5 Questions with Hayley Gene Penner

5 Questions with Hayley Gene Penner

Posted on November 12 by Hayley Gene Penner in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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Musician Hayley Gene Penner grew up sharing the stage with her father, renowned children's entertainer Fred Penner. Now she has just released her debut solo album and published her memoir, both titled People You Follow. In her deliciously entertaining memoir, Hayley traces her career as a songwriter moving from Winnipeg to L.A., along the way digging into her past relationships to unearth stories that delicately straddle ethical and unethical behaviour, self-protection, and self-destruction. We asked Hayley to share a bit more about writing a tell-all memoir of heartache and coming of age in the music industry:


Can you tell us about when you first thought about writing a memoir?

The truth is, I hadn’t exactly planned on writing People You Follow. I just sort of snapped after years of really suppressing what I was going through and lying to stay afloat in a toxic camp. I was on a flight from L.A. to Winnipeg to visit my family and just started writing. I felt like I was writing monologues, imagining myself talking to a camera like John Cusack in "High Fidelity". I immediately created a blog and posted my first story on it, thinking it would be a good medium to share the stories I was starting to sort through. My friend called me after reading it and said, “Take that down. This is not a blog. It’s a book.”


Being a songwriter first, how did your writing process differ for writing prose and what was it like digging deeper into the stories behind the tracks on your album for the book?

This is a tricky question because oddly enough, they don’t feel that different. If anything, I think writing a book that is so deeply honest and specific and personal reminded me to always do the same thing in songwriting. I feel like the more honestly I inhabit a memory, the more effectively I can share what that experience was like and what I learned from it.


What have you learned about yourself in writing People You Follow?

I think I had originally thought that writing this book would fix me. Like all my habits would be magically eradicated. I think what it’s actually done is allowed me to have far more compassion for myself and to more quickly notice when I am slipping into one of my danger zones. It’s offered me a near manual to revisit in the hopes of avoiding the same pitfalls over and over.


What’s the best advice and worst advice you’ve received in your career?

The best advice is from my dad. The gist of it is: “Your job is creating the thing, the rest of it is none of your business.” I find this to be a helpful strategy when releasing songs and also, in the release of this book. How people engage with art, writing, and music is entirely dependent on where they’re at. It could be related to what they ate, what mood they’re in, are they in a fight, or are they in traffic? So much goes into the way we digest things and all of that is just not at all up to you to control. Your job is doing the thing.

The worst advice: “Be strategic.” From Tal. It’s a line in my book, but telling a fresh-to-L.A. songwriter to, “Be Strategic” is basically like a teacher saying, “know how to read” to a group of six-year-olds.


Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians or writers out there?

Write and write and write and write and share and share and share. In order to get my first music publishing deal I cold emailed 50 publishers all over the world until one responded. With my book, I cold emailed every literary agent I could find until one (luckily, the best one ever) said yes. You can’t do the thing you want to do if you keep it a secret. It feels like looking at an apartment in some way. You mention it to everyone. To baristas and friends and coworkers you say, “I’m looking for a place if you hear of anything.” Eventually someone knows someone who knows someone who is looking for a roommate, and there you go.

Hayley Gene Penner

Posted by Kendra on October 8, 2019
Hayley Gene Penner photo

Hayley Gene Penner

Hayley Gene Penner grew up sharing the stage with her father, renowned children's entertainer Fred Penner. She writes with some of the biggest artists and producers in the music industry. Her debut album, and her memoir's namesake, People You Follow, also released in 2020. She splits her time between Winnipeg and Los Angeles.