Interview: Brett Dennen will “Make You Crazy.”
by Daniel Haim
Five years ago, Brett Dennen was a camp counselor who played guitar, wrote songs and performed fireside. With a self-made album, he began playing coffee shops along the West Coast and a devoted following formed. A modest independent record deal led first to his 2006 break-through album, So Much More, then to the attention of music critics, programmers and established artists.
Noting his success, Rolling Stone Magazine named Brett one of the “10 Artists To Watch in 2008.” Brett Dennen is a singer/songwriter from California that will literally Make You Go Crazy. Dennen’s music has been featured in several television shows, including Roadtrip Nation on PBS, Grey’s Anatomy, also appeared live on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno back in April 2008.
Brett has been a part of the Mosaic Project, San Francisco Bay Area base nonprofit, since its inception. The Mosaic Project works towards a peaceful future by uniting young children of diverse backgrounds, providing them with essential skills to thrive in an increasingly diverse society, and empowering them to strive for peace.
The “Make You Crazy” video is about freeing oneself from constraints and being true to oneself. In it, Dennen plays a barefoot shoe-store clerk who is trying to help a difficult customer (Moore). after going through too many pairs, Moore decides she wants to follow Dennen’s trend and strip off her own shoes.
In 2008, Entertainment Weekly named Dennen a “Guy on the Rise”, one of 8 emerging singer/songwriter. After a spring tour co-headlining with Mason Jeaning and opening act, Missy Higgins, Brett will go into the studio to record his 3rd release.
Raised in Northern California, Brett spent much of his time in the wilderness hiking, camping, learning survival skills and eventually teaching his own students and campers of mixed backgrounds. His thoughts on human rights and environmentalism are apparent in his lyrics and in his life-style. He created an organization called Love-Speaks that literally provides local activists and nonprofits with a stage – Brett’s stage – to connect with his audience.
Hope For The Hopeless contains twelve songs narrowed down from forty-three with the help of multi-platinum producer John Alagia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band). Themes of frustration buffered by optimism are consistent throughout. “San Francisco” is an uptempo, amusing response to heartbreak. “Heaven,” which Brett describes as “the whole album in one song,” is “about being consumed with day-to-day struggles, wondering if there’s more out there, and trying to remember that things can get better. It takes being present to a bigger picture.”
As the audience grows, Brett remains the folky, soulful, witty and insightful artist that first captured hearts in California coffee houses. Having toured with performers such as John Mayer, the John Butler Trio, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Ben Folds, Dennen has become a headliner in his own right and plans a significant headlining tour in early 2009.
Daniel: Brett, congratulations on being the 41st biggest selling album this week! Take us through your journey of the past 5 years from fan favorite to mainstream success.
Brett: Well, it’s been a long journey. Nothing has happened too fast, nothing has happened too slow. It has been a mellow rise, and I’m thankful for that. I haven’t lost my head, and I haven’t lost my desire to keep growing.
Daniel: Many accolades have been cast upon you this past year. What has been the most memorable? Which has meant the most to you?
Brett: My mom told me, “I can finally understand your words!” She’s had a hard time understanding what I’ve been saying all along.”
With the release of Hope For The Hopeless, the folk and rock influenced singer/songwriter’s authenticity, willingness to weave meaning into his melodies and reputation as one of the best new live performers, Brett calls to mind his influences. Drawing on a deep appreciation of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and World artists, Hope For The Hopeless is a narrative-rich album from an artist who was aptly summed up by Grammy winning musician John Mayer, who said, “He’s timeless. He’s probably twenty-five but he seems like he’s twenty-five in 1972.
In fact, several musicians have given Brett the “nod.” He has toured with Mayer and received praise from Michael Franti and Jason Mraz. Femi Kuti flew in specifically to record with Dennen and the collaboration is the new album’s first single, “Make You Crazy”.
Daniel: You current album is a joint outing between your label Dualtone and Downtown Records home to such acts as Gnarls Barkley, Eagles Of Death Metal & Kevin Michaels. How did Downtown’s involvement in the project come about?
Brett: Well, they’ve been heavily involved in the whole process. They began working with me while we were still touring for “So Much More.” Downtown, as well as Dualtone, has been absolutely instrumental in the process of making “Hope For The Hopeless”.
Mandy Moore is taking it all off for her friend Brett Dennen – or at least her shoes. The actress just finished shooting the music video to Dennen’s new single “Make You Crazy.” Dennen, a guitarist from California, teamed with Afro-beat legend Femi Kuti for the song, which last week became the third-most added single across tastemaker stations.
Daniel: Many of your peers have praised your knack for story telling and your golden voice. How does it feel to be recognized by them and how has it helped your career?
Brett: It helps a lot. Everyone wants to know what kind of music their favorite artist listens to. It feels good to. I don’t try to dwell on that too much though.
Daniel: The first single from the album Make You Crazy is your biggest hit yet at AAA radio and features iconic world artist Femi Kuti. Your voices blend so amazingly together. How did this collaboration come to fruition?
Brett: He was introduced to me by the president of Downtown. The song had been recorded before Femi got to it. We had finished it a few weeks earlier, and left spaces for him to sing in. We met up in NYC, Femi flew all the way from Lagos. We spent about four hours putting his vocal down. It was possibly the four most inspired hours of my life.
Daniel: You recently just wrapped up a tour with John Mayer & Colbie Caillat. Share a story from the road with us. And how has other artist performances affected your live show?
Brett: Once Colbie borrowed twenty bucks from me. She never paid me back. I don’t try to be like anybody else when I perform, but I enjoyed watching John and Colbie.
Daniel: Who are your musical influences?
Brett: “Mark Twain, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, George Clooney, and Barack Obama.
Daniel: We read that you wrote over 40 songs for this album. How does your creative process work? And how do you chose which songs wind up on an album? What happens with the leftovers?
Brett: First I write and write and write. Then I refine and edit, and figure out how I can say the most, with the least amount as possible. As far as choosing the songs, It’s mostly a gut decision.