Over the past 15 years, Brett Dennen has been a distinctive, popular singer/songwriter who has been successful in the folk, pop, rock and Americana genres. He has built a large following, and he’s been a mainstay on Billboard’s Adult Alternative (AAA) radio chart. Impressively, he’s had five Top 10 singles on this chart, including his recent single, “See the World.”
This summer (on July 30), Dennen released his latest album, See the World (via Mick Music). The album contains 10 songs including the title track single, plus his new single, “Paul Newman Daytona Rolex.” Other highlights include the uniquely-titled “Kumbaya, Life Rolls On,” “Serenity Now” and “Couldn’t Help Myself.”
With his career, Dennen has been an independent singer/songwriter who has not been afraid to forge his own path, and who creates fresh, original songs that reflect his personality and vision. He writes most of his songs by himself, and he likes being able to express himself in his own way.
Besides his AAA hit “See the World,” Dennen has also had hits with his songs “Make You Crazy” (in 2008), “Comeback Kid” (2011), “Wild Child” (2013) and “Already Gone” (2018). Dennen’s album discography includes Brett Dennen (2004), So Much More (2006), Hope for the Hopeless (2008), Loverboy (2011), Smoke and Mirrors (2013), Por Favor (2016) and See the World (2021).
In his new bio, Dennen discusses the inspiration for his new album. “See the World is about making a choice to experience life and take a stand for things you believe in. We’ve all gone through the pandemic and evaluated our lives; there’s an opportunity now for all of us to take risks, to follow our dreams and intuitions. It’s time to see the commonalities between us. It’s time to take care of the planet as well as each other. We need to make choices about what is meaningful and what is not. All of the songs point back to these things. I hope it inspires people to live well and do good things with their lives.”
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Brett Dennen. He discusses the making of his new album, and how he wrote “See the World,” “Kumbaya, Life Rolls On” and other songs. He also talks about his songwriting process, and his older albums.
DK: I read that you grew up in Central Valley, a small farm town in Central California. How did you get started with music and writing songs?
Here’s the video of Brett Dennen’s new single, “See the World.”
Brett Dennen: Well, it isn’t uncommon for people in my town to play music and be in bands, because I grew up in one of those small farm towns where kids growing up either get into sports, skateboarding, or music. I mean, there isn’t that much to do. But what made me want to play guitar and fall in love with songwriting, was the summer camp that I used to go to. It was in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite, and it was a rustic camp. There were large slabs of granite, with rivers and tall Conifer trees.
We would have a campfire every night, and some of the camp counselors and other staff would break out acoustic guitars and sing Neil Young songs, John Denver songs and James Taylor songs. I loved that camp…I went there for a long time and ended up working there. I always wanted to be one of those counselors that played guitar around a campfire.
DK: For college, you went to UC Santa Cruz, and then you released your first album in 2004. Can you talk about your college years, and making your first album?
Dennen: When I went to college, I saw a lot more people doing what I loved to do, playing music. People were in bands and playing shows, and they were taking it seriously. I was in a few bands, and I fell in love with writing music when I was at Santa Cruz, because I was hanging out with other musicians who were writing songs. I developed as a songwriter there, I played some shows, and people started to know me as a guy who wrote songs.
One of my friends had a mom who lived down in Ojai, and she had a studio in her house. So I got to know her, and I recorded my first album at her house. Then she helped me; she acted as my first manager. She brought me down to Southern California, and I started hitting L.A. a lot, and playing shows at the Hotel Café and other places around L.A. and San Diego. Then I moved up and down the coast playing shows, and I started to build a following.
DK: I looked at your discography, and your second, third and fourth albums were released on Dualtone Records. Can you talk about that period, and making those albums?
Here’s the lyric video of Brett Dennen’s new song, “Paul Newman
Dennen: Looking back, it was special because Dualtone is a Nashville label, and Nashville was a step up for me. I was just getting into the business and starting to make a name for myself. There’s a rich history in Nashville, and there’s a lot of connected people, and a lot of networking. When you work in Nashville and record in L.A. and Nashville, you start to expand yourself and meet more people. And at the time, Dualtone was a much smaller label than it is now, but it was still a well-run label with some awesome people who not only had great taste in music, but had a vision for what they wanted to do with me. Most of it was right in line with what I wanted to do, so it was a phenomenal experience to work with a label in that capacity.
