How John Mayer Is Paving the Way for this Singer/Songwriter
by Drew Mackie
Brett Dennen is singing a new song. Technically speaking, he’s singing a whole album of them, as his second full-length release hit shelves in mid October. But this musician and vocalist — no stranger to Santa Barbara venues — is enjoying heightened popularity thanks to John Mayer. Not only did Mayer invite Dennen to join him on tour, but the internationally popular singer/songwriter also voiced his admiration for Dennen in a September issue of Rolling Stone. Among other praises, Mayer described Dennen as “timeless. … He’s probably 25, but he seems like he’s 25 in 1972. He paints these gorgeous pictures, musically.”
Dennen said he felt grateful for Mayer’s kind words, but not just for the reasons any struggling artist would appreciate. “I liked John Mayer before. I respected his music a lot,” Dennen said. “When he said what he said, it was more than me being stoked. … He put into words what I do with music. I’ve always tried for a sound beyond any time constraint. He nailed it on the head. … It just made me think he must be a really wise person.”
To Dennen’s Santa Barbara fans, Mayer’s true wisdom may lie in his including Dennen in his tour. Mayer first heard Dennen at a performance at the Hotel Café in Hollywood and has since been helping Dennen reach his widest audience yet. He first opened for Mayer and Sheryl Crow at a show in Auburn, Washington, on September 23. Since then, he has joined the two stars at shows along the Pacific Coast.
“I’m really thankful to be playing with these people,” Dennen said. “Both artists are in the realm of pop, but they’re playing real music. They’re not playing pop [to make] a number-one hit or anything like that. They’re playing the music they like.”
Since his romp with Mayer and Crow, Dennen has been busy. He played September’s Ventura Hillsides Conservancy Music Festival, where he graced the same stage as hometown talents like Jackson Browne and Crosby Loggins and then joined up with the Hotel Café’s mid-October tour. And his hard work has been generating even more buzz. In November, Dennen’s song, “There Is So Much More,” was featured on Grey’s Anatomy, currently the nation’s most-watched television show.
But of all these highlights, Dennen saves his kindest words for SOhO, where he said he could be reliably supported in his musical endeavors. “Santa Barbara is a great town for music. In Southern California, it’s one of the three big music areas you can hit when you’re traveling,” he said. “But I love SOhO. I get treated really nice there. I like the staff. … It’s real intimate and I’ve always had a good time.”
And though SOhO has scads of singer/songwriters on stage, it’s not just Dennen’s red shock of hair that sets him apart. He makes an effort to write music that does not fit neatly into categories and cites his three biggest influences as Paul Simon and the two Bobs — Dylan and Marley. “When it comes to stuff I like, I’m drawn to rhythms, and then lyrics after that. Something that has both is what I like the most.”
Dennen’s pared-down take on pop-rock is evident on his new album, So Much More.Those familiar with his 2004 self-titled, full-length debut can expect the same themes Dennen has explored before — in his words, “hope, love, longing, desperation, faith, and heartbrokenness” — though in greater depth. “On a more societal level, I sing about injustice, politics, spirituality,” he said. “It’s got all the same kind of acoustic [elements], but it has more of an edge to it. It’s more mature, also; more palpable for a larger number of people, with sounds people are more used to hearing instead of stripped down guitar and vocals.”
This emotional content is dear to Dennen, who said he hopes to further explore these issues as he continues to grow as an artist. “It’s all about what it makes [the listener] feel — to feel good, feel open and honest with their joy and pain as they listen and notice that other people are feeling the same way.” And with increased visibility thanks to Mayer, Dennen might just be able to extend the reach of his work to a larger audience than he ever had anticipated.
4•1•1 Sings Like Hell presents Brett Dennen and the Zane Williams Trio at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, December 9 at 8 p.m. See singslikehell.com or call 963-1076.