When your grandfather is a bootlegger and your family runs an illegal small-town roadhouse, you must have a lot of stories to tell. Cam Penner does, and he tells them in his music. The Canadian singer-songwriter's latest album is titled Gypsy Summer.
Penner grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. When he was 18, he followed a group of friends down to Chicago and ended up staying for a year, living on a local commune. It was there that he first started working in shelters for the homeless, a habit he would maintain for years to come. He says the experience gave him much-needed focus and perspective.
"[Shelters offer] raw honesty, which is sometimes the most beautiful thing," Penner tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I never saw it as 'working' with the homeless. I thought of it just as hanging out with these people who had something to say, and they lived it out. It brought direction to my life."
Though the album was released on CD, the jacket for Gypsy Summer separates the tracks into two "sides," as if it were a vinyl record. Penner says it's his way of reminding listeners of the bigger picture.
"I don't want it to be just a collection of songs. It was an album to me. It was an experience: the way we recorded it, how those songs came to me that summer," he says. "It's a celebration of hot summer nights, tequila, dancing on the porch, letting the floorboards creak."
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