Brett Dennen is a Renaissance man – a singer-songwriter, a painter, a winemaker, an elementary education innovator and an endearingly nerdy dancer. Dennen and his band perform at the JaM Cellars Ballroom at the Napa Valley Opera House on Thursday, March 22.
On tour in Nashville last week, Dennen talked by phone about his many interests, beginning with his commitment to a unique elementary school initiative, the Mosaic Project. “It’s a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California,” he said. “It’s a week-long human relations curriculum for fourth and fifth graders.
“It’s like a camp, it sort of smells and looks and feels like a camp. But every activity is part of a broad curriculum about understanding who we are as individuals and understanding how we can come together as a community. There’s a lot of emphasis on diversity and the importance of diversity, and on conflict resolution. And it’s a lot of fun.”
“I got involved early on, like 15 years ago, writing a musical curriculum for it,” Dennen said. “Everything we teach at the program, there’s a song that goes with it. I worked there full-time for a few years after college. Now, I’m on the board of directors and my job is to do what I’m doing right now—talk about it and do fundraising concerts, just spread the message and the good word. I’m the rock star ambassador.”
Dennen, who is relatively new to the wine business, said that friends from Smith Devereux Wines approached him about developing a Dennen brand for their company.
“I was a little hesitant at first,” he explained, “because I thought, ‘What the heck do I know about making wine?’ But then I thought, you know what, maybe my personality, my attitude about wine drinking and the wine industry, maybe that might make for a good brand, or at least a good story.
“We decided only rosé. The first wine that we made was Charismatic Fool. We settled on that name because that’s a line in one of my songs. I’m confessing to the listener, have you ever been loved by such a charismatic fool? It’s a sparkling rosé, used for celebrations, weddings, but it’s also really fun and silly. I painted an emu for the label.
“And then we have Vacationer rosé, which is a still rosé. It’s a little more easy going. It’s cheaper. We call that our everyday, all-day drinking wine.”
A painter longer than he has been a musician, Dennen is a professional exhibited artist. “I’ve been into drawing and coloring and painting, doing art in one form or another all my life,” he said. “I paint every day on the road. I paint a painting and sell it at the merchandise table.
“In the last five years I’ve been hung up on watercolor. Most people paint acrylic and oil. It’s kind of like rosé, I guess, it’s a narrow field. But I just feel like I could make a name for myself, or stand out or develop something in watercolor. I think that would be pretty special, because it’s not an avenue that a lot of painters go down.”
Dennen is a folk-rocker with seven studio albums recorded over 14 years. His most recent is 2018’s “Let’s…” Talking about his own musical development, he singles out Paul Simon as his most admired influence.
“I’ll tell you why I like him so much,” Dennen said. “I’m a songwriting nerd and I love songwriters. A great song has two elements, lyrics and melody. Some of my favorite songwriters are people I love because they write great melodies, like let’s say Van Morrison. Then some of my favorite songwriters that I love write great lyrics, like let’s say Leonard Cohen.
“Paul Simon does both amazingly. His lyrics are incredible and his melodies are complex and deep. The lyrics are emotional, and there’s a level of understanding and feeling to them. There’s not a lot of musicians that you can really put in that category. Maybe Joni Mitchell, maybe some of John Lennon. To me, everything Paul Simon’s done, the marriage of lyrics and melody, is just unbelievable.”
At JaM Cellars Ballroon, Dennen’s band will include Daniel Rhine on bass, Mark Stepro on drums and Phil Kronengold on keyboards and guitar. About Dennen’s dancing – you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
Australian singer-songwriter Dean Lewis will open the show.
Thursday, March 22, 8 p.m. $30-$99 (VIP Experience). JaM Cellars Ballroom at the Napa Valley Opera House. 1030 Main St., Napa. 707-880-2300. Tickets at BlueNoteNapa.com.
Ry Cooder coming to the Uptown, Saturday, July 21
Tickets for the legendary American roots musician went on sale late last week. They will not last long. $55-$75. UptownTheaterNapa.com.
David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at DavidKerns.com.