Brett Dennen: The Write Stuff

By: Jim Welte

Brett Dennen
If only the boys from Mystic Bliss had known what they had in their ranks. The Santa Cruz, California-based party jam band, which went through as many name changes as Diddy during their brief run in the early 2000s, featured a shy electric mandolin player named Brett Dennen. Gangly at 6-foot-4 and timid about his talents, the redheaded Dennen played his part but largely stayed in the shadows. He wrote a few songs and didn't much like his voice, so he kept most of his songs to himself.

The band broke up but Dennen kept writing, and eventually fought through his apprehension about his voice. "I thought that maybe someday I would be in a band where we would play the songs that I wanted and that I wrote," he says.

Someday has arrived, in spades. Fast forward to 2008 and Dennen is one of the most promising singer-songwriters in music. And the voice? Safe to say he's turned that presumed weakness - an earthy tenor somewhere between Neil Young and Amy Winehouse - into his trademark. With his third album, Hope for the Hopeless (released October 21 on Dualtone), in stores this week, Dennen stands on the cusp of big things. On November 3 at the Doug Fir in Portland, Oregon, he kicks off a short headlining tour of smaller venues, with several network TV appearances on the docket as well. A tour of bigger rooms will follow in January.

The 28-year-old late-bloomer has had luck on his side - an opening slot for John Mayer undeniably boosted him on the radar. But more than anything, Dennen owes his success to his persistence in putting pen to pad, writing even when he doesn't feel like it or when there's no specific intent or record in mind.

"If you're not writing, you're not really growing," Dennen says. "Don't get too attached to what you write. The more you write, the more you explore your potential."

Brett Dennen by Lindsay Brandt
Dennen grew up in Oakdale, CA, a town of about 15,000 in the Central Valley, about halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. The middle child of three, Dennen was home-schooled by his mom, a gardener, and his dad, a carpenter, until junior high, and he spent loads of time outside, exploring the rivers and hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

During the summer he attended the YMCA's Camp Jack Hazard, singing songs around the campfire each night and loving it so much that he would eventually become a counselor there. He later took an internship with the Mosaic Project, an outdoor program that teaches children of varied backgrounds about diversity and non-violent conflict resolution.

Despite his creative upbringing, where painting and playing music were as important as academics, Dennen didn't write much as a kid. Years later, A college course at University of California at Santa Cruz would have him writing essays and short stories for the first time. He was hooked.

"I understand more about the power of words now," Dennen says. "The constant writing has given me a better understanding of how to get to the root of a song and focus on phonetics and the ways words sound and phrasing."

Dennen now lives in Santa Monica, and though he's traded the Sierra foothills for a hipster beach community, he says little has changed in his life. When he's not on the road or in the studio, he tends to his garden, cooks and makes as much time as possible for painting and drawing, a lifelong hobby. "Maybe I've got a few more friends now, but that's about it," he says.

What has changed is the demand for Dennen's talent. "It's been fun to find other outlets for music that aren't just about me," he says, "whether it's working with other songwriters and co-writing material for their records, or just listening to people's songs and lending an ear." Dennen has recently been spending time with Crosby Loggins, the son of Kenny Loggins and a budding songwriter in his own right. Loggins has tried to distance himself from his father in order to pave his own way, and recently won the MTV reality show Rock the Cradle, which landed him a record deal with Jive Records.

Continue reading for more on Brett Dennen...


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