published Friday, September 30th, 2011

Q&A with folk/pop singer/songwriter Brett Dennen

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with California-based folk/pop singer/songwriter Brett Dennen about learning to write songs with a groove, keeping upbeat and why he doesn’t mind when life throws him curve balls.

CP: You're about to start a really extensive national tour in support of “Loverboy.” What are your thoughts going in?

BD: I love touring. It's my favorite part of being a musician. I love songwriting - that's great - but there's nothing better than touring for me. Many musicians get tired of being on tour, and I have my moments of burn out and homesickness, but in general, I love being on tour. I love being with my friends and playing music every night or rehearsing and jamming. It makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to do.

When you're off tour and you're writing or taking a break, sometimes, I get out of the habit of playing music every day. I like being on tour, because it encourages me to do that.

This tour, we're not playing any major cities. The closest we get to a big city is Nashville. For the most part, we're playing the Chattanoogas of the world. For the most part, we're playing rock clubs and small theaters. It's one of my favorite ways to tour. More and more, as I get into music, I want to play the smaller markets and smaller towns. I want to bring music to the people and not necessarily make them drive three or four hours to see a concert. I'd like to come to their town.

CP: Will this be your first time in Chattanooga?

BD: I've been to Chattanooga, but this is my first time playing there. I don't know what to expect, and that's exciting, too.

CP: Walk me through your musical origins. You started playing guitar and mandolin as a camp counselor, right?

BD: At the summer camp, I was the camp counselor, so I learned to play guitar and mandolin to play at the camp fires every night. Not only did it shape me, musically, but the camp shaped me personally. It made me who I am or who I want to be.

Musically, the songs we played at the camp fire were the singer/songwriters of the '60s and '70s. That definitely shaped my taste in music.

After the camp, I went to college at UC Santa Cruz. I learned to play more by jamming with other people around town. Santa Cruz was a pretty musical town. There were some great local bands, and my cousin and I started a band.

We were one of the better-known bands on the scene, but I wasn't really the singer of the band. I was more of a lead guitar player, or many times, I'd just play mandolin parts. We were a folk/jam band. That was wild because that was my introduction to the jam band/hippie world, which I totally love and feel like I totally belong in, but I felt limited.

I didn't know it yet, but I was destined to be a singer/songwriter. I can express myself better with word than with notes on an instrument. I had an urge to write, so I wrote a song for the band and sang it. That inspired me to want to do more.

As time went on, I didn't feel like I fit into the band anymore, so I left. I didn't really have a plan upon leaving; I just wasn't satisfied. I wanted to just write songs and, some day, get a following and play my own shows.

As I graduated college, I started working full time for an organization I started called the Mosaic Project. I wrote a bunch of songs for that project, and we put out an album. After that came out, I had a bunch of songs for my own solo debut album. I recorded that and released it independently. I got some feed back and got noticed. I got my first manager, and she helped me get my name out. I moved to Los Angeles, and it slowly built from there. I played around California and built my own little California following. I got a booking agent, a record label and a new manager. Ever since then, it's been building slowly and organically.

CP: Do you feel more comfortable with growing more organically like that, as opposed to blowing up overnight?

BD: Sure, I think so. Sometimes, people just make a great record but might not be lifetime artists or might not know themselves musically or have a musical identity. It took me a while to figure that out.

I don't think anybody expects overnight success. You might want it, but you can't bank on that or count on that because there is no real method to the madness. You do what you do, and you have no idea what pop culture is going to accept or think is the next best thing.

Most of the people I know who have had an overnight success or a quick rise to fame are doing what they've always done, and that just happened to be the next thing that pop culture embraced. You can't bank on it. The only thing you can really bank on is finding your identity and putting out new music and building your fan base slowly and keeping a good connection to them and working hard.

CP: You've got really distinctive vocals. Is that how you naturally sing? Who helped shape your style growing up?

BD: You know, yeah, it's how I sing naturally, more so now. When I started out, I sang more as if I were trying to be a little more mainstream. Mainstream success, usually, is something that is easy for everyone to agree upon. It doesn't turn anyone away; it's inoffensive. It's usually middle of the road - nothing too crazy or unique.

