On the heels of the release of Loverboy and during the middle of a national tour that wraps at the end of June in Oakland, Calif. Brett Dennen took some time to chat with us about the album, his song writing, social awareness and his favorite underdog.
Q: There’s a new record out, Loverboy, and it’s been getting lots of airplay here in Austin. What are you most proud of about the record?
A: I was actually thinking about that this morning, and out of all the things on this record that I would like to do on the next one is I think this is the writing. The storytelling on this record is the most personal. For some reason, when we write more personally, I think people respond to it a little bit better than instead of trying to write more universally. Sometimes you think if you can make it universal and everyone can relate to you, then you think it’s more relatable to everybody, but I’ve found on this record to keep it more personal. That way it gets people – even if it’s not about them or even if it doesn’t relate to them, somehow it relates to them.
Q: How does that connection translate to what you’re seeing when you play live?
A: I see people singing along more, taking the lyrics to heart. Thinking about who my favorite lyricists are, and one of them is Joni Mitchell, and I think I just – she writes so personally. She writes just about herself and about her own thoughts and joys, problems. It resonates with me somehow and it has nothing to do with me.
Q: I read that you wrote some 40 songs for Hope for the Hopeless. Is that something you’ve carried on, writing more than you need to for a record?
A: That’s how I made that record. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I figured that there’s gonna be some good songs in there and I could narrow it down and pick the best, and Loverboy wasn’t like that. It was more I didn’t finish a song unless I thought that it was gonna be on the record. I had a lot of ideas, but I finished the ones that I thought belonged on the record. So, I wrote quite a bit less and spent a lot more time. There’s more detail in the songs that I knew were going to make it, and I really crafted and molded, fleshed those ideas out.
Q: A little bit of history now, how did you decide to get into the music thing?
A: I never knew I was gonna be a musician. I always liked playing music and I always wanted to be good at playing guitar. I always saw myself as an old man living in the mountains playing a guitar, but I didn’t really turn that into a desire to be a professional musician or a singer or a rock star or anything like that. That started to appear after college. I started playing in a band and I was working in a nonprofit organization. It just started coming through like I wanted to do it. I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to travel and write songs and be a good songwriter. It came to me slowly after college.
Q: You just mentioned the nonprofit you worked in. Is that kind of where you learned about or how you became involved with groups like the Mosaic Project and Invisible Children?
A: I’ve always been involved in different nonprofits all my life. When I went to college, I studied nonprofit research and social change and interned at different organizations. Then when I got out of college I worked full time at the Mosaic Project, and I was working there as I was transitioning into playing music. I made it a point as the music grew and as I would gain more fans, more popularity, I knew that I was always going to make giving back and making my music with organizations as a part of my music, because music brings people together and it’s a great way to spread a message and it fires people. And I’m not always able to do much, but at least if nothing else I can help spread the word.
Q: Where were you when you heard yourself on the radio for the first time?
A: I was in Los Angeles, and I was in an apartment right there in UCLA, and it was in 2004 and it was the week after Valentine’s Day, and I’d made a record – but it wasn’t out yet. A pretty influential DJ got a hold of my demo and he played one of the songs on Valentine’s Day. He has a weekend show, so it’s only on Saturdays, and Valentine’s Day was a Saturday. He played it, and I heard all from all these different people that people were – I had a little Web site up. It wasn’t much, but it started getting all this traffic and people were all saying, “This DJ played your song.”
You could go to the station and you could archive and listen back, so I listened back and I heard him playing it. He said this whole thing, and so I wrote him an e-mail. I said, “Thank you for playing my song.” He said, “No problem. I’m gonna play it again next week, too,” so I listened the next week and it was wild and crazy. It was amazing. At that point I didn’t have a record deal or I didn’t have anything, really. I had a manager and a demo album that wasn’t released yet. [The song was] “Desert Sunrise.”
Q: Besides your instruments, are there kind of comfort things you bring with you on the road?
A: There’re things that I like to have to help me stay healthy, and I have a juicer and I have a really fancy blender for making juices and nut butters and things like that. Other than that, there’s not really anything I have that I need. I have a tennis racket, ’cause I like to play tennis if I get the opportunity for that, have running shoes for taking jogs. I have my computer for when I’m bored and I wanna look online, so I write e-mails and things. The thing I probably use the most is my Blackberry for e-mails and phone calls.
Q: Is there any songs that you’ve always felt like you’ve wanted to try that song out, like a cover song?
A: I don’t know. I was thinking about doing Huey Lewis. You know what I wanted to try was that Brian Essex song “Rock On.”
Q: Anything else that people should know?
A: I think when we come through those areas we’ll be towards the end of the tour, so I think by then we’ll be running full force. Our band sounds really, really good right now, but by then we’ll be really rocking, so I think the shows will be extra exciting, especially in towns like Denver. And I love the Southwest. There’s even a line from my new album about the Southwest. It’s always been that the deserts and the high country has always been really inspiring for me. It’s a spiritual place, so I look forward to coming there.
Q: Last question: who’s your favorite underdog?
A: The Oakland A’s, the baseball team.
Photo: Ben Moon