Brett Dennen comes off as a genuine and laid-back guy—a fact that should make his Saturday, Feb. 21, solo acoustic performance at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace a fun and welcoming time.
Dennen grew up Oakdale, Calif., where he was homeschooled, and his artistic endeavors were encouraged by his parents. While he was growing up, he was a camp counselor at Camp Jack Hazard in Dardanelle, Calif.—and that’s where he learned how to play the guitar.
“I got a guitar when I was a teenager,” Dennen said during a recent phone interview. “I started playing, and that was fun. … I don’t know what made me want to start writing songs, but I just did. I got to a point where I knew a lot of songs, and I was that guy at the party you knew who could sing a Dave Matthews Band song really well, or the guy who knows all the words and chords to ‘Hotel California.’ I was having so much fun being that guy who knew all that stuff, and then I thought, ‘Man, I could just write my own songs.’ It seemed like it was easy to do.”
Dennen began singing his own songs at parties during his college days at the University of California Santa Cruz. While Dennen does perform with a backing band at times, he explained that he works best as a solo artist.
“I figured out in college that I didn’t really want to be in a band,” he said. “I’m not really good with group dynamics, group politics, group diplomacy and all that stuff. It was way more fun just not being in a band, and my friends encouraged me to perform my music in front of other people. I started getting gigs in coffee shops and graduated to bars.”
Dennen said performing in front of others was initially intimidating. “It’s scary to play to people in general and ask for people to pay attention. At parties, it was less scary, because you could just slip into the background and be background noise. When you’re asking everyone to not talk and focus on you, that’s pretty scary.”
Dennen added that he felt some of that fear even after releasing his first, self-titled album in 2004.
“It can be kind of charming, and it worked out to my favor in the beginning, because when I first dropped my first album in 2004, I had a real timid stage demeanor, but that’s just because that’s the way I was,” he said. “I hadn’t been singing or performing for very long, and my range was pretty narrow. I was just kind of soft and whispering, and I think there’s something kind of appealing about it. Looking back, it was being courageously vulnerable.
“I’m much more confident on stage now after going through different phases of writing, performing styles and branching out. I’m as vulnerable now as I always was, but now I’m more of a performer.”
When Dennen looks back, he said it helped that he didn’t actively seek out a record deal—although one came to him in time.
“It’s good when record labels come to you, when you have something they want, instead of (you) knocking on their doors—which gives them all the power when you’re out there looking for the deal,” he said. “If you can make it on your own, the chances of making it are much stronger.”
Dennen also shared his perspective on the music industry.
“In the ’90s—which, in my lifetime was the glory years—you could listen to alternative rock on the radio, and what a category!” he exclaimed. “Millions and millions of dollars (were spent) on alternative rock radio. You’d listen to the radio, and one second, it’d be Toad the Wet Sprocket and Gin Blossoms, and then it would be Rage Against the Machine, and none of this stuff had anything in common. … You could go knock on the record label’s door and be like, ‘Here I am,’ and they’d think it was great and unique. Now, I think labels are looking for whatever was big last year. They aren’t handing out deals like they were, because they don’t have the money to do it any more.”
Still, Dennen said the music industry has not changed all that much.
“The only difference is the money isn’t flowing as readily as it once was,” he said. “It’s not like the ’70s, when Jackson Browne and the Eagles were making money before they even released an album, because they were artists with a record deal. I think now, if you want to be an artist and a singer-songwriter, you need to get it into your head that you’re going to make an average income, and you’re going to work really hard. … I have periods where I work really hard, and I have periods where I have a couple of months off. I think if you can remember that, and you’re doing what you love, and you’re lucky to do what you love, then you’ll be all right.”
Dennen mentioned that he has a family connection to the desert.
“My aunt has been in living there for a long time, since I was a little kid,” he said. “My grandfather also lived there part-time as well. I’ve always loved that area, and ever since I started performing, my aunt told me, ‘You’ve got to play Pappy and Harriet’s.’ She’s actually worked in a little reserve outside of Pioneertown. I’ve actually never been the one singing onstage there, and it’s never made sense for me to play there with a band. There are other places to play where I can get more money and pay for band members and gas, but now that I’m coming through with just me and a guitar, it makes way more sense, and I can afford it.
“I’m really looking forward to it, because I’ve wanted to play there, and it’s such a cool spot. It makes me feel like I’m in an Eagles song.”
Brett Dennen will perform an all-ages show at 9 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.