You’ll find it in Brett Dennen’s music, without apology or regret.
By Naila Francis
Brett Dennen is a perennial optimist. But don’t think it comes easy to the baby-faced tunesmith who speaks with a wisdom that belies his 27 years.
On Dennen’s latest CD, “So Much More,” it is clear that the California-based singer-songwriter and guitarist often harbors a dismal view of the world, war, poverty, inequality, prejudice and all manner of social ills weighing heavily upon his conscience, making him acutely uncomfortable in the white skin from which he casts his sorrowing eyes. He admits that, 90 percent of the time, he is adrift in hopelessness.
“But I take that 10 percent to find the time where I feel it can begin to turn around,” he says. “I don’t want to make people feel abandoned or uninspired. I say I only write about one thing and that’s hope in desperate times or hope through a struggle or even hope through good times, the hope that those good times will continue to be around.
“Some people call it faith, I guess, seeing the blessing inside the curse, the beauty in the struggle. You can’t just curse your life. You have to find a positive way out of it. I don’t think you can move through anything until you embrace it.”
And with that, he leaves other artists to dwell in their gloom and pessimism.
“You know, people will say, ‘I love Ani DiFranco,’ ‘I love so and so because they’re so real. They’re not afraid to say they’re so bummed out …,’ and I get that. At the end of the day, it is music and it is a song,” says Dennen, who brings his “Love Speaks” tour to the Tin Angel in Philadelphia Feb. 1, “but I got into this because like a lot of artists who want to create a world they want to live in — they take everything they want to see in that world and put it into their art — I want that, after you hear my songs, you can be mad or sad or frustrated, but you still feel hopeful and inspired.”
It may seen an overly ambitious goal, but already Dennen’s soulful folk contemplations and jubilant Afro-pop entreaties have won over the likes of artists such as John Mayer — whose “I’m really into this kid Brett Dennen” rave in an issue of Rolling Stone last year still blows the young troubadour’s mind — and Spearhead’s Michael Franti, who lauded Dennen’s “commitment to the word that makes his songs live and breathe.” The Santa Monica resident has already opened shows for Mayer, Dave Matthews and Ziggy Marley. He’s also had his songs featured on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Men In Trees.”
Yet where some artists may polarize with their social and political observations or veer into treacly territory with their invocations for peace and love, Dennen pulls it all off with easy grace. On tracks such as “I Asked When,” he channels a young Bob Dylan, stringing together with scattershot eloquence images of pharmaceutical company greed, a flood-ravaged New Orleans, imperial conquest, fallen child soldiers and the distorted truths inherited by each new generation in a quietly searing lament that begs for a revolution. He is no less earnest on “Ain’t No Reason,” the disc’s mellow opener where he observes that even with “slavery stitched into the fabric of (his) clothes,” people “pushing back their debts, wearing paychecks like necklaces and bracelets,” and the constant chaos of these times, he still believes in love as the ultimate salvation.
“That’s the kind of music I want to hear when I turn on the radio,” says Dennen, who speaks with a piping scratch of a voice and sings in a quavering tenor that has often earned comparisons to Tracy Chapman. “Everybody’s got to be true to themselves and what they do, and I try to put it out in a way that is more about the heart or more about ethics or more about humanizing these issues instead of just talking about this political party or that political party or being left-winged.”
Even his love songs are layered affairs, the breezy “She’s Mine” as much a celebration of having that special person to turn to as it is a claiming of a deeper connection that keeps him from being swamped by misery. “The One Who Loves You The Most,” easily an ode to a lover, becomes a moving reflection on self-love by its conclusion, and “Because You Are a Woman,” which smolders with lazy rhythm-and-blues inflection, brings his meditations on the virtues of a woman back to his own struggles in relationship.
“It’s about a man struggling to be comfortable with himself as a lover and looking at a woman to understand how he is as a man and how he relates to a woman because everything that he communicates in being a man has come down throughout history — the power a man has and the pressure to be all these things that embody strength and not being able to be emotionally vulnerable,” says Dennen. “It’s more about me trying to figure out who I am and if I’m a good person or not instead of being about any particular woman at one period.
“I have a great friend who is a great songwriter who says, ‘My love songs are powerful because the listener can take away whatever they want. They can hear it as a song devoted to a person and a love for a person or they can hear it, at a higher level, as a song being devoted to a god or higher power or as the ultimate devotional song, toward a person, a god, yourself and everything in existence, everything that ever was and everything that ever will be, a more universal thing.’ When I write a love song, yeah, the love song is there, but there are bigger questions being asked.”
Also a visual artist, Dennen credits his home-schooling in Oakdale, Calif., with such creative courage and confidence.
“I was never told to color inside the lines or was never told my artwork wasn’t as good as the kid sitting next to me,” he says. “It allowed me to believe in myself first and foremost because I had the time to dedicate to learning how to do something.”
Even though he attended the University of California Santa Cruz to become an educator, he realized he could also teach and inspire through song.
“I think the thing that I have to offer is that I come across as being comfortable with myself, comfortable being honest and comfortable being vulnerable,” he says. “I feel comfortable speaking up for things like hope and peace and love. If I had to be a spokesperson for something, that’s what it would be.”
– The Intelligencer