Blue Notes

Oliver Penn Reveals His Promise on Hideaway

Oliver Penn
Oliver Penn Photo by Stefan Puente, courtesy of Oliver Penn

The rejuvenating lifeblood of any music community comes from its young audiences. In Houston, rap and indie rock acts draw fresh-faced followers. Oliver Penn says he’s encouraged to see Houston blues getting its own youthful transfusion. He’s in a position to know as one of the exciting performers delivering a new blues infusion.

“I think sometimes it’s a hidden scene for the younger people, where sometimes they don’t think they want it or need it, but once they’re exposed to it they’re hooked. It’s encouraging to see people change their perspective on blues music when they see our trio live,” he shared. “We play some T-Bone Walker and some Albert King, but we also throw in our country, funk, hip-hop and rockabilly influences to make a unique and captivating blues for 2018.”

Penn has lived in Providence, Rhode Island and Houston all his life, bouncing back and forth between the cities; there in his youth, here as an adolescent, back north to attend Providence College, back here to start his music career. He’s keenly aware of the proximity to great jazz and blues histories the cities respectively share. Those environments, a family member’s stellar taste in music and his own burning desire to learn multiple instruments have come together for him nicely. You can hear the result for yourself on Hideaway, Penn’s new album. The album releases today on all major digital music platforms.

“The songs on Hideaway were written between 2016 and 2018, the oldest being ‘I Know’ and the newest being ‘Coupe DeVille.’ I never really sat down and planned an album,” Penn noted. “I am constantly writing songs, some stick around and a lot don’t. The songs seemed to fit together well and it gives people a digestible sample of the music I’ve been making lately.”

Penn recorded the album in the bedroom studio of his home and vocals, mixing and mastering were all done at SugarHill Recording Studios by his friend and emerging Houston producer, Mark Drew.

“Mark is a talented guy and had some great ideas on how to make the songs sound big and polished, while also sounding vintage and human,” Penn said. “There are so many legendary artists who have recorded there, I was pretty fortunate to be able to put this project together at SugarHill.”

Penn’s trying to create his own legacy. He began pursuing music as a grade-schooler in Rhode Island.

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Double Trouble: Penn channels his blues guitar idol Stevie Ray Vaughan
Photo by Barry Dolton, courtesy of Oliver Penn

“My parents started me on piano when I was seven years old which, back then, I wasn’t too pumped about. Being the smart woman that she is, my mother kept me in lessons knowing it would lay down the foundation I needed to play everything else I wanted to,” he said. “I was 10 years old when I started playing drums and 12 when I started playing guitar. I never took lessons for those instruments, I just played along to whatever I could get my hands on.

“My mom raised me up right, putting me onto some great music like James Taylor, AC/DC and the Eagles,” he continued. “The biggest one was Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I heard Stevie for the first time the game changed. I always knew that I wanted to play music for a living, but hearing his music introduced me to a whole new world.”

By the time his family moved to Houston his eighth-grade year, he was playing guitar. Even though he was on the same Texas soil once trodden by his guitar idol, it took a while for Penn to play for Houston audiences.

“I went back to Rhode Island for college where I studied marketing and music - drum set specifically - and it was there that I started to play blues jams and gigs of my own and gained the confidence to play in front of people,” Penn said. “My first Houston gig was with Ruckus in August of 2016. Those guys have been super cool to me since I arrived in Houston and have become my friends and mentors. The show was at the Nightingale Room and I played it solo. I didn’t have a band until a full year later, so I sang and played guitar while playing a kick drum and hi-hat with my feet. I don’t remember much else about my set that night but it went well enough for them to have me back for a few more shows.”

And so it’s gone, with Penn aligning with some of Houston’s brightest young talent and getting gigs in some esteemed rooms over the last couple of years. Yet, when it was time to record Hideaway, it became a very personal endeavor. He opted to play every instrument on the album.

“I wanted to prove that I’m a quadruple threat. I play guitar and sing but I also play drums and piano. I’m not too hot at bass but I make it work,” he confided. “A lot of my favorite musicians have released albums where they wrote and performed the whole project, so I channeled my Prince vibes and did the same.

“The songs on Hideaway are all snapshots from my life so there was definitely that friction of nerves and excitement when deciding to share them with everyone,” Penn continued. “It’s also a step in a new direction for me and my music, so choosing to shake things up felt risky, but if I’m not evolving and growing then what’s the point? My goal in music and in life is to be genuine, and that’s what Hideaway is - authentic.”

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Penn and rapper Guilla shine on "The Emperor," a track from Penn's new album
Photo by Jay Garcia, courtesy of Oliver Penn

Penn has a band for his live shows, a trio featuring two very busy, very exceptional players. Greg Jr. Brown is the trio’s drummer and Robert Vigil is on bass.

“It just made sense to do a trio — keep it intimate, make it challenging. A lot of my favorite artists played in trios so I used them as inspiration and hope to keep the tradition alive.”

Penn’s nod to diverse music styles may be creating a new Houston blues paradigm. You can hear the transition on Hideaway. For instance, the track “The Emperor” features rapper Guilla chasing Penn’s slow burn singing with rat-a-tat lines about the human psyche. “I Found You” is a funky, fun workout with a catchy drum intro that allows Penn to show off some kit skills. “I Know” is sturdy blues pop that owes more to Jack Johnson than Robert Johnson.

“Most of my early musical influences came from my mom and other family members, but those influences were reinforced by my environment. I definitely believe that if I hadn’t been surrounded by jazz and blues music back then I wouldn’t be playing the music that I am today,” Penn explained. “I find that both Rhode Island and Texas have extraordinary creative cultures, especially within their respective music scenes. I’m more comfortable in Texas and feel that I have been welcomed and embraced by this city, but anytime I go back to play a show in New York, Massachusetts or Rhode Island there will always be day-one fans and friends that come out to support me.”

Penn promises a music video is in the works for at least one song on the album. He’ll be touring in September to promote Hideaway. The next chance to catch him live is this Saturday at Truck Yard. He hopes to see some new blood taking in his set. He said the live shows are at the heart of it all, the place from which the fresh blood of music enthusiasm is pumped.

“In Houston, venues like Warehouse Live and House of Blues and the good folks over at Wonky Power all really believe in what I’m doing and have always been supportive in giving me a chance to do my thing,” he said. “Live blues music is the best way to hear it, so I hope that audiences will keep the tradition alive by going to shows and not dismissing it solely because it’s labeled as blues music. We’re not playing your father’s - or grandfather’s - blues.”

Oliver Penn’s new album, Hideaway, is now available on all major digital music platforms. He performs 10 p.m. Saturday, August 11 at Truck Yard, 2118 Lamar. Free.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.