Brett Dennen turns focus to writing on latest album

Brett Dennen had never come into an album with nearly the number of songs he had ready for his latest CD, “Hope for the Hopeless.” But then, he’d never done an album as important for his career.

“I was feeling a lot of pressure,” Dennen said in a recent phone interview. “I knew I was going to make this new record with Downtown Records. It was a step up. It was a whole new ballgame. And I knew I was kind of poised at this position in my music career where I knew I had to make a solid, solid record that shows off really good songwriting. So I wanted to write as much as I could and see what cream rose to the top, see what’s going to jell together.”

Taking a month off in January 2008 to focus on writing, Dennen ended up with 43 songs. This led to a feeling Dennen didn’t anticipate.

“The problem is I ran into trouble with that because I got in over my head,” he said. “I wrote too many. I didn’t know how to pick which songs and what to do.”

Fortunately, Dennen had a manager, a producer (John Alagia) and a record label to turn to for help in choosing the 11 songs that eventually made “Hope for the Hopeless.” And the career growth Dennen thought might come with the CD is beginning to happen.

The CD debuted last fall at number four on the Independent Album chart and at number 41 on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 Album chart, and “Make You Crazy,” his first single from “Hope for the Hopeless,” has gotten considerable triple A radio play. His new single is a newly recorded version of “Heaven,” which features a guest vocal from Natalie Merchant. The song is getting a strong early response from radio.

The music on “Hope for the Hopeless,” by Dennen’s own admission, was crafted with an eye toward having a wider appeal than his first two CDs, a self-titled 2005 release and the 2006 CD, “So Much More.” Both of those albums were stripped back, nearly solo acoustic works, and Dennen said he realized that limited the audience for those records.

So for “Hope for the Hopeless,” Dennen made a full-on rootsy pop record in the tradition of artists like John Mayer or Jason Mraz. The songs are fleshed out with a full plugged-in band, and Dennen said several songs were chosen and recorded in a form that would make them more likely to get radio play.

“I watched how ‘So Much More’ reacted to people. I watched how people loved it, but a lot of people didn’t catch on,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, I’ve had some triple A radio [play]. In order to make the shows bigger and really get out there, I need to be played on a different format. I need to be on 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 to an intro, a musical intro. The songs are going to have to get to the chorus quicker. They’re going to have to be simple. There were like all these different [qualities to consider], it’s going to have to have a strong hook.”

“Hope for the Hopeless” is one case where an artist benefited by aiming for a more commercial sound.

The beefed up instrumentation and economical arrangements on songs such as “Closer To You,” “When She’s Gone” and “San Francisco” bring out the melodic qualities in Dennen’s songwriting. They also add layers of color and interest, and the addition of drums, percussion and bass gives the songs some much needed heft that the stark acoustic treatments of earlier material didn’t provide.

Dennen’s approach to “Hope for the Hopeless” might cause some to think he wants stardom and attention. But in talking to the lanky six-foot-four redhead, this appears to be true only in a limited sense.

Raised in northern California, Dennen, 30, 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 and working with the Mosaic Project, which takes fifth-graders in the San Francisco bay area into the wilderness to learn about human relations and living better alongside others. He now 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, particularly on tour.

His fall tour with opener Grace Potter and the Nocturnals follows a summer opening a number of amphitheater dates for O.A.R., and Dennen has put together the kind of backing band that will allow him to give his songs the treatments he wants.

“It’s pretty much the best representation that I could have put together with the time I had and the resources that I had to get the songs from ‘Hope for the Hopeless’ out,” said Dennen, who plays guitar and sings.

“I have myself, a drummer, a bass player, another guitar player and a keyboard player. Between the five of us, we're working on just really doing a good live interpretation of the songs.”

Concert preview

Brett Dennen, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

8 p.m., Nov. 14, $20, $15, Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St., Atlanta. 404-659-9022,