A decade ago, Brett Dennen emerged as a modern-day troubadour, a hybrid of Paul Simon and James Taylor, as sincere as he was clever with a turn of phrase. As soon as folks caught on to his ’70s folk-pop style, however, he branched outward, most notably on 2013’s Smoke and Mirrors, playing upbeat arena pop-rockers like “Wild Child.”
On his follow-up, Por Favor, released earlier this year, he’s back to intimate ’70s-type folk-rock songs that are subtle, breezy, and chock-full of a deep melancholy that’s miles from the feel-good choruses on Smoke and Mirrors. Dennen told me in a phone interview that Por Favor is his favorite record he’s recorded, but so far it hasn’t caught on like some of his others.
“It doesn’t really get played on the radio. I don’t know that people that aren’t my fans are ever going to hear it. I hope they do,” Dennen says, sounding exasperated. “I think in the long run, people are going to realize when they look at all my records, that this is a really special one. It’s a slow build.”
The wide-eyed, freckled-face singer-songwriter is in his mid-30s, but he looks like he only recently graduated from high school. He grew up in Oakdale before spending his college years in Santa Cruz, playing locals venues like the Ugly Mug before moving to Los Angeles less than a decade ago.
The thing that strikes me immediately about Por Favor is what a lonely record it is. The songs are either deeply introspective or observational, but they all come from a sad, quiet place of solitude.
That sense of isolation makes sense, considering that while working on the record he spent an extended period of time in a cabin in the woods with his dog, having almost no interaction with anyone.
“I went swimming in the lake every day,” he says. “There’d be a guy I’d always see swimming at the same time I would swim. He and I would talk. Other than that, I really wouldn’t talk to many people during the day.”
To promote the record, Dennen created a series of YouTube videos between one to two minutes in length apiece, explaining the motivation behind each song. His record label told him they wanted video content for promotion and this was what he felt willing to do.
The videos provide some insight, especially into the multiple levels he intended each song to work on. A song that’s about love is also about letting go. A song about growth is also about isolation. But mostly, the videos show how uncomfortable he is talking about the specifics of this personal record.
“It’s hard when someone’s sitting there with a camera saying, ‘what is this song about?’ And I have to somehow explain some of it without explaining all of it. I like it to be a mystery,” Dennen says. Still, he takes a stab at explaining the record to me. “The whole thing is bittersweet. Writing it was bittersweet. Recording it was bittersweet. Now talking to you on the phone about it is bittersweet,” he says.
The recording process of the record is likely what kept it from being an entirely dreary affair. He enlisted a band, went into a studio and spent a week recording it. Rather than go through the normal process of pre-production and recording demos, he simply taught the band each song and captured the first initial spontaneous performance.
On the one hand, Dennen is clearly crooning some of his saddest lyrics he’s ever written, but on the other the music feels fresh, and, dare I say, fun.
“This is my sad record,” he says, and quickly corrects himself. “This is as sad as I’m ever going to get. Internally I might be crying my eyes out, but I don’t want to bring people down. I want it to feel light.”
Perhaps part of what makes the record a tough listen for some listeners—and also his most artistically successful record to date—is the vagueness of his sadness. What exactly was he going through in lyrics like “Everyone knows I’m a happy man/But I haven’t been right/I sit all alone painting pictures/that don’t turn out how I like.”
Even Dennen doesn’t completely understand what was bothering him when he wrote the record. It brilliantly evokes this nameless sadness.
“I think I was working through a lot of different feelings. It’s like ‘who am I, what am I doing?’” Dennen says. “One day I think I know myself, and the next day I don’t have a clue who I am. Things are changing all around me. There’s a lot of suffering in the world. I’m trying to find my place in all of it.”
8 p.m., Sept. 14, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $26. 423-8209.