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Brett Dennen Hopes You'll "See The World"

Musician Brett Dennen has a message for the summer: “See the World.” That’s the new of his new album and single, and at least to these ears, it comes at a fortuitous time. Outside of music, Dennen is known for his climate activism, artwork, and love of the outdoors. This summer, he’ll perform in our listening area on July 24 at City Winery Hudson Valley in Montgomery, in Orange County, and July 25 at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut.

Where I grew up, there’s a couple of really great public radio stations, but they were mostly classical and bluegrass focused, we didn't have anything local. Not until like, after the 90s did the Sacramento, the University of California Sacramento started to have a cool station. Before that it was just the University of the Pacific. And they would all just play classical and bluegrass, but at night, they would play the World Cafe. So that was how I kind of got my taste in music. That wasn't the stuff that was fed to me on like the mainstream K ROCK type radio. We had a classic rock and we had country and we had some, just, like, today's rock hits. But that was cool, because it was the 90s. And it was a bunch of all rock but I didn't have anything really tasteful without the World Cafe. So I'm happy I got to do four or five of those performances.

What kind of music did you gravitate to during those years when you were growing up?

Well, when I was a kid, I listened to what my parents listened to, which was Paul Simon and Willie Nelson and James Taylor, that sort of stuff. And then as most kids do, you start to….most of my friends all fell in love with the Beatles when they really started listening to their own music. I don't know why it's like the Beatles and The Beach Boys. I guess it is so prevalent in history and in music history. So when I was a little kid, I was all into the Beatles. And then that naturally shifted into 90s all rock and grunge I think just because so many of those bands were writing were influenced by The Beatles. I mean, back in the day when I was listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana. And I used to think that they were so different, but now as an adult, and I listened to it and I'm like, Oh, you know, they were all big fans of pop songwriting. That's why they were so successful. And that's why they've made it on the radio because sure, they were hard and they were different, maybe different than Aerosmith but they were still writing pop songs, just like the Beatles did. So I got really into that and I'm still really into that music. I mean, my taste as an adult has shifted more back to the singer songwriters and I'm still a huge Paul Simon fan and Cat Stevens and Van Morrison. But I still love Pearl Jam.

And if I'm not mistaken Your son is named Van for that reason, right?

Yeah, his name is actually Cat Van Dennen, like Cat Stevens, Van Morrison. We call him Van just because I think before when we found out he was going to be a boy, I was sticking to my guns on Van. I thought ban is a really cool name. It's so masculine. And then while and suddenly and maybe that's just what I think about when I think about Van Morrison. But then I thought but cat is a cool name for a boy too. And it's kind of feminine. So it's nice. He has like two sides of the spectrum. And he can you know, his first name is Cat but we'll call him Van and someday if he wants to be called Cat, that's cool, too. But he likes being called Van for the most part for now.

How old is he now?

He's almost 3, he'll turn three in July.

How do you like being a father? I mean, how has it changed your life?

Well, it's made everything more complicated, and meaningful and tiring. And it's made every little moment so much more precious. And it's made me it's forced me to live in the moment. And it's forced me to be present. I used to get away with not being present, not being in the moment all the time except for doing art and performing. And playing writing songs and performing on stage. I was always in the moment there but now every little second, I have to be In the moment, and it's changed me drastically. It's given me a lot more knowledge about life and a lot more knowledge about my father and in my parents, just the deep feelings that I have for my son. And I can only imagine what my father had and has for me now. I feel like I'm a parent to every child that's out there. And just every day, I'm humbled by something. It's a constant reevaluation of who I am and what life is.

Is your son musical at all? You were into art I know early in your life as well, which was a passion of your mom's. Are you seeing any of those signs in the next generation?

