Brett Dennen is a man of many talents: wilderness know-how, home repairs, surfing, comedy, 1970s-era vintage clothing-collecting and songwriting. It’s the latter that he’s best known for, but Dennen’s new album, Smoke and Mirrors, makes use of most of the rest of that skill set as well.
The record was conceived of in the Sonora Pass region of the Sierra Nevada where the musician keeps a mountain retreat. (He splits his time between there and L.A. where, at press time, he was turning a clawfoot bathtub into a shower.) It’s an area where, as a kid, he hiked and worked as a camp counselor — his outdoorsman savvy is showcased in a series of camp(y) wilderness tips videos, all humorous riffs on subjects like bird calling and lake safety.
But returning to the Sierra Nevada was no joke: “I’d had a lot of difficulty dealing with pressure and outside influence on who I am as a musician,” says Dennen. “Just getting fed up with that, and also being tired from touring so much and wanting to get back to nature.”
Besides finding inspiration in the great outdoors, the singer-songwriter also works in watercolors and acrylics. “Whenever I feel like I don’t have musical inspiration, I turn to painting,” he says. And, as much as he relishes his time in the mountains, Dennen finds balance in city life, too. He’s half-introverted, he tells Xpress.
The other half needs that connection to his audience. The energy from the crowd and the musicians together create a truly authentic experience, Dennen says. He adds, “The way that music is today is not so much of an industry for an album just to be recorded and listened to. It’s geared more toward live music, and I think that’s how music really should be taken in.”
Dennen says that, on stage, he has to stay vulnerable: “I’ll go out there with a list of songs to play, but I don’t know how it’s all going to unfold, and I have to be open to that.”
The first thing that he wrote for Smoke, “the song that pointed the ship in the direction it was going,” was “Wild Child,” a rollicking, feel-good folk-rocker that, the musician says, reconnected him to his roots. The video for that track, the album’s single, is a sun-dappled nature trek in which Dennen encounters a horse, slices an apple with a pocket knife and looks remarkably John Denver-esque.
The singer-songwriter’s aversion to being hemmed in extends to personal creative confines, too. “You never want to write the way you’ve always written. Then you feel like you’re not growing,” he says. “You want the feeling that you’re discovering uncharted territory. Even if it’s not the first time it’s been done, it’s the first time you’ve done it.”
Dennen says that he recently discovered the art of maintaining a sense of space in the song during its inception. “Let me just write the foundation and keep my imagination open to whatever can happen,” he says. The details get hashed out in the studio (for Smoke, that was in Nashville with producer Charlie Peacock). As a result, the new album wends its way from the upbeat canter of hooky “Sweet Persuasion” and the infectiously insouciant “When We Were Young” to the introspective, CSN-flavored “Who Am I” and the achingly-sweet slow dance, “Only Want You.”
Although that last song suggests a love interest in Dennen’s life, the musician paints a different picture: “I feel like it’s important, as an artist, to be restless,” he says. “Where I am in my life, I have a lot to be hungry for.” While that driving force is not necessarily money, it’s not romance, either. Dennen says that if he hears an amazing song written by another artist, “I think, man, I want to write a song that makes people feel the way I feel when I hear that song.”
And he wants a sense of purpose. And he wants to keep playing for people for the rest of his life.
No small to do list, for sure, but Dennen makes some headway with his return to Asheville this week. Of his upcoming Grey Eagle performance he says, “I know it’s going to be special because of the room. I know it’s going to be a one-of-a-kind show.”
Brett Dennen performs at The Grey Eagle on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Noah Gundersen opens. 9 p.m., $20 in advance / $22 day of show. thegreyeagle.com