“It was time to get back to basics.” Brett Dennen says of his fifth record, Smoke & Mirrors, out October 22th, 2013. “I wanted to return to the folk and acoustic music I loved when I began writing. I decided to tap into my memories and explore new emotional territory as honestly as I could.”
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.”
Foy Vance was born in the North Ireland town of Bangor, but his passion for traditional music was born in the southern states of America. As a child, Foy relocated with his father, a preacher, to the American Midwest settling in Oklahoma. With his father, Foy travelled the American South, widening his horizons and absorbing the rich musical traditions he was exposed to. Returning to Ireland some years later, Foy began writing his own music, deeply shaped by the sounds of his youth. Since those days, he has spent a considerable amount of time on the road, touring with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Michael Kiwanuka, Marcus Foster, Snow Patrol, and Ed Sheeran. Foy also scored Oscar-winning short-film The Shore with David Holmes, who collaborated with Vance on his 2012 Melrose EP. Foy’s newest album, Joy Of Nothing, will be released this year.
With his latest album, “Joy Of Nothing,” – the first effort for his new label Glassnote (home of Mumford & Sons, Phoenix and more) – Foy Vance has crafted a masterwork of the sweet hurt of love and what it does to the men and women involved with all of the fallout. Vance works with those familiar refrains of finding and holding onto a guiding light, of falling back on one’s resiliency (with the backing vocal help of Bonnie Raitt on the excellent cut, “You and I”), of shutting off from the world and living behind guarded emotional walls, of knowing the contents of one’s soul better than anyone else ever could and of ripping everything up, throwing the scraps into the air and just going for whatever gusto might still be left to have in this life of such short terms.
Foy has been writing about these spectacular miseries for years. Since his debut, “Hope,” in 2007, Vance has made the flutter and flail of happiness his chief export. That record ended with his now nine-year-old daughter Ella singing a hidden track version of “You Are My Sunshine,” a song that famously includes mention of the gray skies, if only to punctuate the sunshine and its effects. He uses this same method to describe both the birth and death of love, many times over. Vance is moved by the fractions of love and sentiment, giving himself over to the quiet deluge. His is a voice that rattles you and forces you to let it in so that you may all enjoy a dark room, a modest fire and something to toast with.
“Joy of Nothing” is a record that makes love feel like the most alive and powerful force in the world. It presents a collection of 10 stories that show — with rousing, tear-the-sky-out-of-the-ceiling and all of the bodies out of the ground passion and equally impassioned tenderness – how everyone chooses their own verses. They often find their ways to tragic ends, but Vance reminds us constantly that we reap what we sow and sometimes we’re reaping very little. He presents the sadness that we find in our coffers as something valuable, as something that shouldn’t be dismissed as failure. He presents the sadness that he’s collected as rich with importance – with as much significance to his happiness as anything else.
The songs on “Joy Of Nothing” are all heartbreakers. They are uplifting in their many forms of destruction. Vance presents to us broken love and trampled upon happiness in a way that makes us want more of it, as if it is exactly what we should be looking for. He gives us people who aren’t fine, but will be all right in the end. You can sense that they will find happiness when it’s meant for them. They will burden their hearts and they will rid them of the black smoke that comes from fried wires and belts, when the entire spirit feels like it’s breaking down. These are anthems that remind us that the spirit always rebounds. Vance just hugs tight the loved ones that haven’t left and he twists the corners of his mustache a little tighter, reveling in the light pinks and soft oranges of his many twilights, braced for another verse.