Smoke And Mirrors is an odd title to sketch across the cover of Brett Dennen's 5th album. The tall, laid-back Californian has always brewed a batch of heartfelt, honest songwriting; a quality that seems more at the forefront than ever before. Born in the mountains around his cabin home, the three songs here bring with them a certain rustic ease. I suppose that's just what happens when your writing sessions are bookended by long hikes and cool dips in the lake. But the most obvious quality is just how personal Brett gets here, belting out anthems about staying true to ones' self, reminding us of the danger of overthinking things, or just declaring an anonymous love for someone. No Smoke, No Mirrors...just simple, acoustic honesty in our latest session.
- Yeah, I just finished my...fifth record. It feels good. It's called "Smoke and Mirrors. " And I'm really excited for the world to hear it. I've been living with these songs now for almost 2 years, some songs even more than that. So, I'm ready to get them out there-- - I am a wild child, yes I am. I love the country and I wanna run free. And I don't wanna live up to anyone's plan. I wanna feel the good vibes, and I wanna feel the sunshine with you by my side. I am, I am, I am, I am, I am a wild child, momma. You can, you can, you can, you can, you can hold me tight if you wanna. If you wanna hold me tonight Take me where the music's playin'. Get me on the dance floor and pull me a little closer. And I am a wild child, yes I am. I wanna feel the good vibes and I wanna feel the sunshine with you by my side. I am, I am, I am, I am I am a wild child, momma. You can, you can, you can, you can, you can hold me tight if you wanna. If you wanna hold me tonight. - Mostly it's just a song for me. It's just like a personal anthem or personal motto, you know, mantra. I am, I am, I am, I am, I am a wild child, momma. You can, you can, you can, you can, you can hold me tight if you wanna. If you wanna hold me tonight - It's just about staying true to myself. You know, my whole life I felt like the influence of other people. But at the time I wrote this song I was dealing with a lot of "Who am I?, " "What am I, ?" Who am I really though? Like, I think I know who I am. It's just staying true to myself, you know? Reminding myself to just be who I wanna be, and be the best that I can be. I was definitely in a more relaxing, easy place, while I was writing the record "Smoke and Mirrors. " I was living in the mountains. And my days were filled with hiking, and swimming, and songwriting. Whereas, writing "Loverboy" was much more, you know-- faster tempo, upbeat, celebration. Almost like, for me at least, like a party-- dance record. That wasn't the goal for "Smoke In Mirrors. " The goal for "Smoke In Mirrors" was to do something that was just a little bit more relaxing. Like you say, easy to listen to, a little bit more effortless to listen to. But, ultimately something that was just a little more personal. - Get outta my head, outta my head, outta my head now. Get outta my head get into my heart. Get outta my head outta my head, outta my head now. Get outta my head, get into my heart. Without you, I do believe I'm homeless and without you, it's true, I'm outta focus Gotta go now, I know now, if I can live without you I will. Without me you'll be stuck in a pattern and without me, you'll see it doesn't matter who you're mad at I've had that happen, and I won't have it anymore Why don't it go, bum, bum, bum. Give you love, give you love, give you love now Bum, bum, bum. And you get it back, and you get it. Get outta my head, outta my head, outta my head now. Get outta my head, get into my heart Get outta my head, outta my head, outta my head now. Get outta my head get into my heart. Get into my heart. The light changed inside, so I went up into the mountains and cried. I got away from all the static and sadness, I won't be caught up in that anymore Why don't it go, bum, bum, bum. Give you love, give you love, give you love now. Bum, bum, bum. And you get it back, and you get it. Bum bum, bum. Give you love, give you love, give you love now. And you get it back, and you get it. Get outta my head, outta my head outta my head now Get outta my head, get into my heart Get outta my head, outta my head, outta my head now. Get outta my head, get into my heart. - You can get too caught up in, like, how your relationship is going or how you think your life is going, or how it should be going, as opposed to the way it's going. And you get taken out of, like, the bigger picture because you're getting too caught up in the small picture. And that's just-- I dunno, it's more about remembering to follow your feelings, ya know? - All I know is what I'm feeling. There's no coincidence at all. - Empty spaces full of meaning. No memory I can recall. Into my heart outta my head. Into my heart. - Ultimately, I'm excited for them to hear the songs. Because I just think it's a great batch of songs. Like, I'm not necessarily talking about the production, or the way I sing, or the way this music is played. But I just think the lyrics and melody, I think I have a good batch of songs that-- I think the fans have already established, I think there's songs on this record that will be their favorites. - Listen to the river, does it make you wonder how anything could ever stand still? First lightning and thunder, thunder. Kiss in the rain love, feel the thrill. I only want you. I only want you I want what we had. I only want you. It's simple as that. Run to the forest, you'll find some shelter Remember how we fell in love so sweet? You said, watch your step, walk softer softer, 'cause dreams are growing below our feet I only want you. I only want you. I want what we had I only want you I only want you. Can we get it back? I only want you. I only want you. "Only Want You, " yeah, that's one of the later songs that I wrote for the record. I'm sure everybody's been to a point in a relationship where things just get complicated. It's kind like, "Outta My Head. " It's like-- When things get all complicated, you get caught up in it, that's what I mean by getting caught up in the small picture. You know, like, the bigger picture is that, you know, it's all about just loving, and being true to who you are, and loving selflessly. And just doing everything out of love. I can only speak my heart. I'm sitting in the middle of a fire fire And I can't even catch a spark I only want you. I only want you. I want what we had I only want you. I only want you. Can we get it back? I only want you. I only want you. I want what we had I only want you. I only want you. It's as simple as that - It's just like a release of, you know, all the complications and just getting back to the source. Which is another big theme of the record, is like kinda returning to the source of love, and you know, the simplicity of that.