I feel like now I'm getting more unique and crazy and being myself a little more and not being as hesitant as I used to be. The only reason I do that now is that it's not fun for me to sing in a way that everyone is going to love. I'd rather sing in a way that some people will love and I really love because It satisfies me more. I'd rather satisfy myself more and my sense of joy when I sing. I'd rather sing music that makes me feel good about my accomplishment than water it down or make it so that everybody can get behind it.

I've never had that big hit success where all the money comes rolling in. Who knows? What if I put out a song that was really simple and mellow and everyone latched onto it? Maybe then I wouldn't complain about singing that way. I've never crossed that bridge. I'd rather just do what I do and not be worried if it's going to be massively successful or not. In the meantime, I'd rather do what I like to do, and if it catches on, that's great. If it doesn't, that's fine; at the end of the day, I did what I want to do.

CP: It's interesting you say you want to avoid the mainstream in the interest of having your own voice when you say in your bio that you grew tired of being categorized as a folk singer/songwriter while touring in support of “Hope For the Hopeless.” After that, songs for “Loverboy” were more upbeat and danceable, which seems more radio friendly and mainstream.

BD: I think you're right, but it all has to do with who you are and what you're into. You're totally right. I did say that on the "Hope of the Hopeless Tour," and what I found was that, if I was playing a soft folk song with a lot of lyrics in front of a big audience song after song, to me, it felt like I was getting restless and the crowd was feeding off that restless energy and getting restless. I wanted people to feel good because I want to feel good about making people feel good.

It's things like the economy. To me, it doesn't seem like people go out to as many shows as they used to or buy music as much as they used to. I know concerts are expensive and albums are expensive, and it's easier to watch something off YouTube or rip an album from someone else. If someone is going to spend money on a concert or one of my albums, I want them to feel like it's a worthy purchase.

I don't know what people want or what a worthy purchase is, but if they come to my shows and leave feeling good and uplifted and inspired, to me, that feels like it's worth it.

I really thought about what kind of songs I wanted to write and put out that would work in that live setting. That's why “Loverboy” sounds more up tempo and upbeat and catchy. I don't know if it sounds poppy or not, but it's catchy in the sense of being universally catchy. It's something people can sing along with and grab hold of.

I love going to a concert and getting involved. It's a great feeling. That's what I was striving for with “Loverboy.” I think I'll continue to do that. On this next record, I may pull back and be more acoustic, but I think I still want to continue to make the melodies catchy so people can sing along and feel like they can be a part of it when I play a show live. I'm not Michael Jackson - I can't do that - but I can make my songs more fun, in their own way.

CP: After you had that revelation that you wanted to write songs that were more up-tempo, did that require much rewiring of your brain, as far as how you approached writing?

BD: I don't know. That's a great question. In some sense, it came naturally, because I just started listening to a lot more rock music, more music that has grooves you can dance to. I was getting more and more into Afro-beat and classic rock and things like that.

In that sense, it came naturally, but in terms of rewiring my brain, I would like to say yes. Every time I sat down to start playing, it was an acoustic guitar, and it would end up sounding like this beautiful, slow ballad that was what I'm used to. I had to be like, “Ok, this is great, but I need it to be quicker. Can I speed up the song or give it a groove?” I'd try to do that, but it wouldn't do justice to the song, so I'd have to start over.

It was like, “How can I get to this place where I can write a song that has a good groove?” What I had to do is start with the groove and think on the groove and on melody for a while and then think about putting words to it.

I still think that, lyrically, there's not much difference between “Loverboy” and the other records. I still talk about a lot of the same things; it's very personal and about things I'd like to change about myself or about the world. It's still very sincere. “Loverboy” has got more humor, but I still think it's very sincere and heartfelt. I definitely contemplated a lot more on grooves and tempos.

CP: It seems like, from what I've heard online, your songs often tackle subjects like social change. When you changed your style for “Loverboy,” was it hard to make those topics work within the new, upbeat approach?

BD: It was definitely an exercise in “less is more.” Before, with the more traditional folk approach, you can get away with having lengthier verses and saying more to articulate your point. With a song that is primarily a dance track or a rocking song with a groove, you definitely need to exercise subtlety a little more and using less words to articulate a point. You have to leave it more open ended.

I think there's beauty in that, too, because it lets people take a more active role in listening to the music. Before, with my other songs, I would make a statement, and it would be more long-winded. I got to say everything I wanted to say, and people could listen and they could agree with it and have it bring up emotions or they could dismiss it.

