and touring around, that will give you joy and a career. For me, that’s not what I ever wanted. I don’t feel like a natural performer. I never have. It’s just not a natural state for me. I think that whatever performer gene is in the DNA kind of went to everybody else in my family, and I suffered the deficit of it.”
This seems like a surprising sentiment, given that Penn comes from a celebrated Hollywood family: his father, Leo Penn, was an actor and director, and his mother is actress Eileen Ryan. Both of his brothers – Sean Penn and Chris Penn – became acclaimed actors.
Although Penn himself has taken on the occasional small acting role, and toured early in his music career, he now avoids performing. “I’m much more comfortable and happy in a studio making something,” he says.
Penn’s desire to work in music, but in a more behind the scenes capacity, is why film composing suits him so well. He first pursued this line of work because “The opportunity was offered to me by [director] Paul Thomas Anderson when he started out,” Penn says. “So I did his first two films [1996’s Hard Eight and 1997’s Boogie Nights] and felt like I had an aptitude for it, and he felt like I had an aptitude for it, so that was encouraging.” Since then, Penn has written the scores for more than a dozen films, as well as for notable television series such as HBO’s Girls and Showtime’s Masters of Sex.
“It’s obviously a very different thing,” Penn says of this type of music writing. “It’s a collaborative thing, which is wonderful in its own way and something that I didn’t really experience as a solo artist making records.”
Penn says there are certain unique pressures when it comes to writing music for film and television, compared to writing as a solo artist. “That’s a world where there’s a clock ticking,” he says. “That’s not conducive to the best possible work sometimes, but you just have to do it.” Still, he says, “I find I like the structure of it.”
With film composing off the table for now, Penn says that creating and releasing “A Revival” has rekindled his interest in his singer-songwriter work. While he stops short of promising that he’ll ever release another full-length album, Penn does offer fans some hope: “I have written a batch of songs,” he says, “and at this point I don’t have something to score, so I’m going to start recording the next one – and then I’ll go from there.”
“A Revival” is available on Apple Music/iTunes, Amazon, Tidal and BandCamp.