Interview: Brett Dennen on cruises, songwriter’s therapy, and Shaun White

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California folksinger Brett Dennen brings his unmistakable voice and shock of red hair to the Jefferson on Tuesday. California folksinger Brett Dennen brings his unmistakable voice and shock of red hair to the Jefferson on Tuesday.

Brett Dennen has a knack for writing upbeat hits. At least once on each album, he lays down a jaunty single that toe-taps its way up the charts.

It turns out, that’s exactly in line with Dennen’s personality. Preparing to get on a jam cruise out of Miami on Valentine’s Day, Dennen was giddy—and possibly a little drunk—when he talked to C-VILLE Weekly to preview his February 25 show at The Jefferson Theater.

C-VILLE Weekly: So you’re about to get on a boat with fans for four days.

Brett Dennen: Oh God. Yes. It’s a big mixer. There’s no place to hide. I suppose you could hide in your room, but then you’re stuck in your room on a boat.

Could you find a place to hide in the bowels of the ship?

I’ve been on five of these now, and I’ve tried to get down there. It’s impossible. They design the boat so there is no way anyone could stumble on it. You would have to open a door with no handle and go behind a staircase. I imagine seeing this big steam engine room with these sweaty guys with their shirts off and women doing laundry down there. The cabaret dancers are down there having a smoke break. They’re all eating and mingling and working in the same room. There are comedians down there in tuxedos with long thin cigarettes looking like Frank Sinatra circa 1952.

To me, your music has a youthful quality. Who’s your target audience?

My core audience is probably women from the age of 25 to 45. Single women. Single mothers. You are the first person that’s ever thought I had a younger audience. My whole career I’ve been told, ‘Your music is lyrical. Young people aren’t going to understand it.” No one has ever said to me, “Ah man the kids are going to love this.”

Do you find it easier to write happy songs or sad songs?

It’s hard to be depressed. People think it’s easy, but it’s hard. It’s hard to write a happy song and make it interesting though. The trick is to inject a little sadness in every happy moment, like “Oh man, this cruise is great. Well, it’s going to be over soon.” It might be the opposite too. It’s the sweet and sour combination. I think that is a great place to live, and people can really relate to it. The trick is not to go too far with it, knowing when enough is enough. It’s like saying, “Hey it’s a beautiful day outside. We sure are lucky. Not everybody is this lucky.”

Do you start with music or lyrics when you write songs?

I write differently on every album, and I’m always left with the fear of not knowing how I will write the next album. I just have to wait for inspiration to strike, and I start working on songs and I start finishing songs, and I get inspired and get in the habit of writing every day. But I will go through long periods of not writing anything and wondering how the hell I am going to write another album. I need to go to songwriter’s therapy or something.

How have you developed as a songwriter over the years?

I’ve gotten better at saying more with less, and I think I’ve gotten better at just being happy and confident and letting the marriage of melody and lyrics do most of the work. Before, I think I was hung up more on being lyrical and not paying too much attention to melody. I used to just write a lot more. I don’t really do that as much. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t write unless I feel inspired to write.

What is it about Brett Dennen that resonates with people?

I wish I knew. I would do more of it. It probably has something to do with my voice. Most of the people I am in a category with all start to sound the same, like they live in the world somewhere between Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne. Those two guys separately are amazing, but then there are a lot of people that imitate them. I honestly don’t know what it is, but I know I sound different than most singer-songwriters.

I hear some reggae influence in some of your songs. Is that intentional?

I think reggae is some of the best music you can listen to. I used to be big into reggae. I want to write a song and for people to be like, “How do you write a song like that?” And I would say, “I was really into this at the time,” and they would be like, “Whoa, I totally can see that now.”

Have you ever been mistaken for Shaun White?

No. I have been told I look like Shaun White, but he’s a lot shorter than me. One time I went to a Ben Kweller show, and Ben Kweller at the time had really long red hair, and at the time I had really long red hair. I went back to say hi to Ben, and apparently Shaun White is a big Ben Kweller fan, and all three of us were backstage with really long red hair.

Good luck on the boat. You have Charlottesville to look forward to when it’s over.

I haven’t played in Charlottesville for a long time. Virginia is for lovers. The last time I played there, someone gave me a pair of flip flops, so maybe this time I will get some Birkenstocks or something.

 

California folksinger Brett Dennen brings his unmistakable voice and shock of red hair to the Jefferson on Tuesday.

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