It all started with a few words about an otherworldy mission. Alden Penner has just embarked on a June tour, which sees the Unicorns founder performing with his friend, the actor and fellow musician Michael Cera, who appears on Penner’s upcoming EP, Canada in Space, a five-song operetta loosely inspired by a piece Penner read.
“The article was about this planned voyage to Mars, which includes a large proportion of Canadian volunteers who are ready to leave Earth and settle a planet that’s not necessarily habitable at this point,” he says incredulously. “I thought that offered an interesting jumping-off point for exploring thoughts that can’t be expressed, for me, in any other way than by music, really.”
But Penner isn’t just riffing on space travel: His train of thought turns to life on Earth, generally, and Canada specifically. “There are so many different angles you can approach it with,” he muses. “The trend in Canada has been toward more conservative thinking, so there is the idea we’re already leaving the country collectively, or the idea of what Canada was before the Eighties. It’s kind of like we live here, but we’re in another territory in our minds.”
The idea of humans trudging off to another planet doesn’t exactly put Penner at ease. “It does scare me. We’re so primitive still, it’s difficult to imagine it working in any real way. These are difficult years ahead in terms of our own planet. It’s really a strange time to offer up this idea of going to Mars at such a time in our history.”
Space travel itself, with all its darkness as infinite unknown, intrigues the 32-year-old. “NASA released some recordings of what space sounds like, which they recorded on a satellite. I tend to use these old instruments, and one is an old synth I got while I was living in British Columbia. This instrument built in the Seventies sounds pretty close to what those recordings sound like. It’s a sonic touchstone for me. The sonic space I like to work in points toward that.”
The instrument is the Roland Jupiter IV. Penner laughs only now considering its space mission–y name. “It was an early analog synthesizer and they got it right somehow; it sounds very spacey and you can hear that on some of these songs.”
Penner’s tour, or rather the Penner-Cera tour, will feature the music of both artists — Cera’s album True That was released last summer — as well as cuts from the Unicorns catalog. After the only American show on their itinerary, which took place at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on June 12, Penner and Cera are bound for the U.K.
“I think it will work together. His music is very different to mine,” says Penner of the blend of their styles. “It’s very jazzy in a way that mine isn’t and it goes all over the place, and I really enjoy that about it. But it will hopefully be a seamless transition between songs in a way that’s probably going to be very stunning to the listeners.”
Despite their differing preferences, Cera and Penner have an easy collaborative relationship. Cera’s vocal contributions to Canada in Space were recorded in one afternoon, while he was appearing in the Broadway play This Is Our Youth, last winter.
“He invited me to come and see his play,” says Penner, “and the next day I invited him over to my hotel to be on the song ‘Meditate.’ I really like this notion of informal recording spaces. Hotels were the original studios as well; that’s where the original blues recordings in America were done. They’d rent out a hotel room and invite different artists to come in. I was inviting him to come and sing on one of my songs completely cold. He had never heard the song before. He probably didn’t even hear the whole song then; I just played him the part I wanted him to sing on.”
But, just like that, the song was done, and the journey began. “He’s very musical. In some ways, technically, he’s way beyond me. He’s really fast at learning new material. We had worked on this film, Paper Heart. He wrote some of the music and I was working on the production, so we had a rapport already. We get along well, so it’s pretty easy doing something like that.”