With “Loverboy,” I didn't have the time or space to articulate a point completely. I had to paint half a painting or make a suggestion. I think that allowed more active participation from the listener to complete the sentence or fill in the blank. That's pretty special, because that lets them get their own meaning from the song.

I get asked all the time what this song is about or who a song is about or what I mean when I say this or that. I think it's kind of fun because I can tell you what it means, but it's more important what you think it means.

CP: You've described “Loverboy” as being “in many ways … my first album” because you don't have the need to prove anything. That sounds tremendously freeing, artistically speaking. Did you feel liberated to experiment when you started working on it?

BD: You just articulated it better than I did. Yeah, when I said that it felt like a new album, what I meant to say was that it felt liberating. The reason it felt that way is that with my first three records, I felt like I already said anything I need to say in this life. I already said it in those three albums. Now, it's like new territory, new ground.

I think maybe a first record might not have been the best metaphor, because a lot of people on their first record are setting out to prove something. It wasn't like I was setting out to prove something at all. I wasn't attached to it. To me, it feels more youthful than anything else. I feel like I'm having fun experimenting. Maybe I'm saying some of the same things that I've always said, but at least I have a chance to say them in a new way or a different way.

CP: You've said that the goal of “Loverboy” was that all the songs, even the sad ones, make you feel happy. Having aired them out to the public at shows since its April release, is that the kind of feedback you're getting?

BD: Yeah. Sometimes, you think you want people to react to a song more or gravitate to it more, and you don't know why, but they don't pick up on those ones but just want to keep hearing other songs. In all the shows I've played for this album, people have been wanting to hear the up-tempo ones. They don't want to hear “Frozen in Slow Motion” or “Only Rain.” That's fine; I don't have to play those.

If I'm going to play a slow song that's more sad or heartfelt, I might as well play one of the many older songs I have like “Ain't No Reason” or “Heaven,” which people want to hear. You can't play every song every night, so you have to pick and choose, but you also don't want to get in a rut of playing the same songs.

As far as sad songs still having a happy message or some room to come up for air, that's really important to me. I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine the other day who was feeling really heartbroken. The conversation we had was, “Doesn't it feel good to be heartbroken? Doesn't it feel good to go out on a limb and profess your love? Even if they turn you down, you tried and lived to your fullest potential. You took a shot and threw it all out there and weren't afraid to get heartbroken or fail. Maybe you did fail, but at least you tried.”

I would much rather go through life being heartbroken than go through life not feeling intense emotions. We're born with hearts and brains, and we should use them. We should let ourselves get knocked around a little bit. We should use that as an opportunity to grow. Whether that's dealing with a tragedy or heartbreak or failure or the loss of somebody important to you, it's all about that growth and just going for it in life. I think that's important. I want the music to remind people to keep doing that.

CP: Does that mean you're able to take a step back when tragedy strikes and see it as a chance for personal growth or do you wallow in self-pity with the rest of us?

BD: Oh dude, I wallow like a little baby. Music is a way to make sense of it all. If I'm writing about it in a song, it's because I'm feeling it. It's so hard, when you're in it, to be objective. It takes a couple of days or a couple months or years. Everyone has their own timeline for sorrow and grieving.

I don't know anyone who can step outside that and look at the bright side on their own right away. That's some advanced shit. That's the Dalai Lama or Dr. King. The rest of us want to be sad. There's comfort in being sad. It feels good to pity yourself and to feel misery or whatever. I think a lot of people enjoy that. I certainly enjoy it, too. I don't dwell on it too long, but I'm certainly thankful for it, and I use music as a way to cultivate happiness out of it.

CP: Have you given much thought to a follow up to “Loverboy?”

BD: I'm working on some songs. I've got some more song ideas I need to work on and sit on. I'm ready to wrap up touring and get my head around a new album. I want it to be different enough to not sound too much like “Loverboy,” but I also want it to be different enough to let “Loverboy” be its own thing. I don't want the albums to run together too much.

I want to try and be more of a storyteller in songs. I think the art of storytelling is going away for whatever reason. I'm not sure what the reason is, but it seems to be going away. I'm not sure I want to revive it, but I want to make it more present in my music.

I also want to get a little more personal. I always want to be more vulnerable and more personal than I have in the past. I want to keep people dancing, but I also love the sound of the acoustic guitar and I want that to have more of a role in the next record.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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