Yes, absolutely. He's loves to paint. And he loves music. He's got a drum set that he plays, and he's always singing and he loves to dance. I mean, dancing is his main thing, any kind of music is on whether it's on the radio or coming through at the gas station, when we're pumping gas. He's always dancing and jumping around and singing. And, but he's also a kid, a little kid, and little kids are into everything. So who knows what will happen? I'm certainly not pushing anything on him. I just, I just leave the paints out and leave the instruments around. So if he ever wants to pick him up, he can. It's easy. It's not. It's not out of his reach at any moment. It's like, I want him to know that he can just feel comfortable being creative whenever he wants. And that it's easy to pick up a crayon or a pencil or a ukulele or something he can. Whenever he wants, he can be creative. And that can be his identity. He's opening the door right now. I'm doing an interview. He's talking like crazy now. And he's saying like, if he hands you something, I'll say thank you say anytime, daddy. Oh, here he comes back with the juice. Oh, and you put in a bottle. Wow, that looks like it has beets in it. Thank you.

Will he be able to come with you on the road this summer?

Yes, for some of it. Um, since everything was set, since we got the greenlight that things were opening up in touring, I was lucky enough to throw a lot of summer shows together in a matter of a couple of weeks just because of the history in a lot of these places, working with these venues and promoters. And so we're able to piece together a tour really fast, but it's a little sporadic, it's a few shows in this region and fly to this region, a few shows, a few shows there. And that's not the most ideal with bringing him around. It's better to bring him around for if I'm on a bus and there's a little bit more steady traveling from day to day. But I think they'll come out for a stretch that we're going to do from Long Island up into Connecticut, they'll come out for four or five days for that.

Does he have a sense that you kind of do this as your job? That, you know, there's a version of you that's on stage and recording, and then there's a different version who's home with him? Is he old enough to sort of see that distinction?

I don't think so. I think it's all the same thing. He hasn't seen me perform in a while though, because of COVID. But early on, he saw me up on stage a bunch, but I think he was too young to really understand what was happening. He knows my voice really well. He doesn't have all my songs memorized, but if he hears one of my songs on a radio or on stereo or in the car, he immediately knows it's me. So he knows that I make music, but I'm not sure if he knows that everybody does that his idol right now is this guy named Blippi. Have you heard of Blippi?

I just learned about Blippi last week. I had a couple of kids over and they… Oh wait, I'm thinking of Bluey, not Blippi.

Oh, I haven't heard of Bluey. Well, Blippi is this guy that makes these kids shows. And they're mostly about just playing and, and having fun. He does a lot with dump trucks and excavators but he has people write songs for him and record them so there's always music, and there's always dancing. And so he knows that I make music and he knows that Blippi makes music so I'm pretty sure he assumes that that's just something everyone can do. Which he is, right. I mean, everyone can write a song, I believe that everyone has a song within them. It's just, do they ever go down that road and write it? Do they ever sit with an instrument long enough? Do they ever sit alone with their voice long enough and try to figure out what that song is. But I think it's I just believe, like, we all move at a certain pace. We all have a rhythm, we all have something inside that we want to say we all have something that we need to share with the world. But I think also we have something that we want to put into words, and there's definitely a song in all of us. And that's why I think that people's debut albums bands’ debut albums are when people are first starting to come into themselves as writers and artists. I believe that the reason that those albums are so good is because they're coming into their own. And they're saying the thing that they were born to say, or they're finding that song, or those few songs that are we're just innately within them. It makes them so compelling.

In your own career and your own development, how did you make that leap that you're talking about? You know, from guitar lessons to putting a stake in the ground and saying, you know, I'm going to do this as a songwriter. And here's the song.

There's a little bit of being in the right place at the right time, like seeing an opening or seeing an opportunity and taking it. But you have to be at a place in your life where you can, you can not only go for it and clear everything else away and really dedicate the time and make the sacrifices that it takes to do it to get to a point where you're building a career building a following, but also getting to the point where you're making something that that people want to hear. And I think it really helps to be young, and it really helps to be somewhat ignorant or naive. Because when looking back, I think, gosh, if you know, I know now how hard it is to sustain a career. If I you know, would I do it all over again, knowing how hard it is? I'm not sure thank goodness, I was ignorant enough to not know that it was going to be so hard. Thank goodness, I was arrogant enough to think that, you know, why not? Me, I can do it. Thank goodness, I was young enough to have nothing else really going on. Or I had other things going on that were meaningful. But when the music bug caught me and when I saw that people reacting, it was not even a there was no second thought I was like, yeah, I'll just do this, I don't mind sleeping on floors, I don't mind living out of a car, just go for it. And that's a harder thing to do when you're in a different phase in your life.

