"I think I've come full circle," Brett Dennen says. "Before, I was more concerned with who I am and what my place is in the world and what it all means. I've become more confident about telling the listener what I feel and what I think. My music has become a lot more colorful and upbeat."
The singer-songwriter's self-analysis proves spot-on in Smoke and Mirrors, his newly released fifth album. It's his most fully realized release to date, pushing Dennen's impassioned vocals and acoustic instrumentation to the forefront in order to spotlight his carefully crafted stories, framing those words in vibrant, richly textured settings.
"On this record, I'm getting back into the deeper, more intimate questions about myself and my own life," says Dennen. The album, produced by Charlie Peacock (known for his work with The Civil Wars), is Dennen's followup to 2011's critically acclaimed Loverboy. After touring nearly nonstop for seven years and taking breaks only to record every couple of years, Dennen retreated to the bucolic California hills where he was raised, rethinking his art and life amidst the quietude and familiarity.
"When it came time to start thinking about this record, it didn't feel like the songs were flowing the way they used to," he says. "I wasn't feeling inspired, so I wanted to take some real time off. I went back to my roots, and that helped me tap back into the same source of inspiration that inspired my earlier works. If I would have moved to Brooklyn," he jokes, "it would have been totally different."
Accordingly, given his self-reflection, Dennen explores themes in Smoke and Mirrors that expose a more earthy side of the artist than fans have experienced in recent years—"getting to the heart of the matter, looking beyond the illusion and sharing more of my personal life," is how he puts it.
When he does emerge from the mountains to make his return to New York—and his Carnegie Hall debut—Dennen expects to be seriously stoked. "Being from California, I didn't grow up around Carnegie Hall and it's such a legendary name," he says. "I've never even been inside, so this may mean more to me than it would to somebody who's from New York. I hope the audience will be excited, but I think I may be more excited about it than anyone."
—Jeff Tamarkin is a veteran freelance music journalist.