Musicians often say they had to return to their roots when working on new material, and for northern California native Brett Dennen, that meant heading to his mountain home and writing songs out in the wilderness. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter splits time between Venice Beach and the Sonora Pass region of the Sierra Nevada, where he also grew up working as a hiking guide and camp counselor. "When I went up and really got to spend a considerable amount of time there, all these emotions came back and it was like, 'This is what's been missing in my life,'" Dennen told 'Men's Journal' of working on his fifth album, 'Smoke and Mirrors.'
To show off his lighter side, he and some friends spent a few days shooting 'Wilderness Tips With Brett Dennen,' an absurdist online video series featuring Dennen offering such tips as finding a naturally occurring nest full of beer bottles, gathering food from taco trees, and carving wine glasses out of gourds. "Everything was getting a little too serious with the whole mountain theme, so I wanted to do something silly," he says. "We filmed all day and drank beer and swam in the lake and went on hikes and took cameras with us. It was a dudes' trip, but we were working." The two newest episodes, 'Campfires' and 'Lake Safety,' debut today.
Of all the serene spots in the area, Dennen prefers to do his hiking and fishing in Stanislaus National Forest. "It's maybe one of the best-kept secrets in all of Sierra," he says. "It's basically right next door to Yosemite and two doors down from Tahoe, so those big names get all the attention. Stanislaus, in particular the Emigrant Wilderness, has all the same granite influence that Yosemite has but it's even more lush. There are great high-alpine lakes and peaks. It's probably my favorite place in the whole world."
As a hiker, Dennen prefers to keep it simple. He makes his own trail mix out of dried fruit, nuts, and granola, and prefers to wear pants, a T-shirt, thrift-store polyester western shirts, and old running shoes. "I find that the lighter, more relaxed, and more comfortable the shoes are, the farther that you can hike," he says. He's not really a "believer" in spending money on high-end gear, save for a Katadyn pump that lets him filter out any harmful bacteria when he drinks wilderness water. "Every day was a different adventure. I'd hike until I found someplace cool and plop down and work on a song."
The forest's wildlife is standard for the region. Trout fill the lakes, eagles and ospreys can be seen overhead, and once in a while you'll come across a bear. "The scariest run-in I had was with a mountain lion but no harm was done," Dennen says. "The most threatening animal, though, is the mosquito."
Dennen is also adept at hand-making crafts with things he finds in the wild; he's able to weave baskets, whittle canes, and build makeshift shelters. Crafting also provides a reminder of just how different life is at 6,000 feet up in the mountains, away from the trendy shops of L.A. "People sell manzanita in these high-end stores as like things to hang your jewelry off of or whatever, or they add it to floral arrangements. They go for like 70 bucks! And these manzanita branches are just growing outside of my house. It's amazing."
More information: Brett Dennen's 'Smoke and Mirrors' will be released on October 22 by Atlantic Records/ADA. Watch his 'Wildnerness Tips' videos here, including the two latest episodes, 'Campfires' and 'Lake Safety.'