Brett 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.”
Brett’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 didn’t stray too far from the songwriter’s comfort zone, though a partnership with producer John Alagia (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 into the mountains, Dennen looked for a collaborator to elevate the songs he’d brought back 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 L.A. comfort zone to work with virtual strangers. “It was exciting to record with musicians I’d never met. Charlie brought in Mark Hill (Reba McEntire’s bass player), Jerry McPherson (guitarist for Faith Hill and Martina McBride), drummer
Aaron Sterling who recently worked with Charlie on The Civil Wars record, and Ruby Amanfu (a vocalist in the all-girl Jack White ensemble). 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 places Dennen’s fervent vocals upfront, while the session players bring their low-key power to the proceedings, adding their own ideas to flesh out the arrangements. Peacock explains, “Brett and I spent a lot of time just building out the arrangements. From the production side, he encouraged me to make every song uniquely its own while keeping it cohesive – and I think we did it.”
“Wild Child,” the album’s lead single, is packed with hooks including a sing-a-long chorus augmented by a bit of George Harrison-style slide guitar. “When We Were Young” has a driving single note rhythm guitar track and a steady backbeat that gives the song a sense of urgency comparable to the work of Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast. An R&B flavored acoustic guitar hook introduces “Don’t Mess With Karma,” a topical song about the right to marriage, which condenses the ups-and-downs of a human life into five concise verses interspersed with jazzy electric guitar and Peacock’s church organ amplifying its soulful message. “Only Want You” is a love song about going through a rough patch in a relationship; acoustic guitar, subtle mandolin, an almost whispered vocal and a hint of reggae give the tune a gentle lilt. It has a simple message: remember why you’re in love and don’t get caught up in the things that can distract you from that strong connection.
“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.”