Your music and your disposition, you are known for your sunny California approach to life. How do you retain that? Now that you've been at it for quite a while and you've kind of seen what it's taken to make this career? Is that still the way you're wired?

Well, it's actually…I don't, I mean, if you think I'm wired that way, that's great. That's the general perception of me. But we don't really, I mean, I can't compare myself really to others, because I don't know what other people think about. But I am a generally a positive person. And I do want to put nothing but positivity out there. I wouldn't, especially at this point in my life, like I want to be a force of good, but I don't consider myself as like just the kind of like a happy go lucky positive guy all the time. I know I come across that way. And I know I am externally and I and to a degree I am on the inside. But I would assume I'm just like everybody else. In my own struggles and my own thoughts of like not being good enough or, or not being what I want to be or where I want to be or maybe going to dark places. I have all of that within me. But I I've known especially now I've really come to realize that people perceive me as this sort of optimistic positive guy, which is really only part of my personality. But I've come to really love that. And I've come to really think that Yeah, I'm at a point now where it's really all I want to do I want to, I want to write about the human experience and I want to write music that makes people feel good and that has a good outlook and makes people feel good. About being alive and make people happy.

I have some questions about the album “See the World,” which sounds like good advice coming out of this pandemic. Was this something that you were able to make during this last year of lockdown and quarantine?

No, I made some of it during quarantine. But I would say most of the recording was done  about a week I flew home. about less than a week before we had our first shutdown in California. I recorded it in Nashville. I didn't finish it. But I flew home because it was clear that everything was going to start shutting down, I got home six days later, it shut down. And I just did nothing on the record for a long time for many months. And then I thought, well, I need to finish this thing. And but the songs are written in the basic tracks were already laid down. It was just that some work needed to be done on overdubs and some singing and some mixing and some mastering. So I did that, but there was nothing opening up in the foreseeable future. So there wasn't really a lot of pressure on it. So it was a lot of doing nothing. And instead of instead of working hard, and learning the songs and getting ready to go on tour, I just kind of sat there and checked on him every once in a while. And I watched and listened to how the songs changed. And the meanings of the songs change. Like see the world is a good example. It's the song about breaking out of your own comfort zone and going out and feeling having your heart broken, getting lost and learning like the most valuable lessons of life. But now, it's a song about you know, the, the most mundane, everyday things that we take for granted that are outside of our house are the most beautiful and most important things and don't take them for granted. You need to get out and feel and touch and see the world again, and the world needs to open up and we need to open up. I mean, the timing of the release of this album has changed the meaning for me a lot.

I have to imagine, given the delay in the production of the album that you just mentioned, it probably also gave you time to think about how you felt about the songs. You got back from recording and then you had this several months to reconsider or think about the music and that would be pretty atypical, I think, for a batch of songs.

It is and it's something that I'm really struggling with because you read it you read a song and you're in love with it or you something about it that you really like or there's something going on with it or something going on with you that you just want to make a song be a certain way. And if you labor over a too long and change your mind too long, it just it loses its magic. So I like to write it I like to write a song, record it like make my own demo of it and then never listened to it for four months or until I go into a studio with a band and then I start listening to it again and have some ideas and record it I don't like to labor over it and change my mind it just loses its shine when you do that. And so I love I love the idea of writing, recording and releasing really fast so it was really hard for me to just sit there and listen to the songs every week or every month or a copy of here and there and see if I still like them and I do still like them but I wanted this album to be out a year and a half ago I want it to be on to something else it does. But that's OK. I think it's going to change my process for the better and in some way I just don't know what way that is yet.

