Full name Michael Penn; son of Leo Penn (an actor and director) and Eileen Ryan (an actress). Addresses: c/o Nick Wechsler, RCA Records, 6363 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
Singer-songwriter Michael Penn "is a thinking person's pop musician," according to critic Parke Puterbaugh in Stereo Review. Though Penn is the older brother of actor Sean Penn, the critical consensus is that his talent is more than strong enough to stand on its own merits. As reviewer Jeffrey Ressner put it in Rolling Stone: "Yeah, Penn is the brother of you know who, but who cares? It's a moot point." David Wild, writing in the same publication, echoed that just "one listen" to the singer's debut album, March, "is sufficient evidence that Penn's music warrants attention in its own right." March has spawned the hit single "No Myth," and launched critical comparisons of Penn to such musical legends as the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Penn was born into a show-business family; aside from the fact that his brothers Sean and Christopher would eventually become actors, his father is actor-director Leo Penn and his mother is actress Eileen Ryan. But Michael Penn was interested in music rather than acting from an early age. As Wild reported, one of his best early memories was of receiving the Beatles' album Something New from a family friend when he was five years old. Penn learned to play the guitar by the time he was in junior high, and even belonged to a band that played songs made famous by the likes of David Bowie, Cream, and the Rolling Stones in school talent shows.
By the time he attended high school in Santa Monica, California, Penn's musical tastes had become more eclectic, and he had begun to write what Wild described as "earnest, downbeat songs." Penn himself recalled for Wild that he "leaned towards the gloomy and pretentious back then.... Everyone told me I should see [the black comedy film] Harold and Maude, because I was Harold." During the early 1980s, Penn became involved with a band called Doll Congress. Though the recording they made was unsuccessful, they established something of a local cult following in the Los Angeles, California, clubs; once Doll Congress even served as the opening act for rock group R.E.M. But the band's work did not provide Penn with enough to live on, and he did other jobs to support himself, such as working as a customer services representative for a photography firm. He also appeared as an extra on the television show "St. Elsewhere."
Eventually Penn realized that Doll Congress, as Wild put it, "wasn't going anywhere," and left the group in 1986. Some time afterward, he was invited to perform a musical number on the television comedy/variety program "Saturday Night Live" when his brother Sean was serving as guest host. But Michael found the experience uncomfortable. He told Wild: "I was scared.... I have no idea how I came off, and I certainly haven't SL gone back to find out." Following this, he and former Doll Congress keyboardist Patrick Warren began working on some of the material that would become part of the album March. Penn said of the recording in an RCA publicity release: "I really wanted to make a record that utilized the benefits of technology, but still retain a real warmth and earthiness. We spent a long time trying to find a way to make the drum machine feel and sound good ... and trying to find ways to integrate it with the sound of acoustic guitars. Most of the sounds on the record are acoustic sounds, even if they're sampled; everything has its footing in real life." Former entertainment lawyer Nick Wechsler, who had been a fan of Doll Congress, offered Penn his services as a manager, and showed Penn's demo tape to executives at RCA Records. As many have since, the people at RCA immediately liked Penn's music. They signed him to a contract, and March was recorded. The video for the single "No Myth" received lots of airplay on the video channels MTV and VH-1, and helped Penn's album up the charts, making it successful enough to merit a 1990 concert tour. March also received much praise from the critics; on it, Ressner claimed, "Penn maintains a delicate balance between rhythmic pop and sensitive folk music, pulling off the perilous feat with surprising clarity." Puterbaugh liked March also, citing the tracks "Brave New World," "Half Harvest," "Bedlam Boys," and "Evenfall" as particularly noteworthy. He concluded that Penn had "real soul" and "real daring."
by Elizabeth Thomas
Michael Penn's Career
Rock/vocals, guitar, bass, drum machines, songwriter; member of rock band Doll Congress beginning in the early 1980s until 1987; solo recording artist and concert performer, c. 1989-. Appeared on television shows "St. Elsewhere" and "Saturday Night Live."
- Selective Works
- March (includes "No Myth," "Brave New World," "Half Harvest," "Bedlam Boys," "This and That," "Innocent One," "Disney's a Snow Cone," "Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun," "Big House," and "Battle Room"), RCA, 1989.
August 2, 2005: Penn's album, Mr. Hollywood, Jr. 1947, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_1/index.jsp, August 9, 2005.
- Rolling Stone, November 30, 1989; February 22, 1990.
- Stereo Review, February 1990.
- RCA publicity packet available from address above.