Photo by Juliann Cheryl/Position Music

Jess Penner: Hawaii-born singer-songwriter has hit children's record

Text Gary Chun

It's been quite the journey for Kauai-born Jess Penner. Growing up on a banana farm and being a self-described "band geek" while attending Kapa'a High School, she and Canadian transplant Kevin Penner would meet when Kevin joined Jessica's Christian rock band Spooky Tuesday. Two years later in 1998, they got married.

Then six years later, on the burgeoning strength of the music they wrote as the trio Chandelle, the young couple got the courage to move to the entertainment industry town of Los Angeles, and have since made their reputation as reliable writers for television and corporate clients. This all the while Jess continuing her own independent career that included touring stateside and internationally.

But with a new addition to the Penner family, Jess has turned her attention to more homebound matters, and that's resulted in a children's recording, Imagination. She was pleasantly surprised when the EP reached #2 on the iTunes' children's album charts on the day of its Aug. 11 debut.

We finally spoke again with Penner to talk about the record and catch up since she left the islands 13 years ago:

It's been some time since I first met you and Kevin here on Oahu when the two of you were in Chandelle. You guys moved to L.A. to start what I thought would be a band career and, since then, it looks like you've done well for yourselves.

We moved in L.A. in 2004 after winning that BMI songwriting contest at the first annual Kauai Music Festival. I think it was the push we needed to realize we should be living in a musical hub.

And now you have a family!

We have two sons, Brandon (16) and Kaleo (17 months).

Do you remember the first time you sang to them?

I've sang to them since before they were born! I sing CONSTANTLY, almost always unintentionally, and sometimes to the chagrin of those around me.

When did you decide to do a recording of children's music?

It was after my publisher suggested it. He has toddlers and had been listening to a lot of kids playlists and thought I could do well in that arena. It only took a tiny push to get me going. It felt very natural to me since most of my songs are about innocence and hope anyways.

About your original songs, Imagination and Forever in My Heart, were they written specifically for the EP? I ask because the latter -- which is quite lovely -- sounds like it could've been repurposed as "the Mom song."

The song Imagination was written a few months after Kaleo was born, before the kids record was an idea. It was a pretty spontaneous thing and a little weird because I wasn't working on any projects that were suitable for it at the time. I remember getting misty-eyed while cutting the vocals because the song captured the most important message my parents gave to me as a child, and it felt very special to pass it along to my own children this way.

Forever in My Heart was written years ago but never recorded, although it's had heavy rotation in my live repertoire. I remember Brandon coming in to our bedroom to give us goodnight hugs and kisses when he was about 11 years old and just breaking down in tears after he closed the door because I couldn't believe he was growing up so fast. The song is about how your kids will always be your babies, they will always be a part of you no matter how much time passes. It's forever.

You do a great selection of covers on the EP. The song from the Disney classic Pinocchio, I Got No Strings, is an inspired choice. I thought the traditional Mr. Sun really gets to the core of exposing children to the joy of music. Your version of You Are My Sunshine I found endearing and the most evocative of Hawaii with its ukulele pulse. And I like how you did Somewhere Over the Rainbow more like Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz rather than the obvious Braddah Iz route.

Thank you! Yeah, I Got No Strings is definitely the most experimental of the bunch. We had a lot of fun recording that one and taking risks. I feel like the rest of the record is a lot more folk, natural, and draws heavily on nostalgic elements like organic percussion, real strings, Wurlitzer, and layers of dreamy or quirky vocals.

Were you surprised with the success of the EP? What songs are doing the best?

Yes, I was definitely surprised! I didn't have many expectations though because this is a completely new arena for me. So far, the most popular songs have been the first three -- I Got No Strings, I Don't Want to Live on the Moon, and Imagination -- and I Got No Strings is getting regular rotation on SiriusXM Kids Place Live, which is totally awesome. (Click here to purchase Imagination on iTunes.)

So what's in store for the future, career-wise?

What's next? I actually have another EP of covers that will be released sometime in the fall. It's not children's music though. It's a collection of songs from the '90s and a couple of Beatles tunes. I'm really proud of it and excited to release it!

(Check out for more information. Penner also has an instructive blog at that budding singer/songwriters should check out as they make their way through the business.)


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