By Emily J. Weitz
Listening to Brett Dennen is like taking a walk through your own memory. Even though his lyrics may be confessional of his own California surfer life, there’s a universality rooted in a sense of nostalgia.
“And I find most of the time, I miss the way your body coils around mine,” he sings, his unmistakable tenor voice climbing alongside his guitar. “The slope of your shoulder, the curve of your spine…”
But Mr. Dennen is well aware of the nostalgia that inhabits his music, and his mind. And he’s always working to live in the present moment.
“That’s why I write music,” he said, “and why I sing onstage. I can be in the present moment, and I have to be focused. I like to go surfing and skiing, do yoga and meditation. It all brings me in to the present moment.”
His songs, however, transport fans back through a catalogue of their own experiences, because of the vivid lyrics and the easy, patient melodies. This is probably because that’s just how Mr. Dennen’s mind works.
“When I’m left to my own devices and my mind is free,” he said, “it starts to wander and it goes to a nostalgic place. Nostalgic for the past, and nostalgic for something else I don’t understand. The future, something I wish my life was, something I want but don’t have. Whatever it is, I feel constantly conflicted or torn.”
Even though the act of writing music and the act of performing bring him into the moment, the nature of the songs also keeps this reflectiveness back. Often, he’s transported back to moments when the song was first conceived.
“If I haven’t played a song in a long time, it’ll take me back to the place I was when I wrote it,” he said. “But usually [the meaning] changes over time.”
Mr. Dennen, who is 36, released his self-titled debut record in 2004, and his sixth and most recent album, “Por Favor” was released this year.
“I think with age and experience you perceive the world differently,” said Mr. Dennen. “For example, “When We Were Young” (from his “Smoke and Mirrors” album) has a lot to do with the mentality of a young person as seen through the eyes of an old person. I imagine in 20 years when I sing that song, those words will take on a serious meaning. I was kinda just guessing.”
But generally, his songs are rooted in experience. While there is an aspect of storytelling to his songs, and things may get embellished, it’s his life that informs his work.
“I wouldn’t write a song unless it was something that came from my experience,” he said. “I like to tell stories, but I don’t connect to the story unless it’s something personal.”
His most recent album, “Por Favor,” may be his most personal yet. For that reason, he thinks it may take people a little longer to get to know it.
“The beauty of this album is it’s so up close and personal,” he said. “That requires people to give it a little more attention. If people give it some time and feel along with each song, it will be one of their favorite albums. There are some that are my best songs ever, and definitely my most confessional songs ever.”
The album doesn’t have any stand-out songs that easily lend themselves to becoming singles. There aren’t any big hooks or choruses.
“It plays at one speed, at one volume, at one wavelength the whole way through,” he said.
The intimate quality of his new album will fit well at the intimate shows he’ll be playing in the South Fork next week. On Sunday July 18 he’ll bring his guitar to Surf Lodge in Montauk and on Monday he’ll head just slightly west to Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett.
“Sometimes in intimate settings, you have to work hard to get people engaged,” said Mr. Dennen. “But you can also do a lot with a very little because the distance between you and the audience isn’t much. You’re exposed, and you can play with nuance and tell stories.”
Together with the audience, Mr. Dennen will exist in this delicate balance between nostalgia and the present moment, as he strums through the chords of our memories and celebrates the joy of being right here right now.