© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Victor & Penny: Antique Pop Icons

The term for a musical or artistic piece consisting of motifs or techniques borrowed from other sources is "pastiche."

And what often results is a mix of theater, musicianship, and nostalgia, blended to a tee with the Kansas City duo Victor & Penny.

The act consists of Erin McGrane and Jeff Freling who recently stopped by our studios to talk about how their varied careers in the arts led to this latest project. Performing in a minimalist fashion with a vintage guitar and ukulele, Victor & Penny specialize in jazzy pop standards from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as mixing in a few original tunes.

Crossing Boundaries

The duo is the creation of Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane who, prior to the pairing, worked in a variety of performing genres and troupes. Freling is a skilled guitarist who spent a dozen years with Blue Man Group,while McGrane's juggled bands like Blue Museum andAlacartoona with acting work, including a supporting role in the George Clooney film Up in the Air.

McGrane explains the process by which their ambidextrous careers have intersected and speaks to the trend toward artistic collaboration.

"I don't know if anyone has coined a great phrase for that other than an awkwardly long cross-discipline collaborative performance," she says.  "But I think they will soon because I think it's a reflection of what's happening societally.  So all of these narrow definitions of performance and every other thing are kind of going away because we have access to everything. A  lot of those boundaries have been removed because of technology. I think the art is reflecting that and it's exciting."

What has surprised McGrane and Freling is the range of audiences they're appealing to and how the Victor and Penny characters have transcended their fictitious personae.

Familiar Refrains

"We do everything from children's shows to rock clubs to senior care and memory care centers. We do that quite often actually," McGrane says. "And we get the same sort of reaction from everyone, which is 'I didn't know I knew these song,' 'I don't know why I know these songs but I know all of the words.' 'These songs make me feel happy. I feel better when I listen to them.' So we feel like that has been super rewarding."

Freling adds, "Also, as far as the personas go - the actual Victor and Penny - at first we actually thought of cultivating these personalities and using them on stage and being different characters on stage. But what it became is that Victor and Penny really just became the personality of the project, or the group, or the two of us together on stage. We don't really have an act."

"It becomes more about Victor and Penny together rather than Victor. And Penny," McGrane says.

Receptive Audiences

Though Kansas City is their home base, they've crisscrossed the U.S. twice this year, cultivating audiences everywhere from Chicago to Northern California. On the precipice of the release of their CD Side by Side: Songs for Kids of All Ages, they're asked how the reception to their works differ from, say, hipsters in a rock club to elderly residents of  memory care centers to kindergarteners.

Of rock audiences, Freling says, "They're not ready for us. We don't get heckled but they're not ready for what we do. But what we do has such a wide appeal that they end up liking us."

"I have to say, too, that Jeff is truly a fine, fine player," McGrane adds. "So anyone who listens to him play responds. So some of the rock guys recognize his talent instantly and that helps them open their ears to this music."

Embedded Memories

What's intriguing - but completely logical -  is the fact that they've found support at memory care centers.

"It's difficult but extremely rewarding," McGrane says. "The thing that's been great about it is that it's reinforced for me the power of music and performance and how deeply it lives in our brain and how it can trigger and stimulate people.

"So sometimes you have people who aren't tracking too much with what's going on around them but they listen to this music and they maybe begin to dance or dance with their hands or sometimes even mouth words.

Joyful Noise

"And kids, too. It's the same thing," says McGrane. "This album is called Side by Side: Songs for Kids of all Ages. And what we found with the kids and the elderly and everyone in between is that the songs somehow touch something.

"So these little kids don't know these songs whereas the older folks do. But they respond in that same joyful way. And because they don't have the filters that we do - we've got social filters that tell us to sit in our chairs quietly - they just get up and dance if they feel like it."

In February, Victor and Penny will be taking a break from the rigors of the road, having been awarded a month long artists' residency in Florida from the supportive arts group Escape to Create.

Victor & Penny release their second album, Side By Side (Songs For Kids Of All Ages), on Friday, November 23, at 8 pm at The Living Room, 1818 McGee, Kansas City, Mo., and Saturday, November 24 at 1 pm at an afternoon kids' show (for all ages) at The recordBar, 1020 Westport Rd., Kansas City, Mo. Check here for a schedule of performances.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.