The above speech was written by Penny Black’s frontman and songwriter, Jason Ogden, and delivered, verbatim, by bassist Adam Kierstead, in acceptance for Saint John’s The Originals 2014 Popular Music Award. Jason was in Toronto at the time, unable to attend, and winning came as a genuine surprise,“Adam told me right after he did that, and I didn’t believe him. It took some convincing, on his part, to make me believe that it actually happened, but then I saw a photo. At first, I was scared, I was like ‘Shit! Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do.’ I really didn’t think that it would get read. But then, me actually being there, trying to come up with a speech probably wouldn’t be as good. […] I had this vision of this room, which is probably so far from the truth, but a room full of some bad sitcom stereotype of the arts society, with their fur coats, and bowties, and canes, and this speech being read about a guy being lubed up in a shopping cart, and probably falling flat in that room, but I guess it came off better than in my imagination.” Jason explains this to me as we sit across from each other in Canterbury Street’s jam space. It’s an environment that he seems infinitely more comfortable in than his imagined high-societal nightmare; this grunge-era cave of wonders, resplendent in its eclectic artworks, a thick film of at least a generation’s worth of instruments covering everything, and whatever else Kurt Cobain left behind when he shuffled off this mortal coil. I could not have been less surprised if Courtney Love scurried out of a dark corner.
Second-hand speeches aren’t the only challenge for Penny Blacks these days; a couple of years ago, Jason and his fiancée moved to Toronto, taking advantage of all the opportunities big city life has to offer before the time comes for a more permanent settling down. The distance, however, makes meeting up for band practice somewhat more difficult. Performing at shows together, even in the most illustrious of circumstances, can prove impossible, like this year’s Originals, when the band took to the stage while their frontman was still in Ontario, “I saw a clip of them and thought that was kind of weird. Clinton played guitar and sang the song, and Sean Boyer stepped in on drums. It was weird because it was almost as if I were dead, like it was a memorial or something. It was really eerie, but they did a great job.” In the meantime, Jason has been making the best of touring around Ontario, promoting the band in a solo capacity. “That was a real big hurdle for me to get over too, but thankfully they weren’t like, ‘Screw you, Ogden! You’re going to Toronto? The Big Smoke? We’re through!’ They were like, ‘Oh, that’s cool’. I convinced them I’d be back down enough that we could still be a band.”
“In Ontario, 90% of the time they’re expecting a woman when they see ‘Penny Blacks’ on the poster. So I have to deal with that.”
As odd as this estrangement might seem in a band, solo performances aren’t anything new for Penny Blacks. In fact, that’s where things started. Back in 2006, Jason began playing solo acoustic shows to fill open slots for show promoter/former CFMH manager Linda Pelletier, “I had been writing more mellow-folky stuff in my bedroom that didn’t fit with the punk band that I had been playing in, and so I said, ‘Listen, anytime you have a spot and need somebody I’ll bring my acoustic guitar and I’ll come play’, but I started doing it by myself, and just called it Penny Blacks because I didn’t like my name; I figured ‘Jason Ogden’ would turn people off. Then I made friends throughout the music scene who were into what I was doing, and I slowly invited them to join. The band became a three-piece, then a four, and then it grew to seven, before it shrunk back down to five.” Today the band consists of Jason Ogden (guitar, and vocals), Chris Braydon (guitar), Adam Kierstead (bass), Clinton Charlton (drums), and Ali Leonard (violin), and they seem to manage without the additional cello and keyboard that once fleshed out their lineup.
“I played a sweet solo the other day.” – Chris Braydon, Guitarist
Jason describes their sounds as ‘a honky-tonk sock-hop drowning its sorrows in rolling-rock’, which means they draw from enough influences to please everybody. Their roots have a strong folk-rock/country orientation to them, but Jason, and most of the band, have a long history of playing in post-punk bands, and they haven’t quite been able to distance themselves from that sound completely. The results are refreshing for those of us not fully committed to plunging headlong into a world of twang, like Ryan Adams meets Brand New, or Sonic Youth performing the best of Merle Haggard. Their most recent EP, The Silver Screen, was a departure from their more moodier work, a significant turn towards something decidedly pop-driven with a tinge of early ’60s rock. “It got a lot of airplay in the US, which is the first time we’ve accomplished that, and it charted in the states, so it was received pretty darn well, I think. I always look at it like it’s a departure because it’s very upbeat compared to the first EP”
Their upcoming album, Long Lights, is expected out in the Spring of 2015; the result of many months worth of thousand-kilometer commutes, “It’s a longer process for me to show the guys the new songs, and for them to add their bits to it. This album started when I was down last summer, and then we’ve worked on it the few times that I’ve been down since. It just slows things right down. The new album would probably be somewhere in the middle, between that super upbeat rock and roll, and that kind of melancholy album before it. It wasn’t a conscious decision that we’re gonna go full on rock and roll now, it just sort of happened.” To learn more, check out their webpage and their facebook page.
“For me, just getting together with my four friends and playing music, and being able to record an album, get it out, and hold it in our hands, that’s a success. Meeting these people in Toronto, and being able to play shows pretty regularly is a success. The room isn’t always packed to the hilt, sometimes there’s barely anybody there, but I was given a spot, and playing my music, and hopefully not sucking, that’s a success. You can’t really set the bar any higher than that or you’d always be super depressed, that’s the way I look at it.”