Michael Penn (born August 1, 1958, in Greenwich Village, New York City) is an American singer and songwriter. He is the son of actor/director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan, and the brother of actors Sean Penn and Chris Penn.
Prior to the release of his 1989 debut album, March, Penn was a member of the Los Angeles band, Doll Congress, and had appeared as an extra on a few television series, including St. Elsewhere.
March, particularly the first single, “No Myth,” brought Penn attention, as well as the 1990 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist. Penn’s follow-up albums, Free-for-All (1992), Resigned (1997) and MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident (2000) weren’t able to match the commercial success of March, although critics praised his song craft.
It was with Free-for-All that Penn faced the specter of the one-hit-wonder. The album, while praised, wasn’t quite the commercial smash as Penn’s debut, though it had more than its share of supporters. Rolling Stone called it “a stunning second effort.” In Vox magazine, critic Gary Leboff acknowledged that Penn’s “freeform songwriting creates tracks of startling shape and originality, offering literate reflections on the human condition. . . .”
Penn collaborated with the renowned surrealist animators, The Brothers Quay, on “Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In),” which found a home not on MTV but in film festivals around the country, winning awards along the way.
Penn met fellow singer-songwriter, Aimee Mann, in the late 1980s, and during the recording of her album, I’m With Stupid (to which Penn contributed), the two struck up a friendship, which blossomed into romance and their 1997 marriage. Together with manager Michael Hausman they formed United Musicians, which is based on the idea of allowing artists to keep copyright ownership of their works and to assist with their promotion and distribution. Penn and Mann live in Los Angeles. They have no children, but Penn has a son from a previous marriage.
Penn moved into film scoring after repeated requests from director Paul Thomas Anderson, who had listened to Free-for-All extensively while writing his first feature, Hard Eight, and wanted Penn to score the film. Penn also scored Anderson’s follow-up Boogie Nights, in which he appears briefly as a recording engineer. During the editing process of the film, Anderson directed a music video with Penn for “Try” from Resigned (the music video can be found on the Boogie Nights DVD). Other films scored by Penn include Alan Cumming’s first two directorial efforts, The Anniversary Party and Suffering Man’s Charity; Melvin Goes to Dinner; The Comedians of Comedy (documentary); and The Last Kiss.
In August 2005, Penn released Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 on his own Mimeograph Records label. Its songs are set against the background of post-World War II Los Angeles; Penn said he chose the year because of several notable events that took place in it, including the passage of the National Security Act and the invention of the transistor. The album was reissued by Legacy Recordings in April 2007 with bonus tracks from a KCRW session.
The reissue came in conjunction with Legacy’s release of Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea: A Michael Penn Collection, a compilation that includes several alternate versions and previously unreleased songs. Penn said his goal in compiling, ordering tracks for and producing Palms and Runes was to “make it feel like an album” in its own right.