Born Michael Penn; son of Leo Penn (an actor and director) and Eileen Ryan (an actress); married Aimee Mann (a musician). Addresses: Record company--SpinArt, P.O. Box 1798, New York, NY 10156, website: http://www.spinartrecords.com. Website--Michael Penn Official Website: http://www.michaelpenn.com.
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 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 from an early age, Michael Penn was interested in music rather than acting. 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 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 to 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 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 service 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 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 retained 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 manager and showed Penn's demo tape to executives at RCA Records, who 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 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 critics. 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, 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."
Penn's career hit a difficult patch immediately after the success of March. The president of RCA died, and with his death came changes at the label. The label canceled Penn's next video, and although RCA did release Penn's next album, Free-For-All, they did not provide publicity or support for it. Despite this, they refused to release Penn from his contract. Penn told Jim Bessman in Billboard, "I was held captive for three years and was going to just wait out my contract." In the meantime, he began work on another record called Resigned, planning to release it privately on the Internet. Once Penn was finally released from his contract, producer Brendan O'Brien of Sony's 57 Records imprint was interested in the record, but O'Brien was unable to convince his label, Sony, to sign Penn. O'Brien did manage to sign Penn's next album, MP4, with Epic in 2000, but again, the album was given no publicity."
Penn joined his wife, singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, and Penn's manager, Michael Hausman, in 2004 to form United Musicians, a collective that provided marketing, promotion, and publicity services for musicians. Hausman told Melinda Newman in Billboard that the collective was launched when he was trying to market an album by Mann, and various distributors told him that it was difficult for a single-artist label that released only one album a year to get good distribution. Mann, Penn, and Hausman decided to join forces and thus release more than one record a year. Although the collective was originally intended to promote the work of Mann and Penn, they were talking to other musicians about representation as well.
In 2004 the Penn family, including Sean, Chris, and Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Robert Wright Penn, and Eileen Ryan, were selected to receive the American Film Institute's Platinum Circle Award. This award honors a family that the institute feels has had a significant creative influence on the entertainment industry. The award ceremony also featured a tribute to the late actor/director Leo Penn.
In 2005 Penn released Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947. This pop-rock collection is set in the post-World-War-II United States, but according to Ryan Dombell in Entertainment Weekly, the songs resemble the popular music of the late 1960s. In Pittsburghlive.com, a reviewer wrote that the album is filled with seductive, hummable pop songs."
Penn described his songwriting process to James Rotondi in Guitar Player, noting that he prefers to write songs in one sitting: "You're on a certain train of thought with the song when you develop it, and that's not necessarily a state of mind that you can simply recreate on call." He added, "If the song can survive you going back again and again, and you come out still liking it, you've probably got something fairly good there."
by Elizabeth Thomas and Kelly Winters
Michael Penn's Career
Member of rock band Doll Congress, early 1980s to 1987; solo recording artist and concert performer, c. 1989--; cofounder of United Musicians, a collective, 2004--; appeared on television shows St. Elsewhere and Saturday Night Live.
Michael Penn's Awards
American Film Institute Platinum Circle Award, 2004.
- Selected discography
- March RCA, 1989.
- Free-For-All RCA, 1993.
- Redesigned Epic, 1997.
- MP4 57 Records, 2000.
- Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947 SpinArt, 2005.
- Billboard, May 20, 2000, p. 14.
- Daily Variety, August 17, 2004, p. 10.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 5, 2002, p. 66.
- Guitar Player, October 1993, p. 52.
- Rolling Stone, November 30, 1989; February 22, 1990.
- Stereo Review, February 1990.
- "Mr. Hollywood Jr.," Pittsburghlive.com, http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/tribune-review/entertainment/music/pop/s_362764.html (September 9, 2005).