Most people leave summer camp with poison ivy, a bad sunburn and a boondoggle key chain. Singer-songwriter Brett Dennen turned his experience at Camp Jack Hazard in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains into the backbone of his career.
After being inspired by his favorite camp counselors who’d play classic Neil Young and John Denver songs around the campfire, Dennen too became a counselor and learned how to play guitar, strumming away under the twinkling stars, surrounded by granite and tall, tall trees.
“I feel like it was those experiences that really shaped who I am as a writer, as a performer and just as a person in general,” Dennen told Pollstar.
Whenever he performs a song live or writes a tune, he tries to “tap into that magical feeling I felt when I was listening to music around the campfire. … Keeping it special and sacred.”
So how did Dennen make the leap from the campfire to headlining his own U.S. and international tours? Simple – he said “it’s not a lot of mystery or smoke and mirrors, it’s just been a lot of hard work and it’s also been me surrounding myself with really incredible people that believe in me.”
While working as a teacher and developing a music curriculum for The Mosaic Project, which brings kids together from different backgrounds to work toward peace, Dennen wrote songs and started playing gigs. He met his first manager, released his debut album in 2004 and started touring, playing coffee shops, bars and festivals in Northern California.
“The touring strategy has really been to tour as much as we can – strategically,” CAA’s Jbeau Lewis told Pollstar. “His numbers have always grown, the venue sizes have always grown, from the day we started working with him. We’ve never really taken a step backwards.”
Lewis explained that Dennen’s folk-pop music has wide appeal with “one foot in the singer-songwriter world and another in the jam band world.”
John Mayer caught one of Dennen’s shows in 2006 and invited him on tour as his opening act, giving his career a big boost. He’s also opened for the John Butler Trio, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Ben Folds.
The singer also has TV to thank for a bit of his success as his songs have been featured on “House,” “Grey's Anatomy,” “Men in Trees,” “Scrubs” and the “Idol Gives Back” special.
The title of Dennen’s third studio album, 2008’s Hope for the Hopeless, describes his live shows as well as his songwriting.
“I think Brett’s a serious songwriter in the same vein as a Van Morrison or a Neil Young. His lyrics are very topical and political. He’s also an optimist at the end of the day,” Mick Artists Management’s Jonathan Eshak told Pollstar.
“I think people have really been gravitating toward Brett because [of his] hopeful message.”
Lewis said Dennen’s shows have a “really unique spirit to them, to the point where it feels like everyone in the room is part of something. … It feels like a community.”
But Dennen isn’t all talk and no action. For years he’s invited local nonprofits to set up information booths next to his merch tables and address the audience from onstage before performances.
“I think physically getting people together is such a powerful thing that is often not utilized,” Dennen said. “If I’m already singing inspiring, positive words, I might as well take it to the next level and give people something actually hands on that they can do.”
Dennen recently teamed up with the Life is good clothing company and their nonprofit Life is good Kids Foundation, which donates money to kids suffering from child abuse, disabilities and terminal illnesses. He’s also worked with HeadCount to get out the vote and joined forces with Clif Bar to use a biodiesel vehicle for his 2007 tour.
Dennen’s shows aren’t all serious, though. He loves to take his shoes off on stage because he can’t dance well with his kicks on.
“I’ve never had any formal dance training or anything like that but when I dance I know I play better because I get into the mood more,” Dennen said. “I just have more fun when my toes are free.”
Dennen is currently touring the U.K. in support of The Fray. In June he heads back to the States for a tour with O.A.R. and several festival appearances including Mountain Jam Fest, Bonnaroo and Rothbury.
When Dennen isn’t on the road, he still tries to take time off to go backpacking and fishing.
“For me, it’s like, other than music, being in the mountains is the closest thing I have to a church or a religious experience. I just feel peaceful and feel like I’m … connected to all of humanity and all of the world.”