When the long tour in support of 2011’s Loverboy wrapped up, Brett Dennen headed home to California. The plan was to relax and regroup. Itching to find some new inspiration, though, Dennen wound up moving into a small cabin up north, not too far away from the northern tip of Yosemite National Park. There, surrounded by trees, mountains and wildlife, he dreamed up a new batch of songs. We talked with the songwriter — who’s currently touring behind a new release, Smoke and Mirrors — about nature, music, and what it means to be a “wild child.”
You wrote these new songs in northern California. Can you tell us about that small town?
Uhhhh… Let’s just say it’s in the mountains. It’s in Tuolumne Country. It’s pretty, and there’s a little more than 100 people in that town. But I don’t want to name the specific town.
You attribute a lot of the outdoorsy vibe of the album to that specific place. What is it about the area that speaks to you?
It’s a very special place for me. I grew up not too far from there, and I spent all my summers as a kid in those mountains. I went to summer camp and eventually worked at summer camp. I went backpacking and learned how to fish. Before I became a professional musician, I was a camp counselor. I’ve done a lot of growing up there. That place represents my past. It’s a big part of me. It’s a big theme of the album, too: taking a minute to step back and ask yourself, “Who am I? Where do I come from?” I don’t think I could’ve written an album like this anywhere else.
Did you take some time off to do it?
I took a year. I needed it. I’d just been touring so much, and any time I’d be off [the road], I’d go up into the mountains. But it would never be for long enough. Usually, when I make a record, I like to go find someplace nice and write. I’d been working so hard, so my girlfriend and I decided to really commit to the mountains. We went up there and I found my inspiration.
An area like that, with mountains and trees and few people, has got to be inspiring.
Yeah. A lot of the songs were written outdoors, in the spirit of being out in the country or up in the hills, and everything was sorta centered around that idea. There’s only one radio station up there. It’s a station from down in the valley, but it’s the only one we get up there, and it’s the classic rock station. So when there was a ton of snow in the area, and I’d drive to go skiing every day, I’d be listening to classic rock. Or I’d be headed to the lake and there’d be classic rock playing. I was really getting into the Eagles, Tom Petty, and I think you can hear that in these songs.
So in the album’s first single, when you’re talking about being a “wild child,” you’re not talking about trashing a hotel room. You’re talking about being outdoors, where the landscape is wild and rugged and untamed.
Yeah. You only know yourself until you’re in a wild place. Being out in nature will do that. That was the inspiration for the song. But really, the song is about trying not to conform, or trying to please everybody. I wrote that song as a mantra or an anthem, to remind myself that I’m the one in charge.
Tell me about the songwriting process. Did the songs come fast, or did you spend a few weeks with each one?
I spent a lot of time just playing them, over and over and over. It was just me and my guitar. Half the record has that classic rock influence, and the other half is a step back to my older, more intimate, folky beginnings. That’s what I was doing, spending a lot of time figuring out the relationship between my fingers and my voice, and trying to create a real intimate, sincere, almost vulnerable place to come from. Just playing, playing, playing. I’d record the songs, listen back to how they sounded, and let them slowly evolve.
Why did you choose to work with [producer] Charlie Peacock? He obviously does great stuff with voices and guitars. Anyone who’s got the first Civil Wars album knows that. But what made him a good fit for you?
The Civil Wars record and the Lone Bellow record were a big reason, primarily because of the mood Charlie created in those records. Then again, you never know if it was him who created that sound, or the band. I just got on the phone with him and started chatting, and within a couple minutes, I knew he was the guy to make a record with. He was excited about the project. He wasn’t exaggerating anything. He wasn’t trying to sell me something. He was just genuine.
And you chose record at his place in Nashville, rather than stay in California.
Well, he’s got a really cool studio. t’s a little prairie chapel, built in the early 1900s, which he and his wife have turned it into his house. He’s got a studio in it. He brought all his musician friends there — all the players he usually cuts records with — so that was a bit nerve-wracking. But it’s also exciting to meet new people. Most of the time, though, it was just me and Charlie, talking about the songs and getting the full idea of each one.
You’re touring again, and the audiences are getting bigger. Do you miss anything about the old days?
I have a much bigger catalog to choose from now. My set is richer and more refined. There’s still plenty of spontaneity and intimate moments, but most of the set is pretty familiar to people. New songs aside, it feels great to be touring now, playing songs that people know really well. In my early touring years, I alway felt like I was introducing myself to audiences.