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—Photo courtesy of Jimmy Fontaine

Brett Dennen Talks Songwriting and Spirituality

In advance of his show at the Gothic Theatre, the folk singer-songwriter chatted with 5280 about his new album, Por Favor, his affinity for the mountains, and his love of playing in Colorado. 

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Singer-songwriter Brett Dennen returns to Colorado to play the Gothic Theatre on Tuesday, May 24, as part of a national tour that coincides with the release of his sixth studio album, Por Favor. The feel-good tracks merge his alternative folk style with beach calypso, a tonal departure from his mellow acoustic records and a conscious choice to turn emotional hardship into a journey toward optimism. We spoke about the making of Por Favor, Dennen’s spirituality, and what it’s like to write songs in the mountains of Northern California.

5280: So you’ve been on the road for two weeks now—How is the tour going so far?

Brett Dennen: Pretty well, I think. We’re playing almost the whole new record by now, and it’s funny to watch people’s reactions. Some of them are expressionless, like the music goes over their head and they don’t know what to think. Other people like it right away. Some people don’t know if they like it or if they want to like it. Some people don’t like it. We mix in old songs, but when we play the new ones, it’s funny to watch people experience them for the first time.

Do you perform in a different way for the new songs as opposed to when you’re singing old favorites?

I’ve done that in the past for my album, Loverboy. Performing was on my mind the whole time I was writing. But I didn’t do that for this record. For this record, I didn’t think about anything. I just tried to write what I was feeling and just tap into my emotions.

Was that your intention for the album, to commit to your emotions?

I wanted to make something that was emotional as well as thoughtful—meaning being very precise with the lyrics and the music. I wanted to keep it simple, get my point across, and have the lyrics mean different things on different levels. But also keep it very personal. I also wanted to have spirituality in the songwriting as well. Not just write about my personal experience but to also have a thread going through all the songs of the presence of spiritual acknowledgement of some sort.

Have you come to spirituality in making this album or is it something that you’ve carried with you throughout your life?

It’s been there throughout my life, but now it’s more present than ever because I’ve dealt with some really sad times in the last five to six years. Rooting myself in spirituality has helped me through it in ways that I couldn’t have in the past. In the past, my outlook on life or my demeanor may have gotten me through the sad times, but it hasn’t in the last few years. I think I just hit a wall and wanted to have more purpose in life. In the past, music always served as my form of spirituality, but I got to a place with that where I wasn’t feeling fulfilled any more, and I needed something else.

You sing about nature in some of your songs, such as “Tengboche” on Por Favor and an older track, “Desert Sunrise.” Is your spirituality rooted in nature?

Absolutely. [Nature] has always been spiritual for me. The times when I’ve felt most connected to life, to the world, to the big picture have been in nature. But I was trying to go deeper than that because I’m not always in nature. And so now I’m more and more focused on self-exploration in that I’m trying to find connection wherever I go, to really get to know myself and be authentic. I’m trying to treat life as something that just happens where I don’t try to plan anything, I just try to react and accept my situation, if that makes sense. I know that happiness is something I control and that my sense of purpose is to just explore happiness. I [explore] in nature, in songwriting, in art, and in being a good person and having a strong sense of self.

Walk me through your songwriting process.

Songwriting for me often feels like torture. It’s different every time. There was a time in my life where songs would just come shooting out of me like a rocket, and I just had to pick up a guitar or pen and paper—I had something to say. I had all these ideas. Now I’ve used up a lot of those ideas, and I’ve said a lot of those things, and writing now is more subconscious. I really have to wait. I have to allow myself the patience to be inspired and do things to stay inspired—listen to music, watch films, and talk to people. And like I said before, I also tap into my emotions. There are aspects of myself that I keep hidden and close because they’re so precious to me, but those are the things that I want to speak about.

I think a big one on this record was that I did a lot of travel—it changed my perspective, opened my mind up a little bit more, and inspired a bunch of songs. [The Por Favor tracks] were written in the same three-month span. I was up in the mountains spending a lot of time by myself, and I would wake up every morning and make some tea or some yerba mate and play guitar and just keep going until I started playing something I liked. I would follow that as far as I could until I couldn’t stand to sit anymore. Then I would go for a walk or a hike or a run or just go to the river and then I’d come back to it late at night when all was quiet and it was easier to focus. And I did that every day. I sort of forced myself to do it.

Why mountains?

I love it all—the desert, the mountains, the beach. I just grew up really close to the mountains so I’ve had the most experience there. In terms of writing, the mountains are much more of a source for me because it’s quieter there. And the mountains are fun. The mountains have so many trees and rocks and ravines and hills to climb.

What are you most excited about for this upcoming show in Denver?

I love coming to Colorado. There’s a really good music culture and people love live music. That’s why all the great jam bands and bluegrass bands come out of Colorado because there’s great support for live music.

The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is the album coming out [on Friday, May 20] and for people to live with the songs. I think having your own copy so you can listen to it by yourself over and over again is the best way to decide if you like a song. It’s a lot to ask of the audience to hear something for the first time at a live show. All the moving parts of the band and the venue distract them. When I listen to music, I like to put it on loud because then I can hear the lyrics and hear everything that’s going on. So I’m looking forward to people living with the music for awhile and singing along. And if they don’t like a song, maybe we’ll have a chance to win them over with it live.

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