Downtime w/ Brett Dennen

Cindy Lamb catches up with Brett Dennen, who stops in town at Headliners March 2 with The Little Ones.

He’s getting to be a big name but he was already big. Brett Dennen’s 6-foot-4 frame, and that’s including the cinnamon crown of hair, wraps around a guitar as if he were a strong, curling root rising from the earth.  His distinctive voice traces the graffiti and journals of the human spirit-broken or otherwise. Some romance, self image and a few challenges to government ethics and life with Big Brother.

Out on the Dualtone/Dowtown label, Hope for the Hopeless is the follow up from his well-received 2006 album, So Much More, sparking a path of television, radio and festival appearances, not to mention an attention-getting video. As the nerdy yet Zen shoe salesman in his bare feet, he elevates his customer, the lovely Mandy Moore to a heightened sense of selflessness via invisible footwear for the breakaway hit, “Make You Crazy.”

If your sense of the afterlife is about location, then the bold statement of “Heaven” is for you.

Heading to the city by the bay is good medicine and hooky beat for San Francisco. If all he needed was a “Navy pea coat and an old Mercedes Benz” to get back on track, I’d head west myself.

With Dennen, a gentle giant with a baby face, dressed in his California best with denim and sandals, what you see is what you get. And we get is good. The current nine-track offering has created more access to the mainstream for the rising star while proving to be any AAA programmer’s dream.

Louisville Public Media’s Stacy Owen has had her eyes and ears on Dennen for a while. “He’s a WFPK favorite,” she said. Many listeners know that he saved a Live Lunch broadcast by filling in for a band that had to cancel.

“I knew Brett was in town at the time so we called and asked if he’d be able to do the show at the last minute,” Owen recalled. “He showed up with a percussion unit and blew the room away!”

This artist is laid back but slacks not. Professional as he is kind, Dennen warms the room, one soul at a time, wherever he goes.

“He is an incredibly engaging performer,” Owen said, “His CDs are very good but the live concert is impressive. He’s got the loyalty from the hippies, from frat boys and from 40 year old moms like me,” she noted. “Brett’s appeal is universal.”

With the mellow demeanor and back-to-nature lifestyle, the earthy elements of hippie culture does have a place in Dennen’s world. An avid gardener, camper and hiker, his appreciation for the environment and its communities is clear.  He actually reminds me a dream catcher in human form.

The handmade Native American object, crafted from a curve of willow branch and woven with loose net is adorned with personal and sacred items such as feathers and beads. It is often hung over a bed, often in a child’s room, to catch the negative thoughts and bad dreams before it reaches the slumbering person. The simple and real stories in “Hope for the Hopeless” provide a safe place to dream and have faith in a world spinning out of control.

Blessed by the Rolling Stone’s “One to Watch” list, it seems more like the introspective poet is watching us.

His tender yet seasoned voice is almost a disconnect from the sturdy, rocking form that sets the room spinning from his towering stance at the microphone. One of the more uncommon vocal styles of indie music, Dennen’s ardent pleading to understand his heart and the planet in one fell swoop conjures an aural blend of aching soul to world rhythms, old school folk to danceable pop.  The introspective warble of Neil Young blends with the R&B squeeze of Otis Redding and maybe some of that tribal yowl of Dave Matthews.

Tapping into so many styles and belief systems, this young California-based artist gets RSVPs from people like Matisyahu for a rare performance of “Make You Crazy” on Conan O’Brien earlier this month. The spiritual presence of Nigerian Afro beat icon Femi Kuti on “Make You Crazy,” the first single out of the gate and gathering speed on radio and stage, goes straight to your hips.

Opening for rock mainstreamers such as John Mayer and Sheryl Crow is a short distance from headlining at Seattle’s Bumbershoot or this year’s line up for the coveted exposure of Bonnaroo. This calls upon an incredible songwriting edge and the personal desire to reach as many human beings as possible.

