Brett Dennen Offers Hope
Brett Dennen is at a crossroad in his career. Since releasing his infectious 2006 breakthrough So Much More, Dennen has been a favorite on the hippie-leaning touring circuit, clocking in time at festivals like High Sierra and Langerado, touring with the members of ALO and even collaborating with Mike Gordon. But, on his latest studio effort Hope for the Hopeless, Dennen shifts gears slightly, working with noted producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews, John Mayer) to create a collection radio-friendly, folk-rock nuggets that will not only appeal to his longtime listeners, but also likely score the twenty-something singer/songwriting an entirely new legion of fans. Below, Dennen discusses his work with Alagia, 1960s idealism and his recent shopping spree with Femi Kuti.
MG- Let’s start by talking about your new record, Hope for the Hopeless. When did you first start working on the songs for that project?
BD- I guess I have been writing songs ever since I put out my last record [2006’s So Much More. The last couple years I’ve been writing and when I went in to record this album I had around 40 songs that I felt were contenders to be on the record. So I demoed them all and went through a process figuring out which ones would make it on, and I narrowed it down to like 20. For the most part it ended up being the songs that I feel like I had written in the last four or five months. Those were the ones that made it to the party with a couple of exceptions. After that we narrowed it down to like 20, and then I narrowed it down to 18 and then 15 and then recorded 15 and then 11 made it on to the record. So there’s like three extra that we’ll probably use as exclusives.
I pretty much had everything written, and then I demoed and chose the songs. My producer John Alagia and my label helped me narrow the song choices down and my manager helped me. We all just kind of wanted to put in what we thought were the strongest songs, while making sure it was cohesive at the same time.
MG- It sounds like you have enough songs for another album already. Do you plan to keep any of those lost tracks in your live set?
BD- Well, the problem with it is that with maybe a few exceptions my fans still don’t really know the rest of those songs that didn’t make it on to the record. I mean, I’ve spoken to fans since the record came out and there’s a couple songs that they know didn’t make it on to the record which they’re bummed about. So I’ll keep those couple of songs in my live set and hope they make it on to the studio somehow. But I guess those are just special songs for the fans until I figure out when I’m going to use them, but yeah the rest of the songs that didn’t make it on to the record most people don’t really know about them.
MG- You still are a singer/songwriter at heart, but Hope for the Hopeless is a definitely step up in terms of your production. Was it a conscious decision to polish your sound or just the result of having a bigger budget and better studio?
BD- Yeah, I mean it was a conscious thing. Especially since we signed on to work on with John Alagia. That’s a world that he knows really well. He knows how to bring a really big production sound to the songs and polish them up to an extent that they can appeal to a broader audience, but still maintain the integrity of the lyrics, the song and the melody. So it’s definitely a conscious effort, but in terms of like spending time in the studio, we cranked this thing out. The whole thing from start to finish—-in terms of demoing the song, working on the songs, arranging them, recording them, tracking them, overdubbing them, mixing them and mastering them—-was done within three weeks. That was a relatively quick process. I’m still looking forward to the day when, hopefully, I can spend a long time in the studio and really use whatever national or international success I get to spend more time in the studio. But until that day happens, I’ll keep making records like this.
MG- I was also excited to see that Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti is featured on the track “Make It Crazy.” The collaboration seemed to work quite well. How did you and Femi first cross paths?
BD- Well, he is somewhat affiliated with my label, Dualtone Records. I think he may sign with them for a North American release, so I had the connections to do that and the president of my label introduced us. So we knew that going into the making of the record.
The song “Make It Crazy” that he is featured on, I wrote that two days before we finished recording, so we were in the studio and the song came out. We recorded it and everybody loved it. Everybody across the board agreed that it should be the single and, when you were talking about working with Femi, we definitely wanted to have him be on the single. I sang all my parts and a week later Femi flew from Nigeria and met up with me in New York. He just came in for a couple hours, sang a little part and turned around and went home. We recorded his part in SoHo at Dualtone Records studio.
MG- He’s had such an interesting life. Did you get to know him during the recording session?
BD- We hung out a little bit that day and we also have hung out a couple days since then went shopping in the city together and stuff. Then he and I spent a day doing some press together, so I got to know him a little bit. He’s a fascinating persona pleasure to be around. He’s got a real strong energy and charisma about him, ya know what I mean? He has a huge presence even when he’s not speaking, just sitting down he sort of holds court in the room. He’s like a king.