"It was time to get back to basics." Brett Dennen says of his fifth record, Smoke & Mirrors, out October 22th, 2013. "I wanted to return to the folk and acoustic music I loved when I began writing. I decided to tap into my memories and explore new emotional territory as honestly as I could."
Brett Dennen's music career began humbly around the camps of the Sierra Nevada mountain rangea retreat to which he would eventually return for inspiration on Smoke and Mirrors. "Being in the mountains, aside from the inspiration, was so crucial to me, because as a kid I used to spend so much time in the mountains. And just being there helped me regain that self-confidence. I remembered who I was."
Brett's 2006 release, So Much More, officially launched him as a discovery artist and drew frequent comparisons to troubadours like Paul Simon and Tom Petty. In 2008 his Hope for the Hopeless didn't stray too far from the songwriter's comfort zone, though a partnership with producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer) led to a high level of production not yet heard on any of his albums. In 2011, Dennen's Loverboy was his biggest departure to date: a danceable collection of songs influenced by the road and recorded by a studio filled with friends and imperfect takes.
"After several years of consistent recording and touring, some real time off was necessary. I bought a house in the mountains and reconnected with my roots as a songwriter. I walked through the hills, enjoying the solitude, and only wrote when I was inspired."
Returning from his retreat into the mountains, Dennen looked for a collaborator to elevate the songs he'd brought back and landed on renowned producer Charlie Peacock. "Charlie had recently made a beautiful record for The Civil Wars, so he seemed like an ideal producer. We spoke on the phone for just a few minutes and instantly connected. He wanted the recordings to focus on my vocals and acoustic elements. Our goal was to simply enhance the demo and bring them to life."
Dennen and Peacock chose Nashville as a home base, eschewing Brett's L.A. comfort zone to work with virtual strangers. "It was exciting to record with musicians I'd never met. Charlie brought in Mark Hill (Reba McEntire's bass player), Jerry McPherson (guitarist for Faith Hill and Martina McBride), drummer Aaron Sterling who recently worked with Charlie on The Civil Wars record, and Ruby Amanfu (a vocalist in the all-girl Jack White ensemble). Working with new people allows you to explore parts of yourself that might not come out with people you know. You have to stretch a bit, so I let Charlie create an atmosphere that allowed me to be my best self."
Peacock's understated production places Dennen's fervent vocals upfront, while the session players bring their low-key power to the proceedings, adding their own ideas to flesh out the arrangements. Peacock explains, "Brett and I spent a lot of time just building out the arrangements. From the production side, he encouraged me to make every song uniquely its own while keeping it cohesive - and I think we did it."
"Wild Child," the album's lead single, is packed with hooks including a sing-a-long chorus augmented by a bit of George Harrison-style slide guitar. "When We Were Young" has a driving single note rhythm guitar track and a steady backbeat that gives the song a sense of urgency comparable to the work of Don Henley's Building the Perfect Beast. An R&B flavored acoustic guitar hook introduces "Don't Mess With Karma," a topical song about the right to marriage, which condenses the ups-and-downs of a human life into five concise verses interspersed with jazzy electric guitar and Peacock's church organ amplifying its soulful message. "Only Want You" is a love song about going through a rough patch in a relationship; acoustic guitar, subtle mandolin, an almost whispered vocal and a hint of reggae give the tune a gentle lilt. It has a simple message: remember why you're in love and don't get caught up in the things that can distract you from that strong connection.
"Charlie had a master plan and assured me the music would sound good if I just relaxed and became myself. He told me to have faith in the process and let things unfold beautifully, and they did."
"I called the album Smoke and Mirrors, because one of the major themes of the album, lyrically, is that things aren't exactly as they appear to be. If you focus on how you think things should be, then you can't see them for what they really are."