When the wellspring of inspiration runs dry, many artists find themselves returning to their roots. For singer/songwriter Brett Dennen, those roots are buried deep in the wilderness of Northern California, a place he grew up in and still calls home.
Following more than a year of touring behind 2011’s adorably upbeat Loverboy, the red-headed troubadour found himself at a crossroads of sorts. “I thought the last album was going to make me break through to a much bigger audience,” he explained via phone last week, “but I ended up just touring a lot. I wanted to keep touring. [Eventually] all of the people I work with kind of decided that it was just time for me to disappear for a while.”
Frustrated and confused, Dennen retreated to a cabin near his childhood home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to reassess. Not long after, the songs started coming. The result of Dennen’s retreat is last year’s Smoke and Mirrors, a beautifully stripped-down folksy offering that finds the singer at his most open and personable yet. On Thursday, March 20, Dennen returns to the Lobero Theatre with a full band in support of the record. Below, he chats about growing up, letting go, and taking risks.
I don’t think I knew you grew up near Yosemite. Were you big into the outdoors as a kid? Definitely. It’s such a blessing to be so close to so many great things to do outside. Camping was a great big part of my childhood. I think it fostered a relationship with the natural world that will forever have an impact on me. Like, I’m always going to be someone who will fight for environmental causes. I think I have a deeper connection to my place in the world and how I fit in, but I also think it has a lot to do with my storytelling and my songwriting. It’s definitely a big source of inspiration. To this day, I feel way more comfortable out in the wild than I do in a city. Being outdoors, it’s almost like discovering your inner self. As a kid, to just be let loose was incredible.
Do you remember the point when you decided to make music your career?
When I was around 22 or 23, I knew that I wanted to pursue music, but as far back as I can remember, I identified as an artist. I’ve been drawing and painting ever since I was really little, and I always just thought of myself as an artist. I was the kid in the family who was a good drawer. People would come over to visit my parents, and I would sit and draw a picture of them. I had a lot of time to cultivate that and get comfortable with that, and it definitely helped me with songwriting. I already was comfortable with the creative process, but it wasn’t until I was out of college that I decided to give music a go.
How did you settle on titling the album Smoke and Mirrors? There’s a song on the record called “Smoke and Mirrors” in which I kind of say, “Don’t let anybody fool you.” But I’m really into humor, so it’s more of a joke for myself or for anybody who may think it’s kind of ironic or funny. It’s a very personal and very real record, and there aren’t really any smoke and mirrors to it. Sometimes you have to tell jokes to yourself, you know, to keep yourself entertained.
I know you took some real time off between this record and the last. What was it like to go home after that much touring? Well, I had really wanted to keep touring. When everyone told me I needed to take some time off, I didn’t see it at first. But once I moved back up into the mountains, I was like, “Holy crap!” There was a whole life that I had completely forgotten about. And it’s a really good-quality life that’s just about taking care of yourself and communing with nature and being an artist. I realized that sometimes I get too far away from that when I’m caught up with the work.
You worked with producer Charlie Peacock. How did he fit into the recording process? He just added a whole extra dimension of sound and space and energy that had never occurred to me. On one hand [this record] sounds more stripped down compared to my last record, but it’s really a lot more lush and a lot more full. He really helped me get into the nitty-gritty of each song and the emotion behind it and how we could build instruments around it to do nothing but support the vocals.
Did you guys talk about other albums you liked or even a certain vibe that you wanted to go after? Ya know, we never really talked about it that much. I remember at one point he said to me, “Hey, Brett, I think we’re making two records here. I think we’re making a big-sounding record that we need to just go for and knock it out the park. But the other half is going to be this quiet, introspective record that we just need to keep really raw and honest and bare. We need to keep all the imperfections in there, because that will make it shine.” That was really the only time we ever put words to what we were going for.
Are there songs that you’re really enjoying playing live right now?
Well, the set changes night to night, but what we usually do is in the first half of the set, we slowly build it up, and then we take a little drop down and have a quieter moment, and then we really ramp it up towards the end. I start going crazy; people start dancing and singing along like crazy. But I like it all. It’s going to be really fun.
Numbskull and New Noise presents Brett Dennen at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Thursday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. Foy Vance opens the show. For tickets and info, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.