Did you miss performing? A lot of people thrive on getting up in front of people.

I don't thrive on getting up in front of people so much. Sometimes I do when I'm when I'm in the moment and I'm really present which usually happens once or twice a show in the night. And I feel like everybody's together on this Page bands myself and audience, then that's an amazing feeling I thrive on that but I don't necessarily thrive on the energy of the crowd or an applause. I thrive on being with my friends and doing something that I'm good at and being in the moment and playing music. It's like throughout this whole quarantine, I haven't played music with any friends.

Is there a story behind the Paul Newman Daytona Rolex?

Yeah. I was on tour a couple of years ago watching Antiques Roadshow on PBS. I don't know where I was. But it was I know, it was late at night. And I watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow and I watched the show a lot. There's something about I like slow television, kind of slow TV with one camera angle. My ears perked up because I heard the name Paul Newman, because I'm a huge Paul Newman fan. Probably my favorite movie star of all time. As this guy on Antiques Roadshow, he was a pilot, and good looking older man. And he brought in a Rolex Daytona, Paul Newman model that watch that he bought in 1973. I think he bought it because he was a pilot, and it had all the dials that you can do ground speed. And, and it was, I guess, it was a good watch for pilots. And he bought it for a few hundred dollars in 1973. And then now, it was appraised at $175,000. And, and the guy said, but this is just a base model or something like that. He's like these things, the fancier they can get, they can be in the millions. I just, I'd never been a watch fanatic, or a jewelry person or an antiques person. But I just for some reason, maybe it's because it was a Paul Newman model. And I think he's the coolest of all time. I just thought that's cool thing. That's a cool, that could be a cool song. And so I wrote it.

And that's pretty much what the first verse is about. And then the second verse, I can't I couldn't just bring myself to write a song just about a watch. I'm not that good of a writer that, you know, Pablo Neruda. He has this ability to just write poems, little poems about inanimate objects, but they're just so beautiful and they're so full of life. And that's what I was trying to do in the beginning, but it sounded It was kind of more of like, sounded like it was a like a Paul Newman, Kodachrome, or me and Julio kind of storyteller, going down that, that road, so I had to jump ship in the second verse and say, am I really writing a song about a watch? Or am I writing a song about what I think is valuable in the world, you know, that you can't put a price on because if I'm not going to sell this watch, it means too much for me, then what else like is meaningful and a value that he can't put a price on? And that's why I sing about world peace and feeding the hungry and saving the environment and bringing back the crystal rivers and the grizzly bears or I say “Mother Nature's creatures,” but I'm thinking about grizzly bears and wolves when I sing that line.

The climate, the outdoors: these are these are passions of yours. Are you optimistic about where we are right now?

Yeah, I mean, yeah, I am. I'm pretty optimistic. It seems like climate action is becoming really trendy, like big industries are getting involved in big things. Seems like at least in the United States, our administration is pretty solid on maintaining protected public lands. Seems like more and more people are getting outside and enjoying the outdoors. I think things are gonna get much worse. I think we're going to lose a lot more species. And then we're just growing as a population. We're going to lose a lot more land. But I think that something is happening. I don't really know what it is, but I feel good about it.

Just to wrap up, I think I left this hanging earlier. You mentioned why your son is named Cat Van. I was curious, who are you named after, if anyone?

My dad says I was named after Bret Harte the Gold Rush writer in California, but I don't think I was named after him. I think that he read something or he went see saw the name or it just he thought, oh, Bret would be a good name for a boy. I don't think he's a big Bret Harte fan. I just think he got the name from Bret Harte. We I grew up in a place that's really close to California Gold Rush country. And there's a famous book that Bret Harte wrote, that's about a place really close to where I grew up called “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” And so whenever you go up into the Gold Country, you're always looking at signs and things that are about Oh, Bret Harte lived here. Mark Twain lived here for a while, Mark Twain wrote this when he lived here. So it's everywhere.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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