At summer camp in California’s High Sierra, Brett Dennen hiked and climbed by day, then sang along as his favorite counselors strummed Neil Young and John Denver by the campfire at night. He wanted to grow up to be just like them. And in many ways, he did: By age 15, he was leading backpacking trips for at-risk youth, teaching survival skills, and captivating campers with his own fireside singalongs.
In the past few years, though, thanks to his homemade CDs and persistent coffee-shop touring, the 28-year-old has gone from demonstrating how to start a fire with two sticks to touring with John Mayer. Rolling Stone even named him one of its “10 Artists To Watch in 2008.” His sound? Acoustic guitar, gentle percussion, and lyrics with unflinching optimism. Think Jack Johnson–but ratchet up the fingerpicking skills and swap the surfboard for a backpack.
What first drew you to the outdoors?
My mom and dad were pretty enthusiastic about backpacking. I was in Boy Scouts, too. My dad was a volunteer ranger–he built canoes and took us out on canoe trips. At a young age, that was just my thing. I was into exploring the wilderness long before I became interested in becoming a musician. But being in the outdoors–at summer camp, actually–introduced me to music. I was so in love with being at camp and being outdoors that I ended up becoming a counselor. Then I started learning the guitar and playing around the campfire.
You still do campfire jams for the Mosaic Project, right?
Yeah, the Mosaic Project is a camp in the Bay Area that takes 5th graders into a wilderness setting to study human relations. We have kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds at camp for a week. We talk about what makes us individuals, what makes us different from other people, and how we can bring ourselves together. It’s also a chance for them to meet new people, learn things about themselves, and have a chance to reinvent themselves. I used to be a counselor until the rock star thing happened. Now, I sing at benefits and campfires–and I recorded a CD for the project.
Last year, Clif Bar helped make your tour environmentally friendly. Do you have any similar projects for 2008?
In my last tour, Clif Bar teamed up with a Minnesota company called Music Matters to create the Green Notes program. They work with artists like Jack Johnson and smaller guys like me to make it possible for bands to tour green. We got a biodiesel vehicle for the tour, and Green Notes planned it all out for us. They helped us find biodiesel, which isn’t easy, and they paid the extra cost because it isn’t cheap. This year, I’d like to give more back to the communties we travel through, and I’m creating an organization called LoveSpeaks to bring activists and nonprofits to my show.
Where’s your favorite place to go backpacking?
When I’m in dire need of some soul revitalization, I drive to Sonora Pass and hike down to Granite Dome in the Emigrant Wilderness. I also love northern California’s Lost Coast. There are no roads–just beautiful black-sand beaches and redwood forests.
What do you hope people learn from your songs?
Whether or not anybody has been out in the backcountry or slept under the stars or spent a whole day watching the colors of the mountains change in the sunlight, everyone at some point needs to realize we are connected to a much bigger picture. That’s what I realize when I’m out in the wilderness, so I’m always referencing it in my songwriting, even without words. I’ll try to capture a mood I’ve had in the outdoors. Once you start to understand that every human is connected to nature, you can begin to have empathy for other cultures and other people. That’s the first step to creating a more peaceful world.
Sounds like the same sort of lessons you taught when you led at-risk youth through the Sierra Nevada.
Exactly. It might take a while for those kids to open up to the wilderness–they’d freak out if they saw a squirrel–but once they did, climbing a mountain became a metaphor. Building a shelter became a metaphor. Fire building. River crossing. There are so many important metaphors for life in backpacking. There’s even a metaphor in how to take a crap and take care of your waste. I just wanted to plant the seed about our connection to the wilderness and to the larger world, and I’m still trying to do that.