MG- Shifting topics to your lyrics, the song “Heaven” really stuck out in my mind in terms of its subject matter. Can you explain a little bit about what that song is about? I find its lyrics fascinating.
BD- It is just something I always wanted to write about, you know? Some of my songs I like to be funny, some of my songs I like to be love songs, some songs I like to be pointy and accusatory and some songs I just like to ask big questions and point out contradictions that I see. “Heaven” is a song about the major contradiction with the world that we’re living in today and the world that everybody hopes we could have when we die and the afterlifein terms of organized religion there is this contradictory idea of an afterlife, and I’m just kind of like talking about that.
MG- Another song on the record that really sticks out is “San Francisco.” I believe you were working on that song when we last spoke and you mentioned that you were trying to write a “different kind of San Francisco song.”
BD- Probably my favorite place to be in the world is San Francisco I grew up close to there, went to college really close to there and I ended up being there for a while after college. I’ve written songs that referenced the Bay Area, but I always wanted to write a song about San Francisco somehow.
There are so many great songs about San Francisco. I don’t know if it just works to write a songit has to be some sort of story where San Fran was the setting. You need to have a story and the beautiful scenery is San Fran. So I figured that San Fran is a romantic city but seems like a great place to be heartbroken or something, so that’s kind of the idea of where I was coming from. It’s really a song about the city, but the chorus talks about me telling my girlfriend, “Go and leave me if you wanna leave me, but if you do, the minute that you’re gone I’m getting out of here and going back to San Francisco.”
MG- The title of the record is Hope for the Hopeless. Is there a particular thread or theme you feel ties the whole album together?
BD- Well I mean, for me personally, there’s a lot going on in terms of just being who I am, coping with my position with all this, some of the praise and the scorn I’ve gotten from it and trying to just continue to do what I do. There are also tragic personal stories with love, loss, death and friendships that have gone a wry or disappeared and fallen apart over time. There’s a lot of political stuff in there and there’s a lot of just true. There is a message of reaching out to people and a message of hope. These are pretty hard times for a lot of people and now even harder then when I wrote the songs for the record. It’s a pretty hard time and there’s also a lot of optimism out there right now. I think whichever way the presidential election goes, people voting whichever side they’re on. I know I’m an Obama supporter, but whomever you vote, it seems there’s this optimism, so I’m trying to encapsulate the thoughts in the hard times, this hope ya know?
MG- I’ve always felt that your songs were throwback to that 1960s idealism.
BD- It was more prevalent back thenthat was the trend. It was more accepted. I think there was a lot going on in the world, period. There was a lot of change happening, a lot of freedom on many levels happening and people were speaking out. People were a little more afraid to criticize over the past few years. I’m not trying to start a trend but I’m definitely trying to like be a voice of optimism.
MG- You have toured with a number of different musicians over the years, including the members of ALO. Can you talk about the musicians featured on Hope for the Hopeless?
BD- Well, I worked with the guys from ALO. I toured with them a lot, kind of bounced ideas off ideas off them. All the musicians over the last year I’ve toured with have either directly or indirectly helped influence some of the songs come into shape—-just by me teaching it to them and playing it on stage and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. But, when I went in to make the record, I pretty much used all LA studio guys. Joey Waronker played drums. He played on most of Beck’s records and this guy named Zac Rae played piano. I think he’s a genius piano player. I had never met him until the day he rolled into the sessions but he totally blew my mind and Mark Goldenberg played guitar. He also played a lot of the guitar on my last record and Sean Hurley, who’s about the nicest guy in the world, played all the bass. He also plays for John Mayer.
I met Sean before he got the gig with Mayer because Mayer was using his old bass player. Sean was playing bass with David Ryan Harris and his band. John is kind of the centerpiece of a lot of people around him and I am kind of in that circle. He played on my record, but we made the connection happen without John, actually, but it happened within the realm of all the people we know.
MG- I remember talking to you last spring for an article in Relix and you mentioned that you hoped to find a permanent band. Is that still something you are working towards in the future?
