By: Jim Welte
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."
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.
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I made a conscious effort to make sure that everything had a locked in, hard groove. It's more fun for me as a performer onstage if the songs are more groove-driven, and if you can get the audience moving, you stand a better chance of opening their minds.
Producer and multi-instrumentalist John Alagia, who helmed Hope for the Hopeless and was brought in by Jive to produce Loggins' forthcoming album, suggested Loggins work with Dennen, who says he had fun "trying to get into [Loggins'] brain and help him write songs that relate to him."
"Brett's unusual involvement in the process has made it one of the most memorable and enjoyable of my career," Loggins says. "His heart, passion and incredible work ethic are all qualities every artist would love to emulate."
Developing songwriting chops is one thing, but learning to trust your voice and sing is a whole different ballgame. In that effort, Dennen sought inspiration from Neil Young. When the legendary songwriter wrote the classic "Mr. Soul" in 1967 as a member of Buffalo Springfield, he met resistance about whether he was the right singer for the track from both his bandmates and the band's label, Atlantic Records.
"He was initially intimidated by his own voice," Dennen says. "But what's he going to do? He's going to keep writing songs and he's going to get over it and everybody else is going to have to get over it. I consider him to be one of the greatest singers of all time. Not because he can hit as many notes as Van Morrison, but just because it's authentic."
In his early recordings, you can hear Dennen holding back his voice at times, unwilling to lift the reins. But, the past five years have seen him let go, using a more soulful vocal style to expand his laid-back folk and roots rock. In a serendipitous twist, the lone guest star on Hope is one of the more soulful artists on the planet. Femi Kuti, the son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti and a leading light in African music, provides backing vocals on "Make You Crazy," the album's first single.
Kuti flew in from his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria to record the track. Dennen, a huge fan of both Femi and his father, says it took a while for the pair to get on the same page. Dennen felt that Femi may have been trying too hard to fit into his style rather than just being himself. The breakthrough came on an instrumental section towards the end, where Femi wrote his own interpretation of the lyrics in Pidgin English.
"After he made a couple of passes, we were like, 'Holy crap, this is amazing," Dennen says. "We were all freaking out at how powerful it was."
"Crazy" uses a lilting groove as a Trojan Horse of sorts for a diatribe against injustice, particularly child slavery and encroachment on civil liberties. That is Dennen's sly maneuver on this record, adding rhythms and grooves to his songs in an effort to get more ears to listen to his social messages.
"I made a conscious effort to make sure that everything had a locked in, hard groove," he says. "It's more fun for me as a performer onstage if the songs are more groove-driven, and if you can get the audience moving, you stand a better chance of opening their minds."
That message is grounded in those summer camps as a kid, a time that seems to have impacted Dennen deeply in terms of his potential to reach young people. He also founded Love Speaks, a nonprofit that serves as a promotional arm for like-minded charities, allowing them to set up shop at his live shows.
"Every time you open your mouth and speak to a child, you have an opportunity to enrich that child's life," Dennen says. "Every word I write, every song I sing, I have an opportunity to put out a message. It might not always be a positive message, but it has to be heartfelt."
Brett Dennen Tour Dates
10/31/08 Fri Waterfront at The Aloha Tower Honolulu, HI
11/03/08 Mon Doug Fir Portland, OR
11/05/08 Wed The Triple Door Seattle, WA
11/06/08 Thu The Independent San Francisco, CA
11/07/08 Fri The Hotel Cafe Los Angeles, CA
11/08/08 Sat The Hotel Cafe Los Angeles, CA
11/10/08 Mon The Walnut Room Denver, CO
11/11/08 Tue Continental Club Austin, TX
11/13/08 Thu Schubas Chicago, IL
11/14/08 Fri Rams Head Live Baltimore, MD
11/15/08 Sat Tin Angel Philadelphia, PA
11/16/08 Sun Club Passim Cambridge, MA
11/18/08 Tue The Canal Room New York, NY
12/30/08 Tue Music Hall Of Williamsburg Brooklyn, NY (w/ Matisyahu)
Brett Dennen "Make You Crazy" on WFUV
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