In advance of his show at the Gothic Theatre, the folk singer-songwriter chatted with 5280 about his new album, Por Favor, his affinity for the mountains, and his love of playing in Colorado.
Singer-songwriter Brett Dennen returns to Colorado to play the Gothic Theatre on Tuesday, May 24, as part of a national tour that coincides with the release of his sixth studio album, Por Favor. The feel-good tracks merge his alternative folk style with beach calypso, a tonal departure from his mellow acoustic records and a conscious choice to turn emotional hardship into a journey toward optimism. We spoke about the making of Por Favor, Dennen’s spirituality, and what it’s like to write songs in the mountains of Northern California.
5280: So you’ve been on the road for two weeks now—How is the tour going so far?
Brett Dennen: Pretty well, I think. We’re playing almost the whole new record by now, and it’s funny to watch people’s reactions. Some of them are expressionless, like the music goes over their head and they don’t know what to think. Other people like it right away. Some people don’t know if they like it or if they want to like it. Some people don’t like it. We mix in old songs, but when we play the new ones, it’s funny to watch people experience them for the first time.
Do you perform in a different way for the new songs as opposed to when you’re singing old favorites?
I’ve done that in the past for my album, Loverboy. Performing was on my mind the whole time I was writing. But I didn’t do that for this record. For this record, I didn’t think about anything. I just tried to write what I was feeling and just tap into my emotions.
Was that your intention for the album, to commit to your emotions?
I wanted to make something that was emotional as well as thoughtful—meaning being very precise with the lyrics and the music. I wanted to keep it simple, get my point across, and have the lyrics mean different things on different levels. But also keep it very personal. I also wanted to have spirituality in the songwriting as well. Not just write about my personal experience but to also have a thread going through all the songs of the presence of spiritual acknowledgement of some sort.
Have you come to spirituality in making this album or is it something that you’ve carried with you throughout your life?
It’s been there throughout my life, but now it’s more present than ever because I’ve dealt with some really sad times in the last five to six years. Rooting myself in spirituality has helped me through it in ways that I couldn’t have in the past. In the past, my outlook on life or my demeanor may have gotten me through the sad times, but it hasn’t in the last few years. I think I just hit a wall and wanted to have more purpose in life. In the past, music always served as my form of spirituality, but I got to a place with that where I wasn’t feeling fulfilled any more, and I needed something else.
You sing about nature in some of your songs, such as «Tengboche» onPor Favor and an older track, «Desert Sunrise.» Is your spirituality rooted in nature?
Absolutely. [Nature] has always been spiritual for me. The times when I’ve felt most connected to life, to the world, to the big picture have been in nature. But I was trying to go deeper than that because I’m not always in nature. And so now I’m more and more focused on self-exploration in that I’m trying to find connection wherever I go, to really get to know myself and be authentic. I’m trying to treat life as something that just happens where I don’t try to plan anything, I just try to react and accept my situation, if that makes sense. I know that happiness is something I control and that my sense of purpose is to just explore happiness. I [explore] in nature, in songwriting, in art, and in being a good person and having a strong sense of self.
Walk me through your songwriting process.
Songwriting for me often feels like torture. It’s different every time. There was a time in my life where songs would just come shooting out of me like a rocket, and I just had to pick up a guitar or pen and paper—I had something to say. I had all these ideas. Now I’ve used up a lot of those ideas, and I’ve said a lot of those things, and writing now is more subconscious. I really have to wait. I have to allow myself the patience to be inspired and do things to stay inspired—listen to music, watch films, and talk to people. And like I said before, I also tap into my emotions. There are aspects of myself that I keep hidden and close because they’re so precious to me, but those are the things that I want to speak about.
I think a big one on this record was that I did a lot of travel—it changed my perspective, opened my mind up a little bit more, and inspired a bunch of songs. [ThePor Favor tracks] were written in the same three-month span. I was up in the mountains spending a lot of time by myself, and I would wake up every morning and make some tea or some yerba mate and play guitar and just keep going until I started playing something I liked. I would follow that as far as I could until I couldn’t stand to sit anymore. Then I would go for a walk or a hike or a run or just go to the river and then I’d come back to it late at night when all was quiet and it was easier to focus. And I did that every day. I sort of forced myself to do it.
I love it all—the desert, the mountains, the beach. I just grew up really close to the mountains so I’ve had the most experience there. In terms of writing, the mountains are much more of a source for me because it’s quieter there. And the mountains are fun. The mountains have so many trees and rocks and ravines and hills to climb.
