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Brett Dennen

A Conversation with Brett Dennen

Puremusic: Where do I find you, and how do I find you?

Brett Dennen: I'm on the interstate heading from Eugene to Ashland.

PM: I'm calling you from Nashville.

BD: Nashville, cool.

PM: Where you'll be in just a few weeks--oh, well, not a few weeks, but six weeks. So there's a big and certainly a building buzz about you everywhere I look.

BD: Uh-huh.

PM: And yet it's not that easy to get the story. So that's part of what I hope you'll share with us today, the story.

BD: The story.

PM: The story. In other words, what kind of a home, for instance, and a family do you come from, and where did you grow up?

BD: I grew up in a small town in central California. It's called Oakdale. It's in the Central Valley. Mostly an agricultural town. There are a lot of almonds and cows, and cow pastures. There's a wonderful river that goes through the town.

PM: What's the river called?

BD: The river is the Stanislaus River. And the Stanislaus River feeds into the Tuolumne, into the Delta, the San Francisco Bay Area. It starts up in the High Sierra, up near Sonora Pass.

Oakdale is a small town, there are a couple big factories. There's a Hershey Factory, a Hunt & Wesson Tomato Factory. They make ketchup and oils, Wesson Oil. There's one high school, one junior high, a couple elementary schools. It's a real small town. And my father was a woodworker, a carpenter. And my mom, she home schooled us kids. I have an older sister and a younger brother. And we were all home schooled until I was about--when it was time to go into seventh grade I went into public school, and my mom started to work at a natural history museum in Modesto, California.

PM: So you were home schooled until seventh grade.

BD: Yep.

PM: So once you made that--crossed over into the world, I mean, by and large, because lots of times home schooling entails various amounts of kind of a sequestered childhood--I don't know if it did in your instance or not. But was it much of an adjustment, socially, when you moved into public school?

BD: Yeah. It was very difficult. I didn't hang out with a lot of kids when I was home schooled. I didn't really know how to. I hadn't developed great social skills. I was a nice kid, but I wasn't outgoing at all. I wasn't popular. I wasn't funny. I guess I was really sensitive. It took me a while to adjust to being around people all the time.

PM: And I think part of what I'm getting at there is it doesn't take really careful listening to your songs to see that, wow, there's something really, really special about this guy, not just as a songwriter, but as a person. And so I'm sure it goes back to a lot of those early years, where "hey, we had our own world, we were developing our own vision, and it was independent of where all the other kids were coming from, until that certain time."

BD: Uh-huh. I think you hit it right on the money.

PM: And so I'm sure that your brother and your sister share some really special qualities with you, having gone through a similar upbringing.

BD: Yeah. We're all very creative and artistic. We all have had the time--we've all put in the time, being home every day, instead of being at a school, we had the time to focus and like learn how to draw and play music and spend time being creative on our own, and being comfortable with that.

PM: What are your brother and sister up to?

BD: Well, my brother lives in Santa Cruz, California, and he works in an after-school art program with underprivileged kids in Watsonville, California.

PM: Sure.

BD: And he also is a 101 therapist with children with autism.

PM: Isn't that something.

BD: Yeah. And he's very musical. He's a great piano player, a great singer, a great songwriter, as well. He gigs around town in Santa Cruz.

PM: And what's his first name?

BD: His name is Nathan.

PM: And your sister, what's she up to?

BD: My sister is a math and science teacher, as well as a student activities director at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, California.

PM: Oh, I worked there a number of years.

BD: Yeah, so you know where that is, Sonoma. And she lives in actually the town of Sonoma. Yeah, she's been teaching math and science for a couple years. But just this last year she became the student activities director, which she's really happy about. She gets to also teach a leadership class and counsel and advise all like the student body leaders. She loves doing that. I think it's great for her. I think she's a good role model and a good support for high school kids.

PM: So it's easy to tell, the way you can very specifically describe what your siblings are up to, that you're very tight with all of them.

BD: Yes, my whole family.

PM: Yeah, because most people couldn't [laughs] go into that kind of length about what their brothers and sisters are doing, first of all. It's frequently more like "I think he's in sales. I don't know."


PM: So because your mom was so important as the home schooler, what was her orientation and her personality as a schooler?

BD: At the time when we were at home doing home schooling, I didn't know what it was, but I found out later what it was when I started researching education. Later in life I found out what my mom was doing was a thing called "experiential education," which basically means to learn by doing, instead of learn by being taught. And so she rarely had a lesson plan or anything like that. She would give us books, and we would read the books. And we did a lot of gardening, and we did a lot of science education through being outside. We took camping trips with other kids who were home schooled. And when we were out camping, we learned about rivers and forests and mountains and geology. We'd take books out camping with us, and we'd read about it, and we'd look for what we'd read about.

Experiential education basically means instead of being in a classroom and being taught or told something, to actually go out and see it, and see how it works and learn through experiencing it instead of learning through being taught or told it. And that was really valuable to me. Later on, I took a bunch of education classes in college.  continue

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