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Who is Brett Dennen?
From Spanish, it translates to “please,” a word that suggests a need for something, a desire to make a change. “‘Por favor’ was something I kept saying every day in the studio, and I got the other musicians saying it,” says Brett Dennen. “We were goofing around, and Dave Cobb, my producer, said it should be the title of my new record. I laughed it off at first, but then I really thought about it.” “When you say please, you’re asking something to come into your life,” Dennen adds. “It might mean that you’re weak and need something to make you strong. But you’re admitting to some sort of weakness or some form of humility.”
That notion is at the heart of “Por Favor,” Dennen’s intimate and revealing new album that Elektra Records will release on May 20. Produced by Cobb, fresh from his Grammy winning work with Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, the record strips Dennen to his core as a songwriter with nothing to hide. “All these songs came from a time of sadness for lots of different reasons. They came at a point when I wasn’t feeling confident about myself,” he says. “When I’m not feeling confident, I’m not a nice person to be around. I don’t take care of my health, my relationships, my stuff, and it all cycles into a miserable place. And I have a really hard time admitting that I’m in that place.”
A followup to 2013’s “Smoke and Mirrors,” his sixth studio album dives deep into loneliness, loss, and love and all its side effects. It’s the sound of an artist working through his insecurities in song, and thereby letting go of them. But it’s by no means a sad affair, nor is it the “rainy-day record” Dennen initially thought he was making. Often framed by uplifting choruses and bright acoustic arrangements, these songs brim with optimism, the palpable sense that the tide is turning. “And I want to love you for the way you are/ Not the way I am/ So let’s go now/ Back to the bonfire where we began,” he sings over a chugging groove on “Bonfire.”
On “Where We Left Off,” the album’s emotional powder keg, Dennen lays himself bare over the slack strum of guitar and one of his most unvarnished vocals ever recorded. The opening lines go straight for the jugular: “Everyone knows I’m a happy man/ But I haven’t been right.”
“Vulnerable was another word that kept coming up when I was making this record,” Dennen admits. “Is there something I’m scared to say? Can I dig a little deeper, reveal a little bit more? How far can I go? That was my direction, and once I got that in place, I started shooting down things that weren’t in that zone.” “I kept telling myself that all I have to do is be authentic and make the songs about the lyrics and how they interact with my guitar,” he continues. “I don’t have to worry about whether they’ll be on the radio or if they’re different from my previous stuff.”
Holed up at Cobb’s Nashville studio, with musicians the producer assembled, Dennen and Cobb worked fast and kept the songs rough around the edges. Deanne appreciated Cobb’s insistence on capturing them in just a few takes. “We recorded it the way people made records in the ’60s – really fast, all on analog gear, very few rehearsals,” he says. “We didn’t do anything more than five times. We didn’t second-guess ourselves – we just went with it. It’s not sloppy, but it’s in that right place between loose and tight and feel-good but not labored.” Cobb adds, “I worked with Brett because of his beautiful balance of wit and melody. He’s very timeless in his writing and you really can hear his personality in every note he sings. The record was made totally live and we recorded all the vocals live with the band. It really was produced as stopped down as possible – we tried to make every note matter.”
More than a decade after his self-titled debut catapulted him to stardom, Dennen was once again attracted to how he made his earliest recordings. “My whole approach was that I wanted to write and sing the songs from the same place that I wrote the first record, which was a place of trying to discover who I am,” he says. That marked a detour from his most recent releases. With those he felt like he was exercising his craftsmanship – “being a songwriter for the sake of being a songwriter,” as he puts it. “I really wanted this new album to come across as a whole piece,” Dennen says. “I consider it to be a batch of songs that all live together and complement each other.”
Which brings us back to the album title. Please.
“What was I asking for with this album?” Dennen says. “I wanted to be a good person and feel good about myself again, but in a way that I knew it was OK to be sad. That’s part of life, the ups and downs. But with these songs, I want to make people feel good about themselves and about life through the good and bad.”