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Meet up-and-coming singer-songwriter Brett Dennen

Michael Deeds
The Idaho Statesman

One of the coolest things about singer-songwriter Brett Dennen is just how uncool he is.

He's 26 but looks about 18, especially when he blinks and pushes up his glasses for the umpteenth time. While performing, he's prone to impossibly unhip fanny wiggles and unusual vocal wavers. The 6-foot-5-inch, flaming redhead admits to crying in an airport last month when he discovered that his first major CD release, "So Much More," had been delayed until Oct. 17 by Dualtone Records.

This is no Jack Johnson. Or John Mayer - although Mayer is a fan. Yet Dennen's unusual stage presence is part of what's so captivating about his music.

"I like to dance around and be barefoot, and I like to let my butt hang out, and I like to make weird faces," Dennen explains, phoning from Los Angeles. "... I try to be open and honest on stage, and to my benefit, I think that disarms the audience a little bit, and makes them feel a little more comfortable getting close to the stage and dancing."

For an up and coming artist like Dennen, it's not easy to get noticed. Performing his African- and island-flavored folk music on a handful of Mayer dates this summer, he was relegated to a side stage, vying for attention while fans searched for seats. But since committing to a full-time singing career three years ago, Dennen has steadily begun to turn heads with his poetic slants on human insecurity and universal love.

"I don't feel comfortable with the way my clothes fit," Dennen confesses during "There Is So Much More," a song he wrote about hearing that President Bush had been re-elected. "I can't get used to my body's limits/I got some fancy shoes to try and kick away these blues/They cost a lot of money, but they aren't worth a thing." On the wonderful, rollicking "Darlin' Do Not Fear (What You Don't Really Know)," Dennen is "hunted by the wolves" and "heckled by the crows" - even as you imagine him shaking his loose caboose on stage again.

Even during moments of despair, triumph permeates Dennen's lyrics.

"If you look back from a distance, I think the only thing I write about is hope," Dennen says. "Every song is different and the hope is challenged in different themes and plots - like a lot of times, it has to do with death, facing death. A lot of times it has to do with facing heartbreak or ridicule."

Such challenges arose early in Dennen's life. He grew up home-schooled in Oakdale, Calif., "painfully shy and awkward," he says.

"I didn't have any friends!" he explains, laughing. "I didn't have any people to hang out with, you know. I stuck to myself and got really good at drawing and painting and imagining and reading. And growing vegetables and going fishing. Just, like, playing in the dirt by myself. I didn't get good at, like, meeting people and sharing. I didn't pick up on a lot of the social stuff until later."

That's changed. Dennen still seems geeky and androgynous to many first-time concertgoers, but he has lost all capacity to harbor self-consciousness.

"Even when I was really, really shy - deep inside I wasn't that kind of person," he says. "... I just wanted to be comfortable in the awkwardness that I am deep down inside. If I can make that known on stage, I'm going to have a better time."

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