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Music » Sound Stories & Interviews

The Arc of an Artist

Folksy troubadour Brett Dennen doesn't have a special approach, just good music



Requiring little more than something personal to say, good enough acoustic guitar skills and a coffee shop to sing in, the singer-songwriter is as commonplace in America as the aspiring actor. In 2005, California musician Brett Dennen was one of many—Amos Lee, Brandi Carlile, James Blunt to name a few—who released debut albums hoping to stand out in this crowded field.

With shaky, youthful, Neil Young-like vocals that exude vulnerability, Dennen released a collection of songs enveloped in sincerity and alluring guitar. Simple and courageous, they were tracks that touched on everything from worldly indulgences to dying.

Largely indistinguishable from the next, singer-songwriters tend to quickly disappear into obscurity if they don't marry an ability to mature their sound with three qualities: a beautifully unique voice, impeccable guitar skill, and an acutely accurate and poetic way of writing lyrics. In Dennen's case, he scores a trifecta—and has become a poster child for achievement in the genre.

But he's got company.

Crafting decidedly special music may have helped Dennen's popularity, but it hasn't necessarily prevented him from following a well-worn and pedestrian career path for singer-songwriters; namely, with little money and sparse instrumentation, record a raw and honest breakout record; then, build off that momentum by probing other sounds and improved production value before ultimately orbiting back to the acoustic roots. Amos Lee did it when he released Mission Bell in 2010 on the heels of two albums with expanded instrumentation, and Dennen did it when he released Smoke & Mirrors last month after reaching an experimental peak with his 2011 album Loverboy. Even John Mayer is leaning in that direction with his last two records after flirting heavily with blues and traditional pop hits.

"I had already done a good job of being a more stripped back singer-songwriter," explained Dennen when asked about his circular trajectory in an interview with the Source. "But I noticed that when I played music that made people dance; I wanted to do that more. So when I made Loverboy, the mission was to have every song be something to make people dance. I feel like I got what I needed to out of my system. Now I have a catalogue of songs that are going to be fan favorites and people will sing along so I'm in a great position to make records that have balance."

"Sometimes you want to be the rock star," admitted Dennen. "But I have to remind myself that it's me baring my soul that keeps people interested in what I have to say. If I forget that, I'm just going to be like everyone else."

Brett Dennen

8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21

The Domino Room

51 NW Greenwood Ave.

Tickets $20 at and Ranch Records

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...

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