DK: How would you describe your songwriting process? Do you write mostly by yourself, or do you like to co-write?
Dennen: Sometimes I co-write, but very rarely. In general, I love co-writing with people for fun, or if you have a project for another artist. But for me and my songs, I’m way too picky and stubborn. It’s hard for me to put aside one of my ideas and go with somebody else’s, when I like my idea better. Creatively, that’s a hard thing for me…that’s why I’m a singer/songwriter. Being a singer/songwriter means a lot more to me than I think it means to other people. To me, Paul Simon writes songs that only he can write, that come from his experiences and from the way that he sees the world. And I love him so much, because I love the way he sees the world, and his sensibility. That’s why I wanted to be a singer/songwriter.
DK: I like your title song “See The World,” from your new album. What inspired you to write that song?
Dennen: Well, my son had been born, and he would just crawl around. That first year, it was easy because he would lay on the floor. and I’d play guitar. And I came up with ideas for songs…I would play guitar while he would roll around and crawl around on the floor. Most of the ideas weren’t that great, but I thought “See the World” was special, because it started out as a song, talking to my son. I was like, “What are you going to do with your amazing life ahead of you?” But then a lot of reflection from my own perspective came into it. Then when I had the idea for the chorus—“Get out and see the world with your own eyes”—it felt like I wasn’t writing a song about just those things I mentioned. I felt like I was writing a song for everyone, making a case for everyone to expand their horizons. And I thought, this is a special song. I need to make sure to do this song justice. That’s why I chose it as the title track.
Here’s the lyric video of Brett Dennen’s new song, “Serenity Now.”
DK: Another song I like on your new album is “Kumbaya, Life Rolls On,” which has a nice feeling and flow to it. How did you write that song?
Dennen: “Kumbaya” is a song that I think came rebounding from more [optimistic] songs like “See the World.” I always wanted to write a song that was a guy telling a story about their life, and all the opportunities they didn’t take. It’s a song about a guy who had a bunch of dreams, and set out to do a bunch of things, but then life just kept happening and he kept rolling on. And then he’s looking back and wondering what happened to it all, and where it all went.
DK: Besides “See the World” and “Kumbaya,” what are your favorite songs on your new album?
Dennen: I love “Couldn’t Help Myself,” because it’s something that I haven’t really done before. The lyrics are very precise; there’s not many words in the song. And it’s groove-driven, and that’s not something I’ve done a lot. So I really like that, and I love the song “Serenity Now,” which I think is a well-written song in terms of melody. There are nice chord changes in it, and I think the inherent melody that it’s in those chords and the way it moves through the progressions as it changes in the song, I think it’s very subtle but it’s just the right amount. And I think the story is really nice and the performance is good. To me, it feels good, and I always wanted to have a song like that.
DK: For new music fans who like your new album and want to discover more of your music, which of your older albums do you recommend they check out?
Dennen: I would say that So Much More is sort of my quintessential album. But for a lot of my audience, their favorite is Loverboy. But I’ve got to say, an album that I think gets overlooked is Por Favor, and that’s a special one for me. I understand why it gets overlooked because it’s not for everybody, but that’s my sleeper favorite album.
DK: Over the years, you’ve been signed with major labels, smaller labels, and you’ve released your own albums. So how do you view yourself? Do you consider yourself an independent artist?
Dennen: Yeah, I would consider myself an independent artist, especially now. I have been on a major label, but I never really felt the support of a major while I was there. I didn’t feel like a major label artist who had a lot backing me up. I didn’t feel like I was part of a big machine, and even then I felt like I was still a small operation. Yeah, I have bounced around a lot like you said. But I’ve kept my songs, and try to maintain what I do, which is try to find my way through the world and express myself through songs.