Raised in Northern California bliss of home-schooling, sustainable agriculture, architecture and just plain respect for one another, Dennen and his family were most likely green before it was cool. I can’t help but think that James Taylor or Steve Earle were in the household collection.

As a messenger, Dennen’s concerns and desires are common – matters of the heart, the planet, even casting a unique light on politics. The uncommon part of that list is his delivery. A voice that you can’t forget but you can’t really describe it either.

Rising up from humble coffeehouse circuit, the former camp counselor’s performances have gone from bonfires to arenas as he prepares to turn 30. Not quite a household name, it has been easy to overlook Dennen at multiple billed shows. I have share a quote from another scribe in the northwest. I wish I would’ve thought of it first. It was journalist Kim Ruehl’s first experience of a Brett Dennen concert at Seattle’s venerable Bumbershoot Music and Art festival. She was waiting for the band that followed Dennen but was struck and held in awe by the newcomer.

“At that show, shoes off and sweating hard, I couldn’t get enough of how this kid—who looks like a tall clunky white guy who could neither dance or sing—could so smoothly do both.”

As a respected purveyor of folk and roots music, I think she got her fill.

As a creative grassroots activist, Dennen is a dedicated supporter of children, young people and their parents and teachers. Many charities, awareness and fund raising groups are part of his outreach beyond the music but not excluding it. His website, will link you to The Mosaic Project, Life is Good and Love Speaks for starters. In a click you can become involved, contribute or find ways to challenge your community.

One has to wonder when this tireless performer and organizer gets to punch his dance card. This is his dance card — good music and good works.

Therefore, catching up to Dennen on the road took a little doing. His work ethic is in charge so each day is inked in to media, appearances and a constellation of side projects and interests.

I forgot to ask him if he got the coat and the car up in the Haight but maybe I can find that out on Monday night.

LEO: What songs from Hope for the Hopeless are best received by fans on this tour? Any covers planned?
BD: People have been loving “Make You Crazy”, “Aint Gonna Lose You”, and “San Francisco.” We’ve been covering Tom Petty “Won’t Back Down.” It’s a great sing along.

LEO: Essentially, it seems that you are still sitting ‘round that campfire or gigging in a coffee house. The introspection and global message of your music create an intimacy whether it’s around a latte or at an arena. What keeps you rooted to your purpose or vision as your star is rising?
BD: Well the whole reason I’m doing this is because I want to be an artist for the people, not for myself.  It can be really humbling to think about all the things a person could do for the world if they put their mind to it. I let that be my motivation. I am driven to make an impact.

LEO: Education and empowerment resonate in your life and music. If your goals as a songwriter were condensed down to a bumper sticker, what might that slogan be?
BD: Be the One Who Loves You The Most

LEO: Do you have any opinions on the national view of (industrial and recreational?)  Marijuana, culturally, politically?
BD: I think it is harmless, when you compare it to alcohol. I think the hemp industry has the potential to put the world on a path of environmental and economic stability.

LEO: Do you feel that kids, say from around toddlers to teens, would enjoy your concert?
BD: Yeah I do. I think it would be a chance for them to be around some positivity. A lot of music targeted towards kids isn’t positive.

LEO: I’ve read that you‘ve got a wonderful garden, or “yarden” as it were at your Santa Monica house. What’s your favorite summertime harvest for the dinner table?
BD: Corn is the most rewarding thing to grow. Also string beans.

LEO: Are you aware of your totem animals? I’m Cherokee and Irish so earth signs and magic are key in my heritage. My top critter is an owl. What beasts grace your totem?
BD: I don’t know what animals exactly, but I have always loved turtles and gorillas.  I do pretty good impressions of them.

LEO: What have your parents or family taught you that you want to share? And who carries that red hair gene?
BD: The red hair comes from my dad’s side of the family. My family is very modest and resourceful. That’s part of where the creativity comes from. I think they taught me to always live, work and play from the heart. They taught me to stay true.

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