Folk rocker Brett Dennen gained a following with his upbeat music and barefoot performances, earning a reputation as the backpacking version of Jack Johnson. But with the October 21st release of his new album, Hope for the Hopeless, Dennen manages to move beyond the coffeehouse crowds that made him famous and still stay true to his campfire roots.
So your music stems from your days as a camp counselor?
Yeah, I worked at a High Sierra wilderness camp and we did a lot of backpacking, and every night we had campfire. I started playing the guitar for the whole camp with a couple other counselors and I just fell in love with the experience of being a song leader. Later I went to college and got into a band and started playing in some bars. Eventually I did my own thing and went on the road, playing coffee shops and other small venues. Now here I am, still doing it.
How long were you a camp counselor?
I started working in the Sierras when I was fourteen and did it all the way until the age of twenty-two. I'd spend all summer up there. I did so many things-just a regular camp counselor leading kids around; I did extended backpacking trips with the older kids; we did week long trips, two-week long trips, and challenges like river crossings and rock climbing. Generally, it was just learning how to handle yourself outside.
There must have been a lot of good times?
I could probable rattle off a million of them right now. One time we went swimming at night in the upper Relief Reservoir, which is at the base of Granite Dome in the Emigrant Wilderness. We were jumping off this rock-maybe 16 feet high-that we had jumped off of earlier in the day, so we knew it was safe. But at night it was a whole different story. It was completely still and the stars were reflecting off the lake. When you jumped from the rock, you'd feel like you were jumping out into the sky, and then all of a sudden-whoosh-there was this rush of water all over you. The kids were having the time of their life, saying things like, 'I'm never going to forget this.' Any time a kid says something like that, you know you're doing something good.
So do you have a favorite hiking spot?
For me it's all about the northern Sierra Nevada. I'd say from the Emigrant Wilderness all the way up to the Desolation Wilderness. It's the picturesque granite mountain ranges that you see in Yosemite, but it's away form the crowds of Yosemite. My personal favorite is the High Emigrant Lake area in the Emigrant Wilderness.
Coming from an outdoor-oriented background, does it ever get hard traveling on the road?
It was really hard for me for a long time because I would get completely stressed out. Then one day I started thinking about it. What is it about nature that makes me so relaxed? It's because A) I'm drinking pure water all the time B) I'm outside and I'm breathing clean air C) I'm usually exercising and sweating, and I'm allowing myself to focus on simple things. So now when I am on the road, I try to live that same way. I wake up in the morning and I take a walk because I know it will clear my mind. I get a cup of coffee and I try not to think about anything.
So you have a new album coming out.
I've been excited about putting out a new record for a couple years now. It's the same style of music that I've played before but I think the songwriting is a little more focused. There is a collaboration with Femi Kuti, who I'm big fan of, and he brings a completely different culture to my music-I think the song really shines on the album. It feels really good to be proud of something and I'm just ready for people to hear it. I can't wait to get out on the road and play these songs.
When you're on the road, is it hard to get outside?
Yeah, but it's still a big part of my life. This year I did a week-long solo trip in the Emigrant Wilderness. I hadn't been on a solo backpacking trip in three years, just because I've been so busy, so I took off with my fly rod and had a great time.
How was the fishing?
Down in the lower Sierra there's big fat brown trout, but in the High Sierra, where I was, it was the little guys, little brookies. They taste good though.
So you kept a few?
Yeah, I ate fish everyday.
That's exactly what I thought.