You Sing, I Write: Homegrown Groove: Interview with Brett Dennen

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Homegrown Groove: Interview with Brett Dennen

I first stumbled upon Brett Dennen after reading about him in Rolling Stone back in 2007 as he was named an "Artist to Watch." Of Dennen, Rolling Stone writer Kevin O'Donnell says, "[Dennen] turns out relaxed roots-rock jams about walking through the trees and watching desert sunsets. He's also got some serious guitar-playing chops — his finger-picked, jazz-influenced chord structures could be mistaken for Dave Matthews or early John Mayer tunes."

Since then, Dennen has had quite the journey. Traveling continuously the past year, supporting his most recent album Hope for the Hopeless as well as opening for Australian singer-songwriter Pete Murray and being handpicked by John Mayer for his summer tour, Dennen has kept himself busy. In fact, even John Mayer is one of Dennen's most avid fans, saying of his last album So Much More, "A beautiful and spirited record, instantly likeable."

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Brett the week before the release of his third album, Hope for the Hopeless. He talked to me about the album, including the stories behind some of his songs as well as his songwriting process and current tour. I'll be catching his show tonight at the Canal Room, so be on the look out for a review in the upcoming week. If you haven't yet, watch the video below for his latest song, "Make You Crazy" featuring Mandy Moore.

Rolling Stone named you an artist to watch last year and John Mayer is a huge supporter. Did you ever imagine all of this success would happen for you?
No. I think if you have faith and if you do what you believe in and you do what you know how to do good and you stay real and true to yourself, that eventually you’re going to get recognition for it. But I don’t think you visualize too much specifically what that recognition is going to be. I had always thought that if I continue to work hard and do what I do, I would get some sort of recognition but I didn’t think it would come in this form.

Tell me about Hope for the Hopeless. This is the third album you’ve put out; did you go into the studio with a specific concept for it? And how is it different from your previous two?
I went into the studio with the songs that I wanted to do on the album. I knew that I wanted the music and the production and everything to be a step up from the last record I did. Not to say that it’s better, but it’s a little bit more groomed, [I wanted] the production to be bigger sounding. I think that’s kind of clear if you listen to So Much More and my first record and you listen to Hope for the Hopeless — you can see that progression. The songwriting is a little more focused and crafted. I think as far as the messages and the things that I’ve seen and I write about, it’s all still pretty much the same kind of things that I’ve been singing all along.

I love “Make You Crazy.” Femi Kuti is featured on that song as well, how did that come about?
We have a business connection to my record label and there was a possibility that he might put music out on my label, which is Downtown Records. So the connection was made between he and I by my record label. Beyond that connection, I’ve been wanting to work with him for a while. I’m a big fan of his. A lot of my music was inspired by his music and other artists in the Afro-beat world.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?
No. I mean, I love them all equally and I love them all for different reasons too. I think each one of them has the ability to articulate different things I believe in and they also sum up different parts of my personality and different sides of me.

What is your typical writing process like, do you carry a pen and paper everywhere you go? Where do you find your inspiration?
Sometimes you can prepare yourself to write and to be inspired and sort of clear the air and clear your schedule and make plans to work on stuff. Other times inspiration just hits you and you’re forced to just sit down and write or write something down because if you don’t, you might lose it forever. I used to carry pens and pencils around, but now a days if I get really inspired I’ll just type something into my phone.

A lot of things, like “Make You Crazy” is the perfect example. I was sitting in a theater. I had performed at an awards ceremony for people in the film industry who were writing about mental illnesses and I had performed a song. Then I was sitting in the audience and someone was giving a talk about all the pressures in society and how that alone is enough to make people insane. Not to mention the overwhelming stresses that are out there that have an actual physical effect on people and so I jotted that into my phone and thought about it and those were some ideas from the song and then I wrote it.

I really love your song “Heaven.” The lyrics are so deep and meaningful. What was going on through your head when writing it?
I just wanted to write about the ultimate expression of people’s faith, [which is] a lot of times, I think, people’s ideas of the afterlife of heaven. I’m not specifically writing about the afterlife or people who believe in heaven. I’m writing about this idea that it doesn’t matter how people believe or how sinful we are on earth, as long as we believe in this idea of heaven or this dream — whatever you want to call it — that is going to save us in the end. I’m sort of questioning about that, posing questions about it because I see a lot of contradiction between people and their actions and their morals. I just wanted to write about that.

Tell me about your current tour. What can fans expect?
This intimate tour is more of an acoustic tour, it’s just me and my friend Andrew who also plays guitar, and we’re playing small clubs. There are not going to be openers. It’s going to be an entire evening of just acoustic performances of new songs and old songs, cover songs and songs that people may have never heard before. It’s just something that, as the bigger my shows get and the farther that I need to travel and grow, I always want to be able to come back to the intimate setting. When you take away all of the production of the band and everything, you still have these quality songs that can come across to more of a folk music setting.

Is there a certain tour stop you’re looking forward to?
I’m always looking forward to playing in San Francisco. I’m really excited to play Philly because we get to play this tiny, little place called the Tin Angel which is ridiculously small. I played there once a while back and I had a great time. Since I played there, I’ve played bigger venues in Philly and I’m excited to go back to that one.

You worked with producer John Alagia on Hope for the Hopeless. How was that experience?
It was great. He and I have became really good friends. He’s actually coming over my house later on this afternoon and I’m going to help him write some songs for another artist that he’s working with right now. I’ve learned a lot from him and I think he’s learned from me as well. It’s just been a really inspiring process and I hope it continues.

I just saw the song on your MySpace with Jason Mraz that you both wrote for Survival International, how did that come about?
Both he and I were approached at different times by people that were putting together the album. I think what happened was that they asked too many artists to be a part of it and they had more artists than they needed. So they asked us if we wanted to work together so we both said, “Yeah.” I actually had most of the song already written so when we got together at Jason’s studio in his house in San Diego I had given him a copy of the song and showed him where I was going with it and we worked together on it. He wrote a part for it and then we recorded it that afternoon, all the parts except for the strings which we added later. All the rest of it we recorded at his house in his home studio and it was done in a matter of a couple of hours.

Have you always wanted to be a singer-songwriter growing up?
No, not really. I had always wanted to be a teacher, but after I graduated college I was playing gigs in a band and I really fell in love with it and I started doing my own gigs and it took.

I read that you were a camp counselor at Yosemite National Park and you’ve been touring the world the past few years. You have led such an interesting life so far. If your life was a book, what would you title it?
[Laughs] I don’t know. That’s a great question. I don’t know. It would have to be something to do with being weird and different . . . it would have something to do with growing stuff in the garden. Homegrown veggies or something, I don’t know. Homegrown groove.

Be sure to listen to Brett on MySpace and check out his Web site for all his latest information!

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