With ‘Smoke & Mirrors,’ Brett Dennen finds his way back home
Special to The Aspen Times
People who say you can’t go home again might want to consider the story behind Brett Dennen’s new album, “Smoke & Mirrors.”
On tour behind his 2011 album “Loverboy,” Dennen found himself wearing down, getting stuck creatively and unsure about where to go with his music. He was very much feeling a disconnect.
“Every time I tried to sit down and write, it just wasn’t happening,” Dennen said in a recent phone interview. “It was just getting to be too much. And that was like, ‘It’s not working. I’m going to put out a bad album. I’m going to put out a really bad album that’s just not me. I’m going to have to do something different. I’m going to have to go get songs from other artists or something. I really don’t have anything to say because I don’t really know who I am.’”
“I’m on tour like crazy, and I feel like I’m still in the middle of that and I don’t know what to say or what to do,” he said. “It’s like you start working with people, and people’s careers are built around your music. You’ve got fans that are built around you. I got stuck in this cycle of just trying to please people. The times that I would break out of that were the times when I was writing. But with this new album, I couldn’t break out of that.”
Up until “Loverboy,” Dennen’s career and music had been progressing nicely.
A native of Northern California who worked as a camp counselor before pursuing his music career, Dennen’s first two CDs, a 2005 self-titled release and 2006’s “So Much More,” were stripped-back, nearly solo works, which got Dennen tagged as a folk artist but also helped him get gigs in folk-oriented venues and build a grassroots following.
With his third album, 2009’s “Hope for the Hopeless,” Dennen moved up to a bigger record label, Downtown Records, and fleshed out his melodic sound to try to connect with fans beyond the folk base he had established — and perhaps even gain radio play in formats like adult contemporary or pop. He didn’t get a big radio hit, but he grew his audience and successfully ventured into more of a plugged-in pop sound.
He stretched even further on “Loverboy.” Dennen added some juice to his sound with songs that were more uptempo, danceable and consciously designed to inject more energy into his live shows.
Not everyone liked Dennen’s new direction. Reviews were more mixed, fans didn’t seem as enthusiastic about “Loverboy,” and Dennen ended up not being able to tour some countries he’d hoped to play.
For the first time in his career, he found himself feeling unsure about his music and his next move as an artist.
Dennen decided it was time to go back to square one. He moved into a home he had purchased a couple of years earlier at the base of the Sierra mountains in California and unplugged from music. Going home, it turned out, helped Dennen reconnect with the songwriter and the person he was before he got caught up in his music career.
“It was the same mountains that I grew up in. It’s really close to my (childhood) home,” Dennen said. “It’s like (I became) the guy that I used to be before I was a musician. I was the guy that I was when I was dreaming about being a musician. I was the amateur songwriter (again). Like my first album — most of that first album was written up in the Sierras while I was a camp counselor. At night after the kids would go to bed, I’d sit on a rock, look at the constellations and write. This was very much the same thing. I’d hike all day or I’d be in the mountain and I’d ski or in the summertime hike and swim, and sort of not, at the beginning, not really know what I was going to do.
“But once I started getting into the rhythm and getting comfortable with not having somewhere to be all of the time, the inspiration came back, and I started to think, ‘Wow, I’m lucky enough to get to start over, connected with the source of it all, connecting with my roots, and now I’m dreaming of going on tour again.’”
Songs started to flow again. The problem was Dennen didn’t know what to make of what he had created.
“It was the first time I wrote a batch of songs where I wasn’t really sure if they were good or not or if they were good enough,” he said. “Before, when I would write songs, I would either right away get a feeling if they were special or not. And it wasn’t happening with these songs. I couldn’t tell why.”
It was around this time that Dennen got a vote of confidence he hadn’t anticipated. Having completed his latest deal with Dualtone Records, he was an unsigned artist waiting to see what his label options would be in the future.
“Atlantic (Records) came along, specifically this guy named Gregg Nadel, an A&R guy at Atlantic,” Dennen recalled. “He was like, ‘These songs are great, and we’re going to sign you no matter what.’ And of course, I had some hesitations about being on a major label, but I also felt like it was time for me to be on a major label because I wanted the chance. I wanted to have the chance to (do) something big. So they came in at a time where I was feeling a little lost. I needed a partner. I needed some encouragement.”
Dennen worked out a two-tiered deal in which he’s signed to indie label F-Stop Music through Atlantic, giving him the attention of a small label, with the promotional resources of a major.
“Smoke & Mirrors,” the first album released under that deal, spotlights two distinct sides to Dennen’s music. Mainly acoustic, fairly stripped-back songs like “Only Want You,” “Sweet Persuasion” and “Don’t Mess With Karma” capture the more intimate and honest personality of Dennen’s early albums, while “Wild Child,” “Not Too Late” and “When We Were Young” are more uptempo, breezy and fun. In either setting, the songs are highly melodic, sound unforced and show Dennen was in good form as a songwriter.
“I didn’t really realize (until this album) that’s kind of who I am,” Dennen said. “Half of me, I’m like an introvert that doesn’t really feel comfortable opening up. That’s why I’m a songwriter, because it’s just easier for me to be honest with myself and with people through songs. Then I have another half of me that just wants to be a comedian or a performer, somebody up on stage entertaining people. Both come from the same place. They both come from the same sort of shy insecurity, but they both manifest themselves in different ways.”
Both sides of Dennen figure to be on display as he tours with a full band this fall. Fans can expect a mix of material from “Smoke & Mirrors” and earlier favorite songs — and a familiar vibe coming from the stage.
“It’s like it’s always been,” Dennen said of his show. “It’s me and some good friends up there having the time of our lives, playing music together and just smiling and playing, taking it seriously but also acting goofy. So I think that’s one of the things that has always made us unique as a group is we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re always smiling, and it’s always just good vibes.”
Alan Sculley writes for Last Word Features. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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