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
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
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
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
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
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
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.