BD- I think in theory that’s a great idea. I think everybody would probably like that, but I don’t know if I still want that because in the studio it’s different. Your backing band on stage is usually people you know really well and you do a lot with them…there is emotion and attachment and stuff like that. Sometimes when you’re in the studio, just professionally and emotionally, it is easy to tell someone “I don’t like the way you play guitar, don’t come into the session tomorrow. I’m gonna get some other guy.”
It’s just purely professional and, when you’re working in the studio, I think you’re the musician and you don’t necessary need the best live musicians and vise versa. I mean this is a sweeping generalization, but the thing you want the most out of the guy in the studio is to play it perfectly right off the bat and then play it perfectly again a completely different way and then for me to tell you, “well do more with your kick drum or do more with that and understand and do it perfectly every time.” With a live musician you want them to play good, obviously, but you also want them to be charismatic and be able to work a crowd and be comfortable playing the same songs over and over again. A lot of the people who I’ve worked with are more into taking on a new project every week and playing those songs and doing another session. It’s kind of a separate world, and I understand why some stay in the studio and some are out on the road.
MG- Earlier you touched briefly on your work with John Alagia. Can you talk a bit more about his production approach?
BD- I think he really helped me take the songs that I had written and interpret them in the studio in a way that people can really get it. He polished them up enough, he made them sound big enough, but not too big—-he still maintained the singer-songwriter integrity. But he got really into the groove of the song and the lyric and the vocal tone, delivery and mood. He worked on the phrasing and the most important things, the vocal and the melodies. I’ve never spent so much time where every note, every beat you play has to compound what it can to the vocal and that was really eye-opening. Usually it is all about playing live shows and getting a good groove going, but in the studio it was like “no, every move you make has to make the vocal work.”
I am just beginning to play these songs live. I did like the first two shows this week and the band I have on the road isn’t the band I had in the studio, so nobody can play the songs exactly like they were recorded. I want these songs to live and breathe and be free so I don’t want them to sound exactly how they’re recorded. So I am letting each musician I play with on stage put their personality into these songs, and we’re still at the beginning in that sense.
MG- Like both John Mayer and Dave Matthews you exist on the fringe of the jamband world. Would you say that the jam-scene has influenced your sound?
BD- Oh man, totally. When I was in college I was all into that scene. I had patchwork corduroy pants, hemp necklaces and I went to see Phish a few times, String Cheese way too many times and some of the other local smaller family bands. I was a big ALO fan in college, so when I started working with them it was pretty cool. I also went to a lot of music festivals in college and growing up. In college I was sort of in a band that was trying to be kind of be-like Yonder Mountain String Band, but with more of an electric sound. We were kind of a bluegrass-oriented jamband and a little bit more out there than I am now.
But now, being a singer/songwriter, you might not hear it so much in the music but it is definitely there with the vibe and my career in terms of touring and creating the scene and putting out a message of love and hope. It’s the way I want to build my career and my sound.
MG- You have also become friendly with Mike Gordon over the years, and I even heard you were tossing around some song ideas. How did that friendship develop?
BD- I don’t know exactly how it happened. I played in Vermont once and actually Fishman was there and he came to see a show. Then I came back to play again, and I got an email from Mike Gordon saying, “I want to get together, can you come up to my house or to the Barn.” I’m like freaking out but I couldn’t go, I didn’t have time. But I got together with Mike and from what I’ve known about him, I knew he was a cool guy.
I hadn’t really hung out with him before that except for one time when I got a drink with him at a bar in Boulder at some conference. So the introduction was made there but I think later he heard my record and we started talking. He had just he finished doing some stuff with Leo Kottke, and he was making a record and didn’t know what he wanted to do but knew he wanted to write a lot of words. He was attracted to something about my songs, so he just wanted to hang out and talk about songs and songwriting. I’ve been back to Burlington since then and he’s always come to the show and usually he’ll get on stage with me. We’ll just sit around, drink tea and talk about music. It usually starts out with him asking me questions about songwriting and then him telling a story that is so interesting that it leads to a follow-up story and then him telling me about the times he played with different members of the Grateful Dead. I’ve never played with members of The Dead! He loves to tell a story and have people listen to him, and I’m fascinated by him. I don’t think we ever got anything done except talking about songwriting. He’s a wild guy man, he’s fascinating.
_Mike Greenhaus saw Brett Dennen for the first time when he played the roof of the Relix/Jambands.com offices in 2006. He stores his typos at www.greenhauseffect.com