“In many ways this is my first album,” Brett Dennen says of his fourth record, Loverboy, released in 2011. “On my previous albums I said what I needed to say. I evoked every different mood and sentiment and emotion. Now I don’t really have anything to prove. I’ve been the new kid on the block and now that phase is over. I get to start all over again, relax, and refocus.” He pauses and flashes a laidback grin. “And what I’m focused on is having fun.”
Dennen’s wunderkind rise has been impressive. In 2004 Dennen released his self-titled debut, followed quickly by his sophomore LP So Much More (2006,) which spent months on the Billboard Heatseeker chart. The release drew the attention of John Mayer, for whom Dennen opened in 2006 and 2007. In 2008 the artist released his follow-up, Hope for the Hopeless, which debuted at #41 on the Billboard Top 200 and firmly established Dennen as a definitive new voice in modern songwriting. He’s worked with Femi Kuti, Natalie Merchant, and Jason Mraz; he’s toured with Dave Matthews, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and The John Butler Trio; and he’s played Bonarroo, Austin City Limits, Coachella, Outside Lands, and Newport Folk Festival. He’s also become the go-to guy for some of the best and most artfully soundtracked contemporary TV shows. His songs have appeared on Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, Parenthood, Brothers & Sisters, and House among others.
Considering his bold-name collaborators, association with hot TV shows, and impressive early chart and radio success, Brett Dennen could be living in the Hollywood hills, gallivanting around with starlets and hanging out in hotel bars. Nope. The bohemian artist, whose major in college was Community Studies for Social Change, lives with a roommate in Santa Monica and rides his bike to the grocery store. Dennen has never been into the ephemeral thrills of the rock star life, he’s after something else: a real career, and with the release of Loverboy, he’s ready to ascend to his rightful place as one his generation’s most inspired, authentic, artists. “Neil Young, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, they’re artists, you know? True artists,” he explains. “And even when they have ups and downs, which is inevitable over a long career, they’re still playing with passion. They’re still chasing greatness. They’ve let their craft change over time. Let it evolve. That’s what I want to do.”
Dennen first started playing guitar and mandolin to amuse the kids while working as a camp counselor. Once Dennen got the feel for writing his own material, he couldn’t stop. “It was suddenly like, I kind of need to do this,” he remembers.
Dennen spent the next few years touring, and it wasn’t until December of 2009 that he had a chance to think about a fourth record. “I had two weeks off from the road, my housemate and I built a studio in our living room and we made demo versions of a bunch of songs,” he remembers. “The plan was to crank this album out in early 2010.
Turns out we didn’t end up recording until July of that year.” Dennen was frustrated. He likes to keep things moving. But the break turned out to be the best thing possible for the record. “Sometimes when you’re put against a wall you do your best work,” he muses. “While we were waiting to figure out what we were doing with this album I kept writing new songs. One of them was “Sydney (I’ll Come Running,)” one of them was “Comeback Kid” and one of them was “Only Rain.” And those are the tracks that will really pull people in.”
He’s right. Several of the songs Dennen wrote last are the first ones you really hear on Loverboy. “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” is a defiant testimony to the endurance of deep love, set to intricate but forceful guitar and mandolin arrangements and accented by choral call-and-response. “Only Rain” is a delicate, moody meditation, the sonic equivalent of a pensive rainy day at the beach. And songs like opening track “Surprise, Surprise” swing with an impressive, easy confidence. That self-assurance comes in part from Dennen’s half-decade of experience and part from the fact that he’s finally solidified a relationship with the right musicians. “If you want to have a forty-year career you’d better surround yourself with people who will take a bullet for you and for whom you’d do the same,” Dennen says. “If you choke you want to look around and see guys that you trust. You want guys you can fail with. And at the same time, if you do something triumphant, you want to be able to look around and see people you really want to share that with too.”
The extra time Dennen took making Loverboy also had another unforeseen benefit; instead of touring around the world, Dennen was, for the first time in a while, really home in Los Angeles. With no bus to climb on first thing in the morning, no soundcheck to worry about, he started reconnecting with his most basic (and precious) feeling about music: joy. “People get this amazing opportunity to play music but after a while they figure out their routine and they stop going out to see music live, they stop listening to the radio, they stop exploring music,” he muses. “I go out and I see live music and I love it and I try to jam with people or just get out and play in a bar somewhere, just to be out and be involved and be a part of something.”
The chance to retrench and be a part of a local scene inspired Dennen’s overall vision of Loverboy as one of those classic albums that becomes the soundtrack for our lives. “I want people to feel instantly attached to a feeling or memory from the music,” he explains. “And ten years from now, they’ll put on Loverboy and feel like, aww it reminds me of my childhood or of this person in my life.”
Brett Dennen has the right guys backing him up, the right vision for his future in mind, and the right album to get him where he wants to go. “In college I took this one course in mountaineering,” he remembers. “And the professor would always say you can’t start counting how many peaks you’ve bagged until you’ve bagged ten peaks. At the time I was like ‘what the fuck is he talking about!?’ But now I get it. I used to feel like I had to put everything into every album. Like it was a race. But now I realize that’s not the point. In these last two years I’ve really been thinking, if this is what I want to do then I have to do it in a way that keeps me healthy and happy. I need to take care of my body with nutrition and exercise. I need to take time off, even if I don’t want to, and actually appreciate and enjoy it. And I want to bring all of that balance to my fans. That’s what this record is really about. I want people to put on Loverboy and feel good. I want to make people dance!”