Lifelong musician plays Cat Cab

Jess Penner sings and plays acoustic guitar during a Cat Cab on April 5 in the Fred Meyer Lounge. Alyssa Carano/Staff photographer

Singer-song writer Jess Penner strummed acoustic guitar and sang at an intimate Cat Cab on April 5 as a part of a small tour, but she can’t remember the first time she performed a song.

Penner said that one of her friends from kindergarten recently dug up a cassette recording of Penner’s first grade promotion ceremony. When they listened to the old recording, Penner’s singing was the only recognizable voice in the crowd.

“You could clearly distinguish me from everyone else,” Penner said. “It was this ridiculous vibrato voice. But you could tell I loved what I was doing.”

It’s always been like that for Penner. Music has continually filled the cracks in her life.

She learned to play guitar when she was about 12, melding her constant stream of singing with the sounds of acoustic chords.

Her music life became more serious when she was 14 when she started a band with a boy she met in high school.

Not long after the duo began performing, they were offered a record label from a Los Angeles-based recording studio. Some of their songs also began appearing on small radio stations.

This led Penner to tour from when  she was 16 to 21.

She didn’t attend college because of the large amount of time she had to devote to driving from one place to another, performing with her two band mates.

“My college experience turned out to be smelly: hours in a van with two boys,” Penner said.

Now, Penner is married and spends most of her time composing songs and playing local shows in Los Angeles.

She isn’t part of a band anymore, which she said she considers freeing in many ways.

“It’s great not to have to worry about other people and how their ambitions and dreams fit with yours,” she said. “But I do miss having the collaborative creative effort that working with other people offered.”

Even though she mostly plays solo now, Penner said that she enjoys the assistance of her husband, who is a drummer.

He is an engineer, but he spends a significant amount of time playing drums and assisting Penner with her recordings.

She said that she appreciates their shared interest in music, but that she is glad that she is the only lead singer and guitarist in the relationship.

“We don’t compete,” she said. “We work as a team, and all we do is music. I couldn’t do what I do without him, and he couldn’t do what he does without me.”

When Penner isn’t playing local shows, she sets aside consistent times to write songs.

“If you’re going to make music your business, you have to run it like a business,” she said.

Penner said that her song-writing process involves lots of sitting at the table, staring into space and waiting for lyrics to start streaming though her mind.

“I would say that my writing process is very mysterious,” she said. “It’s different every time and I don’t really know how it happens. Mostly, it’s just about being available and making time to create.”

Joanna Peterson/
Managing editor
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