“If I had a donut for every time I’ve listened to this album I’d be dead by now.” -The Proprietor, on Melanie Penn’s Wake Up Love.
After winning us over with her debut three years ago, Melanie Penn returns this fall with Hope Tonight. Working once again with Ben Shive, Melanie believes if you’re a fan of the first album then this one will win you over, too. We talked to Melanie to find out how she’s been spending her time and what to expect on Hope Tonight.
Can you tell us what you’ve been up to creatively speaking?
I finished production on the new album, Hope Tonight. Ben Shive produced it and partnering together again for this album brought a lot of joy, laughs, and inspiration. I also had the opportunity to bring Steve Elliot to Nashville to record a lot of the guitars. It was great to involve a musician from my New York family—something I wasn’t able to do on Wake Up Love.
There’s some other stuff happening in New York. I try to be involved as much as I can in sessions, and I love co-writing with some dear friends there. I’m also singing in other bands, and leading worship at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Resurrection Park Slope. My main push this fall, though, will be to get Hope Tonight out there.
You have your debut in the rearview mirror, so did the approach to the new album feel different?
The overall approach didn’t feel too much different because the production relationship between Ben and me was already established. It was a continuation from Wake Up Love. I had more confidence in making decisions—hopefully bolder decisions—than I did on Wake Up Love.
A fundamental difference in recording this album was that we laid a lot of groundwork just him and me—recording acoustic guitar, for instance, and then programming around it. After we had some tracks that were fairly built up like that we brought in a live drummer and bass player to lay down the rhythm foundation. Felt a little backward at times, but Ben did an amazing job—as usual—making that work.
Another element that Ben and I emphasized on Hope Tonight was more programming and electronic sounds. Those sounds are not on Wake Up Love—perhaps here and there, minimally—and they add a lot of fun to Hope Tonight. There are a lot of overlapping live drums and programmed rhythms and I am loving it. We also took a more pop approach to the album. I tend to be a bit of an arty songwriter so I tried to keep the skeleton of “art songs” there and then give them a poppier production.
Many people fell in love with the first album, citing its accessibility—your ability to take a simple concept and turn it in such a way. You’ve already talked about the pop approach, but how are the songs on Hope Tonight similar or different?
I’m still writing about nature—so those topics appear. Thanks for saying that the songs on Wake Up Love are simple or accessible—that is my main goal when writing a song. I never want a song to be esoteric or unclear. For the record, there aren’t any breakup songs on the record. Hope Tonight is a very optimistic collection, but not annoyingly so. I am a New Yorker.
Do you love songs or artists that do the same?
Yes absolutely I do. I love artists that don’t toss away any words or images. I love songs in which every single word or rhyme is intended. Stephen Sondheim is the best writer I know at this. There is one song called “Anyone Can Whistle” that’s an iconic song to me and a perfect example of taking a mundane action or thought and commenting on something bigger.
Can you give us some tangible details on Hope Tonight?
There are 10 songs on the album and I’m aiming for a release date in the fall, maybe mid-October. I just want to sing, tour, and hang out in the Rabbit Room as much as I can. I love that we are talking about “simplicity” here because I have already started my next songwriting project and right now the working title is Simple Songs.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.