By Sheldon Birnie
The Hidden Words is a Montréal-based acoustic folk-pop project celebrating the scriptural tradition of the Bahá’í faith. Initiated by Alden Penner (ex-Unicorns, Clues), the project has grown to include Penner’s old friend and collaborator Jamie Thompson (ex-Unicorns, ex-Islands), as well as Marie-Claire Saindon, Neah Bahji Kelly, James Farr, and Ben Howden.
The music is different than Penner’s previous projects, but not necessarily a departure.
“I suppose there’s not an overarching difference in the songs, in that these are songs that I’ve structured myself, so I guess there’s a signature to that,” Penner said over the phone from Montréal. “But at the heart of the project, we’ve sort of decided to have it as a point of focus the writings of the Bahá’í faith; the spiritual nature and the mystical quality of the relationship between man and God.”
“In so doing,” he continues, “the project is intended to communicate something of the spirit of those writings in a beautiful way through music. And hopefully do justice to the work by having them translate into actions, whether that’s doing kind of things that bands don’t normally do, like playing in homes, or elevating people’s souls through music, or, indirectly by inspiring other people into doing other benevolent acts or good deeds.”
Penner says the Hidden Words “emerged out of a long winter and spring thaw following a period of inactivity with Clues where I kind of decided that I wanted to be more involved in a local community and make music that was more reflective of where my mind and body are at the moment.”
“With the previous project Clues, it was more of a repository of older songs; songs that dated back to high school or songs I was playing with other bands, so it felt a little anachronistic. This project emerged in the spring of 2010 as a repository of more current songs that I was writing, and just trying to memorize some of those passages from the writing [of the Bahá’í faith]. It kind of went more hand in hand with what I was actually doing in the present, and was more reflective, or of an intended more harmonious reflection of my life.”
Many of those songs have now found their way onto the first Hidden Words album, Free Thyself From the Fetters of This World, which was recorded in the summer of 2010 and released in December 2011. According to the band’s website, mixing of a second album is underway. On Free Thyself, Penner plays the bulk of instruments himself, from acoustic, electric and bass guitar to vibraphone and piano.
“I’ve been playing music since I was pretty young. I think the first instrument I started playing was either the recorder or the violin,” Penner explains. “Then it’s been a succession of learning different instruments, taking private piano lessons for a long time, up until joining school band and learning how to play the trumpet. Then moving through the percussion section and the bass guitar.” [Disclosure: I played clarinet in elementary school band with Alden in Dawson Creek, BC. We all wore dorky red cardigans with a bulldog on the breast to recitals.]
Lyrically, the Hidden Words draw their content directly from the spiritual scriptures of the Bahá’í faith (quite literally, “the Hidden Words”). Free Thyself features vocals, by Penner, in English, French, and Spanish.
“I think that’s also reflective of my current and more recent experience. I’ve been living in Quebec for an eight-year stretch now. I actually grew up here, and was born in this province and lived here until I was about eight years old,” Penner says. “The French language has been a part of my world in a big way. It’s only been more progressively integrated into my music. With the Spanish, that kind of happened spontaneously one evening. I was handling a document, one of these prayers in Spanish that I was familiar with in English had a kind of musicality to that language that kind of flowed right out.”
The coming year sees the Hidden Words continuing to write and play around Montréal, with the idea of taking their music further a field as the year progresses.
“We are eager to explore new places to play,” Penner admits, “but sometimes there’s just a misunderstanding of what the projects is, based on the excitement of our previous involvement in these other bands, and we end up playing somewhere at two o’clock in the morning, at some bar. That’s fine and everything, but I think the hostility that results through our words in that situation can be sort of overbearing. We want to make sure that we get out there in the right way.”
Check out the Hidden Words’ debut album at http://thehiddenwords.bandcamp.com, and cross your fingers for a Winnipeg date later this year.