“Well all my old friends know me better than you do/
Where are my old friends? I can’t find you/
Got to see the sunshine every day/
I wanna feel the sunshine every day.”
Folk troubadour Penny Lang sings this lyric to simple guitar accompaniment; it’s a beautiful reflection on comfort and acceptance in an aging life. The song, “Diamonds On The Water,” is from the singer/songwriter’s latest album, Stone+Sand+Sea+Sky, a collection of blues-flavoured folk music produced by friend and fan Roma Baran.
The recording introduces a more reserved, pensive Lang to an audience that has followed her career from 1960s folkie to Folquebec Lifetime Achievement Recipient. Those who have seen her live will be familiar with Lang’s stirring, powerful treatment of her material, but may be surprised with this new album’s earthy and resonant tone.
Songs like “It’s Not Easy” and “Careless Love” showcase the singer’s quieter side, with a straightforwardness that is as disarming as it is captivating. Lang muses on life, love and loss with a warm timbre that has lost none of its clarity from past recordings like Somebody Else and Gather Honey. The gal can still belt, though, and soars in a stirring rendition of gospel classic “Let Me Fly.” When Lang roars, “I just want to get to the Promised Land,” it’s abundantly clear that, even at age 65, this lady still possesses heavenly pipes of burnished gold.
“Roma really had a vision of what this CD ought to be,” says Lang. “Every song selected was really thought through carefully. I submitted songs to her, and she to me. It was a 50/50 thing we had going, and we’d be in agreement pretty quickly.”
With Baran living in New York, the process was largely accomplished by trading phone calls and e-mails over a two-year period. This was a new experience for Lang, whose previous albums were recorded in a far more abbreviated fashion, and she welcomed the opportunity to relax during the normally hectic recording schedule.
“I was always very uncomfortable in a studio setting,” she confesses, “but I really enjoyed this one. It’s a question of being older, more experienced and coming to an understanding of what you’re singing.”
Working with the Grammy-nominated Baran was a pleasure for Lang, who, along with folk luminaries Kate and Anna McGarrigle, had shared many stages with the producer in earlier years.
“Roma really wanted me to sing differently,” Lang says. “She had me in a much lower key than normal — very laid back and easy. I must confess it was a new thing for me.”
That she can sing at all is quite a feat of perseverance and fortune, after suffering a stroke six years ago while touring in Newfoundland.
“It was to have been my largest tour ever,” Lang says without a trace of self-pity. “I was walking and all of a sudden I wasn’t on my feet.”
After several weeks of therapy, Lang returned to the touring circuit, this time inviting son Jason along to add his own formidable guitar skills. The younger Lang, a successful musician working in Quebec, was surprised at his mother’s stripped-down travel arrangements.
“Jason works with pop and commercial gigs,” Lang chuckles. “He usually has guitar techies that clean his equipment and everything. My way is very different. You don’t stay in first-class hotels, and sometimes you’re billeted. It was a shock to him.”
Despite the occasional couch-surfing, the singer still relishes life on the road, though she’s found a whole new fan base in her new home on BC’s Sunshine Coast. She moved there recently with Nancy, her partner of 19 years, and is now entertaining a whole new generation of admirers.
“I joined a seniors’ group,” she says. “They’re so good for me; they look at me like I’m the kid!
“They just don’t give up… I really love that about them. I did a jam session with them, and we had such a good time. One woman came out with her harmonica, two others with their fiddles and one dusted off her autoharp. They’re my favourite people here… it’s a wonderful way of life.”
“I wanna see my old friends you know I love them so/
Take me to my old friends sometime before I go/
I’ll be by the ocean not far away/
Diamonds on the water every day.”