His Love Speaks tour has been going for three months, benefiting local nonprofits at every turn on his path, and his music is finally, and surely, reaching a much-deserved broader audience. I caught up with Dennen on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War, which inspired conversation about how a single songwriter can help to change the world.
Kim Ruehl: Where are you in the world right now?
Brett Dennen: West Texas? Western central Texas. I don’t know. It’s all really big.
It is all one big desert. How long have you been out this time around?
Oh this tour has been about three months altogether.
So that’s three months with, what, one week off between this one and the last tour?
Yeah, something. We were just at South by Southwest, which was crazy.
How was that? Did you seen any new bands you didn’t know about, but are in love with now?
Yes, I can’t stop talking about Margo and the Nuclear So and Sos. I don’t understand their name at all, but they’re such a great band.
How would you describe your music? What kind do you think you play?
I think it’s music you can either dance to or sleep to. [laughs]
You can either dance or fall asleep?
Yeah [laughs]. I think it’s thought provoking and emotional. It’s mellow but it’s also upbeat. I don’t know. It’s kind of weird, difficult to explain.
Do you identify with folk music at all?
Oh totally. That’s pretty much all that I listen to is folk music and folksingers. That’s where I’m rooted. Artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Paul Simon …
I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now and there’s a sign on the counter advertising a show you’re playing [in Seattle] for Earth Day. There’s a contest people can enter to win one of your paintings. How long have you been doing that?
Painting for sweepstakes? This is the first time, the first one. [laughs] No, but I’ve been painting for a long time, actually. I’ve been painting since long before I started making music. But I was up there in Seattle and I painted a little picture for [radio station 103.7] The Mountain, because they’ve been so good to me. They liked it so much that they asked if I’d paint another one for this sweepstakes. I started painting these pictures of, like, the Cascades, or the Sound—all these things you find in the Northwest. And then I thought, these people don’t want to see what they see all the time. I decided to paint a picture of the desert [laughs] you know, to kind of rub it in for the wet people in Seattle.
How did you make that switch from painting to music?
Well I think they inspire each other. Music, for me, at least, inspires visual art. When I hear music, I think of colors and I think art, when I see great art, I think of imagery in words. It’s kind of … when one well is dry, the other is overflowing.
Do you paint when you’re on the road?
I try to. I do, but it’s hard to do anything when you’re on the road, aside from eating and, you know, walking around in the same clothes for days, not taking a shower …
Tell me a little about the Mosaic Project and how you got involved with that.
Well the Mosaic Project is a nonprofit organization. I helped found it and I’m still involved in it heavily. It’s all about bringing different kids together—inner city kinds, outer city kids, low-income, wealthier kids, different races and religions—and we bring them together and mix them up. We teach them nonviolence and the importance of building communities across their differences. Every lesson we have, there’s a song that goes along with it. So I recorded a bunch of these songs and put them on a CD to benefit the organization.
A lot of these kids can’t afford to be involved with this organization, so we do all sorts of things to benefit them, so they can come.
And your tour right now is benefiting local nonprofits in the communities around where you perform?
Yeah, different local nonprofits.
Do you have any idea how much money you’ve raised so far?
Oh I don’t know. A few thousand? It’s hard for us to know really how much money we’ve raised for these people because we’re caught up in the day-to-day of touring. But that doesn’t really matter. What really is most important to me, the bigger part, is connecting people with the nonprofit organizations in their community.
Today is the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. Do you have anything to say about that? A lot of musicians have spoken out against it …
Yeah, there are a lot of musicians that are opposed to it. I don’t have any more information than anyone else. All I can really say is that I’m fed up and tired of being lied to.
What do you think about the importance of protest music? It seems like a lot of your socially conscious songs are more pro-peace and less anti-anything.
Well I think protest songs are so important. Protest music is just as important as religious hymns. You know, there is a time and a place for every song. Songs should put you to sleep and they should also inspire you to start a revolution. But everyone who writes music … it’s their job to put a message out there, to use their job to change the world. I mean, everyone has that opportunity [even if they aren’t songwriters] to add to making the world a better place. But we’re especially unique as artists, because people look to us, people gather around us. We can really [have an affect].