Performance Saturday, November 2, 2013 | 10 PM

Brett Dennen

Zankel Hall
After the overwhelming success of Loverboy, Brett Dennen retreated to his mountain house in Northern California, where he found inspiration in his surroundings and the simplicity of nature. The result is his fifth studio album, Smoke and Mirrors—the culmination of his transition from a coffeehouse folk singer to a celebrated and critically acclaimed front man. Dennen’s earnest and honest lyrics, sweet melodies, and pure vocals make him a “folk-rock revelation” (The Washington Post).

This concert is part of Late Nights at Zankel Hall.


  • Brett Dennen

Event Duration

The program will last approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.


  • Brett Dennen

    "It was time to get back to basics," Brett Dennen says of his fifth record, Smoke and Mirrors. "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."

    Dennen's music career began humbly around the camps of the Sierra Nevada mountain range-a 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."

    Dennen'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 did not stray too far from the songwriter's comfort zone, though a partnership with producer John Alagía (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 in the mountains, Dennen looked for a collaborator to elevate the songs he had penned 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 comfort zone in Los Angeles to work with virtual strangers. "It was exciting to record with musicians I'd never met. 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 placed Dennen's fervent vocals up front. "Brett and I spent a lot of time just building out the arrangements," Peacock explains. "From the production side, he encouraged me to make every song uniquely its own while keeping it cohesive-and I think we did it."

    "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."

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Wild Child
Brett Dennen
2013 | Smoke And Mirrors

Jeff Tamarkin on Brett Dennen

"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.

Program Notes
Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with WFUV.
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