While most artists insist they don't feel any pressure to achieve commercial success, Brett Dennen is very much an exception. So much so, in fact, that by the time he went into the studio to record his latest album, he'd written 43 songs.
Ten of them found their way onto Hope for the Hopeless, a full-on rootsy pop record in the vein of artists like John Mayer or Jason Mraz. The album has a more produced sound compared to the stripped-down approach of his self-titled 2005 release and its 2006 follow-up, So Much More.
"I watched how people reacted to So Much More," says Dennen, observing that, as much as fans may have loved it, there were still "a lot of people who didn't catch on.
"I thought, man, I've had some triple A radio, but in order to make the shows bigger and really get out there, I need to be played on a different format, like Hot AC radio. I was like, what the heck does it take to do that? It's going to take a song that gets to the chorus a lot faster nobody can sit and listen through an intro and they're going to have to be simple and have a strong hook."
Hope for the Hopeless is one case in which an artist benefited by aiming for a more commercial sound. The beefed-up instrumentation and slimmed-down arrangements on songs like "Closer to You," "When She's Gone" and "San Francisco" bring out the melodic qualities in Dennen's songwriting.
It also appears to be paying off in the marketplace: The CD debuted last fall at No. 4 on the Independent Album chart and at No. 41 on Billboard magazine's Top 200 album chart, while "Make You Crazy," its first single, has gotten considerable radio play.
Dennen's approach to making music might suggest to some that he's hung up on stardom and attention. Yet the lanky 6-foot-4 redhead comes across as anything but shallow.
Raised in northern California, Dennen developed a love for the outdoors, backpacking and hiking. He worked for a number of years as a camp counselor, leading backpacking programs for at-risk youth. Now 29, he lives in a modest two-bedroom home in Santa Monica, and says his growing popularity has yet to have much impact in his off-stage life.
What has changed is the way Dennen can present his music, first on record and now in a live setting. The new album has enabled him to embark on his first extended headlining tour, and to bring along the kind of backing band that can give his songs the treatments he wants.
"It's pretty much the best representation that I could have put together, with the time and the resources that I have, in order to get the songs from Hope for the Hopeless out," says Dennen of the more sizeable outfit he's taking out on the road. "I have myself, another guitar player, a drummer, a bass player and a keyboard player. Between the five of us, we're working on just really doing a good live interpretation of the songs."