What are you most excited about for this upcoming show in Denver?
I love coming to Colorado. There’s a really good music culture and people love live music. That’s why all the great jam bands and bluegrass bands come out of Colorado because there’s great support for live music.
The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is the album coming out [on Friday, May 20] and for people to live with the songs. I think having your own copy so you can listen to it by yourself over and over again is the best way to decide if you like a song. It’s a lot to ask of the audience to hear something for the first time at a live show. All the moving parts of the band and the venue distract them. When I listen to music, I like to put it on loud because then I can hear the lyrics and hear everything that’s going on. So I’m looking forward to people living with the music for awhile and singing along. And if they don’t like a song, maybe we’ll have a chance to win them over with it live.
Across five albums, singer-songwriter Brett Dennen has refined an infectiously catchy, acoustic guitar-based touch for folk-pop that never becomes too polished or cutesy. He’s not cranking the Marshall stacks or anything, but his songs have solid rhythms and poppy, naggingly memorable choruses. Dennen can fit in just as easily on a college station as on a shared bill with John Mayer or Jack Johnson, and there’s a truly boyish innocence and an almost naïve sensibility to his songs.
Dennen was home-schooled as a child and worked as a camp counselor before releasing his self-titled debut album in 2004. Since then, his sunny, melodic songs have amassed a solid fan base, and he’s toured or collaborated with John Mayer, Jason Mraz and The Avett Brothers, among others.
Dennen’s new album, Por Favor, will be out on May 20. Free Times spoke to him recently about the new album and what he went through to make it.
Where: Music Farm, 1022 Senate St.
When: Wednesday, May 11, 8 p.m.
Price: $20 ($18 advance)
Free Times: What’s this period like for you, when the album is finished, but it’s not out yet?
Brett Dennen: I’m feeling pretty good. This is my sixth album, and I’ve gone through the buildup of excitement and anticipation and anxiety before. I’ve been living with these songs for more than a year. And I recorded it in October, so it’s been in the can for a while. But I gotta tell you, once it was finished, that felt really good, because making the record and the period leading up to making the record was a pretty tumultuous time for me. I felt nervous and very insecure. Finishing the record was a big load off.
Why were you insecure?
I don’t know why. (laughs)
I just was in a pretty fragile place. I had a lot of things going on in my life, I’d lost some friends, I had some family stuff going on, some relationship stuff going on, I lost some of my gear in a fire, and I also had a bunch of health issues that played a major part of it. I was just kind of dealing with a lot of sadness and not feeling good about myself. My self-esteem wasn’t very high.
Luckily all of this came at a time when I needed to be writing songs anyways, and art is the best way to explore and wander through my emotions and figure out what was going on. I was trying really hard to make a record that was very understated and simple and vulnerable, and I was in a very vulnerable place, and I just wasn’t feeling super-confident. I knew that the songs were good, but I wasn’t sure about the process. I wasn’t sure that everyone was going to like them. Once I finished the record, it was like, “There’s nothing more I can do. It’s done.”
So you wanted to be vulnerable on this album, but is there point where you worry about sharing too much of what’s going on in your life?
(Laughs) Absolutely. I think it’s a balance. You want to share. You want to open up and bear your soul, because it feels good and it feels like the right thing to do, but you don’t want to share so much that people think you’re complaining. It’s supposed to ultimately make people feel good. I have to share my emotions in a way that people can relate to but that they can feel good about life. It’s a process of refining I think, and also keeping some things for yourself.
What was it like working with your producer, Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson) on this album? Was he respectful of the mindset you were in?
It was hard to tell because I didn’t know him at all. The first day I met him was the first day of recording. Right off the bat, thought, I could tell that he was a really gentle spirit and a kind-natured person with a lot of heart and soul. I could totally throw myself in fully with him and trust him. He’s a really sensitive guy and really sincere, and he was really believing in the songs I was writing and knew that that would carry us through the process. He likes to work really quickly and capture the essence of the mood I was in, and the mood the songs needed to be in. He knows how to capture the essence of that raw, tender state that the songs are in, but make them shine and make them feel warm.
This album sounds very basic compared to your last album,Smoke & Mirrors. Was that intentional?
That was my number-one goal. I wanted it to be all about the lyrics and the melodies. There are some songs that have some additional textures, but it’s only when necessary. We really tried not to fill the space up with a bunch of instruments. It’s very simple and very stripped down and that’s the way it had to be. That’s the record I wanted to make.