Through 'Smoke And Mirrors,' Brett Dennen Looks For Himself

Oct 20, 2013
Originally published on October 20, 2013 6:58 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sometimes, achieving a dream or a goal doesn't quite live up to the expectations around it. That's what happened to musician Brett Dennen. In 2006, Dennen's second studio album, "So Much More," got him airtime on radio stations around the country and a spot on John Mayer's music tour. While his career soared, the rock star fantasy bumped up against some sobering realities about fame and success. In his latest album, called "Smoke and Mirrors," Dennen gives fans a deeply personal work that explores some of those issues. I spoke with Brett Dennen recently about how he decided to drop off the grid for a while and get back to songwriting.

BRETT DENNEN: I didn't really have anything on my calendar and so my girlfriend and I moved up into the mountains. I used to spend a lot of time in the mountains. And being on the road I had stopped spending so much time up there. So, I went up into the mountains and started writing. And what came up was just the way I was feeling. And I was just in a place of, like, not really being sure of myself or not really knowing who I was at that point.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DENNEN: (Singing) I want to run free and I don't want to live up to anyone's dream.

MARTIN: What you describe was a lot of self-doubt in writing this album, which I guess strikes me as kind of surprising because, you know, there would be a lot of aspiring musicians who would look to you and say that guy's made it. I mean, you're...

DENNEN: I know, and I'm really thankful for what I have. But I have this issue where I want to please people. And sometimes I worry about what people think of me and wanting to be what maybe I think they want me to be. A lot of songs deal with that, like "Wild Child." It's about trying to smash that illusion of, like, being what people want you to be and just, you know, following your own path.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD CHILD")

DENNEN: (Singing) Standing where the music's playing, getting out on the dance floor and pull me a little closer. And I am a wild child, yes I am.

MARTIN: So, do you mind me asking what were the expectations that were put out there that weren't your own, that you felt you couldn't or didn't want to meet other people's expectations for you?

DENNEN: Well, for me, I just got caught up in, like, what I thought people wanted me to be. And I don't even know if it was true. I don't even know if people wanted me to be anything but myself. But I just got caught up in that and, you know, trying to deal with that, trying to get rid of it.

MARTIN: So, how do you work through that? You write your way out of those moments, or?

DENNEN: Yeah. Writing is definitely therapeutic, but I think ultimately just living a balanced life. I'd been on the road so long and been in the cycle of putting out a record, touring for two years, putting out a record, touring for two years. And it was fun for a while but I sort of lost touch with some of the other great things in life.

MARTIN: Let's listen to another song off the album. I want to play a track called "Only Want You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY WANT YOU")

DENNEN: (Singing) Listen to the river. Does it make you wonder, how anything could ever stand still? First lightning and thunder, thunder, a kiss in the rain of fear the feel. I only want you, only want you, I want what we had. I only want you, I only want you, it's as simple as that...

MARTIN: How do you write a good love song?

DENNEN: Well, that one, I don't know. I don't even know how to write a good song. Every song, like, every time I write a song, I'm like I don't think I can ever write another song. And I never know how I do it. I can never just sit down and work out a song. And with a love song, I think you really need, like, you need to be compelled to write it. And luckily, I have an amazing girlfriend, lover who, you know, reminds me every day that love in our relationship is a choice and it's something that we have to choose to show up for every day and not just let it be, like, a long string of habits and routines that we can't break, and take for granted. We were in a challenging place and I was, obviously, making the decision to show up for love and to stay together. And I just took it as an opportunity to turn that into a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY WANT YOU")

MARTIN: Is here a song on this album you really love to perform?

DENNEN: Absolutely. That's "When We Were Young."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WE WERE YOUNG")

DENNEN: (Singing) Dreaming 'bout when we were young, we felt like the luckiest ones...

I don't know. I turn into a different person, like, when you started playing that song. I, like, start, like, pumping my fist and, like, I kind of turn into, like, more of, like, a rocker. And it's something that no song have I written before has really tapped into that yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WE WERE YOUNG")

DENNEN: (Singing) Turn it up, turn it up. Turn up your radio loud. Don't forget where you come from. You're still (unintelligible) proud...

MARTIN: I guess I'm wondering - we talked a little earlier about the sacrifices that you make in order to live a balanced life and I wonder if you have made peace with the idea that you so want that - that kind of life balance - that it's OK if you don't' end up being the biggest pop star in the world.

DENNEN: You have to be who you are. I mean, I'm learning more. You would think I would know this already but I don't. I'm not going to be a pop star that takes over the world, and that's OK. You know, as long as I'm having fun doing it and as long as I make sure to take the time to just get down to, like, the important stuff in life and let music just be what you do but not everything you do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Brett Dennen. His new album is called "Smoke and Mirrors." And he spoke with us from our studios at NPR West. Brett, it was such a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for taking the time.

DENNEN: Well, it was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DENNEN: (Singing) Didn't anybody tell ya, don't go messing with karma, it'll come around. Didn't anybody tell ya...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.