Based on his latest actions, if one wanted to guess any of singer-songwriter's Brett Dennen's New Year's resolutions, 'Shake things up a bit' might be a good hunch. With six studio albums already under his belt, Dennen is turning things on their professional head with the release of his latest EP Let's..., collaborating with songwriter Dan Wilson and already taking to the road in support of this new material (with a second EP to be released later this year). Taking time to speak with AXS prior to his show in Baltimore (where, amazingly, he did not partake in any crab eating. "I had oysters already. Does that count?"), Dennen discussed the new EP, why people should support California wines right now and why redheads shouldn't have dreads.
AXS: Congratulations on the new EP "Let's...." For those of us old enough to remember, Dan Wilson, who was the lead singer for the band Semisonic, produced and co-wrote with you on this project. He's got a range of songwriting credits from P!nk to Adele to My Morning Jacket. How did your collaboration come about?
Brett Dennen: I met him about five years ago, hoping that we could do something together someday. It just took awhile. I went off and made a record myself and then I went and made another record myself and was just really into a thing, a certain type of thing. I signed a new record deal and I felt like had a fresh start, so to speak. I was in the mood for collaboration and I think that's what you need - you have to be excited to go work with somebody. He was available, which is rare. He doesn't do a lot of producing. He mostly just gets in a room with people and writes songs and makes a life out of doing that. To get him to commit to a chunk of time and actually fully dive in and collaborate, I was amazed he had the time.
AXS: Was the idea initially was just to collaborate on songwriting or was the idea always, 'I want you to co-write and produce this'?
BD: It sort of happened as we did it. It started with one song but it was more like 'I want to jump in and be fully creative and have somebody like him guide me or harness whatever I have.' Just be the one to say 'let's take what you can do and make it better.'
AXS: You have a second EP coming out later this year. What can you tell us about that EP? When can we expect it? Is it produced by Dan? Are you going in a different direction musically or is it an extension of this EP?
BD: It'll be produced by Dan. That's what I can tell you for sure. In terms of direction, it'll be a little bit different. I've been writing so much and I have so many songs that I can't tell you exactly what is going to make the cut or not. That's what I'm excited about - making EPs since it's only 5 or 6 songs, who knows? This year alone and last year, I've written probably 30 songs. I love them all and they're all different. For a while, I was thinking that this next EP would be folk songs but I've been in the studio here and there when I have time off, with Dan at his house, and we've been writing and producing and making songs. I can tell you it's going to be, probably, a little bit bigger sounding. A little more anthemic.
AXS: Are you going the Bruce Springsteen "Born to Run" route? Are we talking that anthemic?
BD: Never. No, I can't go that far.
AXS: With 30 songs recently written, it sounds like you're in a very prolific songwriting period right now. Are you inspired by certain things and do you know why your creative output is so high right now?
BD: Yeah, I don't know if there's an explanation. I just know that things move in phases. Sometimes I feel like writing more than others. Sometimes I don't feel like writing. That's why I do other things. That's why I paint and that's why I spend a lot of time in the mountains because I don't like forcing things.
AXS: You said that you're releasing the two EPs this way, hoping to prolong the tour for this batch of songs. Do you enjoy touring that much that you would delay the release cycle or did you feel like it was a combination of 'ok, I've got these five songs. I want to hit the road. My creative output is really high right now. Let's strike while the iron's hot'?
BD: All of the above. Just like writing, I go through phases where I really like being on the road and I really like playing and I really like reaching people. I don't like to tour all the time because I enjoy time at home and time off and time to be creative. But there have been times in the past where I felt let down because I spent a year or so off the road plus a year or so making an album and releasing it and only getting to tour for a few months because people listen to it and then they say 'ok, that was cool' and then they forget about it.
AXS: And then they say, 'Ok, what's next?'
BD: Yeah, what's next? It's just the way that people listen to music these days, which is fine. I'm not going to complain about that. But I want to find a way cause what I like about touring and being a musician before streaming was around was that you could spend time and make a 10, 12 song album and then tour for a good year and a half, two years for it because it took that long to get to everybody. What was great about it was that people had time to live with the music and by the time you got to their venue and their town, they were singing along. Whereas the last couple of times I've released albums, I feel like nobody's had time to really live with the music. They've maybe heard the new music once or twice. They're just coming because they're lifelong fans and they want to see me play. But when I play new songs, they're still deciding whether or not they like it, you know, compared to the older songs.
AXS: The song "Jenny and Jill" has an interesting subject matter, combining first love with a first visit to a music festival. How did that song come about?
BD: I've been trying to write that song in one way or another for a long time - a song about young people going to a music festival because I think that now, with so many music festivals, it's woven its way into being a part of the American experience. It's a coming-of-age thing. It's synonymous with America now. There's just so many music festivals. The day that we started "Jenny and Jill," there was another songwriter in the room, Jenny Owen Youngs. I just said that I always wanted to write a song about young lovers who are going to a music festival. Making them be two young women, it just kind of happened. I wanted it to be, like, a modern version of [John Mellencamp's] "Jack and Diane." I said we should call one of them 'Jenny' and she's [songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs] like 'Awesome!'
AXS: You brought this up earlier, where you have other creative outlets including being a watercolor artist and a winemaker. You're showcasing your art on your wine labels and album covers. Is it nice to be able to tie these in with one another? Do you feel that these expressive outlets go hand in hand?
BD: I think they go hand in hand because they're all things that I really like and am interested in. So, because of that, I think that they all seem to go well together. But someday I would really like to bring them all together with a type of concert or a type of event that incorporates music and art and wine and food. I'm laying the groundwork for it already by doing these concept tours where I tour beach towns and I tour mountain towns in the winter, where I like there to be an art and wine element to those as well.
AXS: How is your wine business going? I understand you're looking to have your own vineyard someday. Are you there yet?
BD: No, we're [Dennen Wines] a very small brand and we're still buying grapes from other vineyards. But you gotta start somewhere. All our grapes are raised in Sonoma, Napa or Yolo County, which is all in northern California.
AXS: Were you affected at all by the recent California wildfires?
BD: Definitely. A lot of vineyards burned down in the Sonoma/Napa fire. It's a good time for people to combine California wine and support them.
AXS: As a fellow redhead, I'm curious, what is the worst ginger joke you've ever heard?
BD: Wow. I don't know. They're all bad. No one's ever really impressed me with one. Have you ever heard a good one?
AXS: No, they're all groaners.
BD: Yeah, when I was in college, I was working at a continuation school in Watsonville which is mostly immigrant farmworkers, children and it was kids who had failed out and were kind of tough. Back then I had my hair twisted into these dreadlocks. It was really nappy, it was horrible. It was like Stephen Baldwin in "Bio-Dome," but it was red. One of the kids called me 'Sideshow Bob' from "The Simpsons." I thought that was pretty good.
AXS: How long did the dreads last after that?
BD: Not very long. (Laughs)