The Summer Strummer headliner credits the singer-songwriter as a huge early influence on his music
By Liam Gowing, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 30, 2007
FOR boyish 27-year-old singer-songwriter Brett Dennen, life is beautiful. He´s sold only 40,000 copies of his sophomore studio effort, ´So Much More,´ but the breezy, neo-hippie album recently hit the coveted No. 1 spot on the EMusic.com charts, a good barometer of the download-oriented youth market.
And Dennen´s name recognition is way up after a successful summer tour opening for superstar John Mayer, whose praise for ´So Much More´ -- he called it ´instantly likable´ and ´a beautiful and spirited record´ -- forms the first quote on Dennen´s bio.
Dennen´s quick to return the favor, calling Mayer ´a good guy´ and quashing suggestions that Jessica Simpson´s former flame might be a tad shallow, saying, ´There´s many layers to John. He´s like a lasagna.´
But don´t expect to see Dennen´s freckled face following his friend´s onto any Gap billboards. Despite being cosseted in sprightly guitar work and upbeat delivery, his album´s leadoff single ´She´s Mine´ evidences a depth that would probably clash with such commercialism.
´I was thrown before the court of canes,´ he emotes in one memorable stanza, ´tossed my soul to the furnace flames, where all my heroes had been slain, exiled, or put in prison.´
It´s pretty heavy stuff for a young man who, by his own admission, can´t grow facial hair. But it´s par for a lifelong course in social thought and activism.
Raised in Oakdale, Calif. -- a ´cowboy´ town of 18,000 just northeast of Modesto -- Dennen was home-schooled by hippie parents who wanted him to have a more cultured view of things than the local public schools could provide.
´Teachers used the word ´gay´ as a derogatory term there when I was a kid,´ he says. ´I don´t want to talk trash, but let´s just say it wasn´t progressive.´
Spending much of his childhood ´gardening and growing vegetables´ with his family, Dennen had plenty of time to listen to his parents´ record collection, which was heavy on Neil Young, Willie Nelson and, most important, Paul Simon.
´[When] the late ´80s came around, my parents were blasting ´Graceland´ and ´Rhythm of the Saints,´ ´ Dennen recalls. ´That was my whole world. It was a huge influence.´
Mesmerized by ´Graceland´s´ South African arrangements, Dennen sought out more African music, eventually falling head over heels for West African guitarists Ali Farka TourÃ© and Habib Koite, who, along with Bob Marley, formed crucial influences on his own guitar playing.
His interest in Afro-Caribbean music went hand in hand with the rather unique studies he chose for himself when he got to college at UC Santa Cruz.
´It´s called community studies and social change,´ Dennen explains. ´You basically study social movements and community organization and activism. But half of the program is based on getting out and doing community work.´ It´s work he says he still continues in song.
Now prepping his socially conscious music for a headlining set at the Summer Strummer Festival in Santa Monica -- the city he now proudly calls home -- Dennen is ecstatic and hopeful. ´L.A.´s a great city,´ he says. ´We´ve got a lot of great artists here, a lot of powerful forms of media here, and it´s a very diverse city. I think if we just got our stuff together a little bit more, L.A. could be the city to change the world.´