Interview | Brett Dennen - Mountain Man

Written By: Ryan Dembinsky

:: Interview - Brett Dennen ::

It’s hard to believe somebody with music as airy and whimsical as Brett Dennen could hit a rough patch of feeling burnt out on expectations and road life. He seems like the kind of guy who could stay up all night, work a full day, go for a hike, and then still be up to go out for beers afterwards.

But after his promo-heavy 2011 release Loverboy, Dennen needed to quiet things down. The piling up of miles and years of hard touring took its toll, so Dennen finally opted to slow things down and go back to his mountain roots. When he prepped his most recent offering, Smoke and Mirrors, he opted to hearken back to his Sierra Nevadas and let the mountains be his guide.

It was a period characterized by a degree of self-doubt, but ultimately without all the pressure Brett Dennen came up with perhaps his best material to date. He maintains the breezy pop that fans have come to expect from the wiry redhead, but his songs feel more honest without quite so much optimism.

Aesthetically, it’s impossible to ignore a particular glaring mountain man – one who is similarly known for an outwardly joyous persona with an internal burden of self-doubt – John Denver.

JamBase: I was interested to hear some background on your process this time around. I had a bit of a theory that some of your aesthetic and the outdoor themes may have stemmed from a John Denver phase? I know you got involved in The Music is You John Denver tribute album, and the cover art looks like such a play on his aesthetic.

BD: [laughs] No, it didn’t actually. But I have to say that the Music Is You tribute came at a phase in my life where I was already into that. It’s really more of a return to my roots. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of Sierra Nevada Mountains and spent most of my summers up in the mountains. I was a full time camp counselor and backpacking guide before I was a full-time musician.

So I made the switch to being a full-time touring musician and did that for seven or eight years and obviously it was my lifelong dream, but at the same time I was giving my all and constantly living on the road. I felt like I was neglecting a big part of me. I got into music because I felt like I had something to say, but I learned to play guitar in the mountains and I learned to sing in the mountains. All that dreaming of being a musician came from a time in my life when I was in the mountains.

So I had all these years of neglecting it and frankly getting burnt out on the road, so it was time for a change. I moved back up into the mountains and started writing songs. I took a few years off being on the road and lived up there, so I think the music and the artwork as you mentioned, it all reflects that. The John Denver tribute album actually came while I was in that period of taking a big break.

JB: I like that cover shot. It made me think of that John Denver mountain feeling right away, and then it dawned on me that you did that tribute.

BD: Oh yeah totally. It’s got the mountains in the background and the gaze and everything.

JB: I had read some comments about your summer camp experiences being pretty formative. Did you ever have a counselor or even campers that were influential in your musical tastes? I feel like every kid who goes to summer camp learns their music tastes there.

BD: Absolutely. I learned to play guitar in the mountains at that camp. When I was a kid, my favorite thing in the world was that camp and all I wanted to do was be a camp counselor someday. Those guys were my idols. More specifically than that, I wanted to be one of the camp counselors who played guitar around the campfire. So, when I got older, I got a job working there as a counselor and I was like, “Here I am; now I want to be one of the song leaders.” So, that’s where I learned to play the guitar. So I was playing all the great folksongs and it sort of shaped my tastes in music. Is was stuff like Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, and all the great acoustic songwriters of the '60s and '70s.

JB: With respect to guitar playing, you seem to have a knack for devising really catchy guitar parts that still manage to have some degree of uniqueness and sophistication.

BD: I think that comes from having so much time by myself with just a guitar for so long. I have spent time jamming and being in bands and things like that, but usually when I write a song I kind of sit on it and work with it for a while. I’ll work with the guitar part and work with the melody. I think that’s where a lot of the hooky acoustic guitar parts come from, just being alone with the guitar before I take it to the studio or share it the band.

One of the hardest things to do is to write something that sounds simple and that gets in your head because it’s easy to understand and appreciate, but that also has something complex about it. It’s a whole lot easier to just be complicated.

It’s not just with guitar playing, but the same goes for lyrics or the message or the theme of a song. If you can somehow make a complicated idea seem simple or at least seem easy to grasp, that’s the hardest thing there is to do, with music at least.

JB: I thought the wilderness tips videos were pretty hilarious. The beer nest video made me burst out laughing. I was hoping you could talk about what went into writing and shooting those?

BD: The idea all came from wanting to have song previews and the press photos set the serious tone already. The press photos and the art and everything set the mountain tone, but we hadn’t really let people know that it’s only half of my personality. The other half of my personality is that I never take anything very seriously, and I’m always cracking cheesy jokes. So this was the perfect opportunity for that.

So we came up with this ridiculous idea of me pretending to teach people how to be mountain guides. I sent the idea to a friend of mine named Dave Nowell who is a great writer and director and he and I went on a long camping trip up in the mountains and we shot them all in like five days. We drank a lot of beer, told some cheesy jokes, and made some funny videos.

JB: The other part of the process involved recording in Nashville with Charlie Peacock. How did the writing translate in terms of heading to Nashville to get down to business?

BD: It was great, because Charlie’s place is out in the country, so that really set the tone. It was sort of a continuation of how the songs were written in that place of space and solace and then recorded in that same way. I had never recorded in Nashville, so recording out there and getting to work with Charlie Peacock and his musicians was such a chance for me to be my best self around new people. I felt like it was the right fit.

It’s good to have that perspective. If I would have recorded the album up in the mountains it would have felt too one- sided. It was good to have the objective viewpoints. You can get so wrapped up in songwriting that it’s good to have an outside influence to give some new perspective.

JB: Were there any songs that emerged as favorites that took you by surprise or that you were especially proud of throughout the recording?

BD: We all knew that a couple songs like "Wild Child" were going to be special songs, but in the process of recording some definitely jumped out. Like "Here I Am" became a special one too. "Only Want You" and "When We Were Young" were like that too. They weren’t any trouble recording and when we went to listen on the first playback they just leapt out of the speakers. I think it’s important that when you are writing, you have to avoid having to much detail you put into it. You have to allow some space for that detail to come out with the musicians and the improvisation and the magic that gets made.

JB: In terms of playing live, what do you think will be the crowd favorites?

BD: I think “Out of My Head” is going to be a big crowd pleaser. I think “When We Were Young” will be another crowd favorite. “Sweet Persuasion” and “Not Too Late” are going to be fun. Those are songs that I wasn’t necessarily having doubts about, but being in that place of being sort of burnt out like I mentioned, I was starting to question myself as a writer and a person. I wasn’t as sure of myself and worried that I wasn’t writing songs like I used to and they were coming out differently. Through the process of making the record, it’s been a wonderful rebuilding experience to hear them come to life.

JB: Finally, I wanted to ask you about any new music you might be listening to our any good shows you’ve seen lately?

BD: I don’t actually listen to a ton of new music, but lately I’ve been really into Deer Tick and White Denim. They both put on great shows. I’d love to play a show with them someday.

[Published on: 3/4/14]

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