But all along, there was a songwriter buried deep inside.
“Song lyrics and beautiful melodies were always an obsession,” she said. “I still consider songwriting a very high art, enjoyed by a chosen, anointed few. I never in a million years thought I would be talented enough to write a song. But I have always sung my thoughts, and when I sing, my thoughts are usually to a structured melody. I’d done this since I was a child and never thought anything about it. I just assumed everyone experienced thoughts in melodies and rhymes!”
Years later, Penn shared those thoughts with a friend, who said, “You’re a songwriter.”
When she gave up musical theater to give songwriting her creative energy, she needed a job to pay the bills. By then, she was very involved at Redeemer, where she was (and still is) a worship leader. And City to City had a position that was a good fit: “I’m well suited for my job because I’m very much a creative but also an inner-CEO. I’ve found that those two qualities mesh very well at CTC.”
Penn’s songwriting is inspired by folk and pop music of the ’60s and ’70s; she cites The Beatles, John Denver, Judy Collins, and Joni Mitchell. But she’s also influenced by “the American songbook of the ’20s and ’30s—Gershwin, Irving Berlin.”
For Hope Tonight, Penn wanted to “make a record people can listen to while driving. Most Americans interact with music in the car. Something about that — the road and a record — is magical. I wanted Hope Tonight to be light enough, scenic enough, and listenable enough for a road trip. I thought about that all the time while recording.
“I’ve learned that songwriting is half science, half inexplicable, and entirely about showing up. All I know is that I have to sing. I write songs so I’ll have something to sing.”
Mark Moring, a former film and music editor at CT, is a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.