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Brett Dennen on the Healing Power of Music

The popular musician got his start—and his inspiration—using songs to help kids confront prejudice.

Brett Dennen performs at the Mosaic Project

Pop star Brett Dennen performs his songs at The Mosaic Project.

Photo courtesy The Mosaic Project.

Though he’s climbed to the top ten of the indie music charts and won accolades from Rolling Stone, 30-year-old musician Brett Dennen says his most important work to date has been with children at The Mosaic Project, a small outdoor school in the Napa Hills of California.

Backstage at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s premier music and arts festival, I asked him why.

It’s clearly not a publicity stunt—The Mosaic Project, which teaches kids how to confront prejudice and stereotyping—is where Dennen started his career. He produced his first album for Mosaic, Children's Songs for Peace and a Better World, and until 2006, he attended every weeklong session of the outdoor school.

Mosaic’s director, Lara Mendel, says Dennen is “the soul of Mosaic.” He has a special talent for working with kids who are struggling, unhappy, or unruly, and at Mosaic, he earned the titles, “Chill-Out Dude” and “Magic Man.”

Dennen sat across from me on a folding chair moments before his performance, and we talked about peacea concept he doesn't just sing about. Dennen has taught teamwork and acceptance to children and integrates those values into his performance style. He continues to use his concerts as platforms for encouraging community engagement. Through his Love Speaks program, he often invites community groups (including YES! Magazine) onstage to talk to audiences.

Madeline Ostrander: You say The Mosaic Project is the most important project you've ever done.

Brett Dennen: It's easily the most important thing I've ever done, and let me tell you why. Music can have a really big impact on people. There are a lot of people out there who have told me that my songs have had an impact on them. But the work I’ve done at Mosaic—bringing children together, giving them a positive experience, giving them hope to be leaders in their community, teaching them to build community across differences and break down stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice—has a direct effect on those kids. That impact will live on a lot longer than my songs are going to be remembered.

I think nothing lasts forever. I even have the words “Nothing Lasts Forever” tattooed on my arm. But I don't completely believe that, because I believe love lasts forever. And that's how I feel about The Mosaic Project. We're creating a world where everyone can be accepted, and we can build a positive community that grows throughout the world and throughout time. That’s why I feel it’s so important.

Madeline: How do you think music creates a space for people to open up in a way that conversation doesn’t?

Brett: First and foremost, music is melody and rhythm. There is some magical component that just allows people to feel. It moves people. It’s vibration—certain notes just resonate with the body, the heart, and the mind. Music has the ability to take people out of their present situation a little bit, open up, and feel. Then if you can combine that with a sense of togetherness, everybody in the crowd shares a moment. If you can combine that with positive lyrics, it can be a really overwhelming and powerful experience and a way to spread a message.

Madeline: Can you give me an example of when you’ve seen music allow people to share their emotions?

Brett: Yeah, I'll give you a pretty serious example. Two nights ago I played a show outside of Detroit. And one of the guys in my band told me there were some ladies outside of the bus who wanted to talk to me. I found myself speaking to three women. One of them was wearing dark sunglasses, and I thought it was kind of weird because it was at night. And she took off her sunglasses and showed me that she had tears in her eyes. And she told me that three months ago her son had died in a car accident and just recently she heard one of my songs.

The song is called "When I Go" and it’s about—if I were to die, if I could say one last thing to the people I love, what would it be? She thought I was saying exactly the same words that her son would have said to her. She was crying, and we were all hugging. And I witnessed her having a really intense emotional moment, listening, opening up, and experiencing that song.

Madeline: The director at The Mosaic Project, Lara Mendel, said that she had never seen anyone who was so talented at working with kids.

Brett: I think maybe she said that because I could always take a kid who was having extreme difficulty and get them to come back and want to participate. If a kid needed extra attention—they were having trouble focusing, they were acting out—my job would be to take that kid on a walk, go draw with that kid, climb a tree, or have a talk. It seemed like magic but it was really just—you tell that kid in some way or another they are loved.

Madeline: How has your work at Mosaic influenced your music and performance?

Brett: The Mosaic Project was one of my first audiences, playing for the kids. It’s not hard to be a rock star in front of kids, because I was such a role model to them.

My first experience recording was making the Mosaic record, which we used as a fundraising and educational tool. That taught me how to write songs. It taught me how to be a recording artist and a performer. And now very much when I perform, I try to create an atmosphere or a vibe of what I felt at Mosaic. I try to be a fool on stage. I'm barefoot. I dance around all crazy. I try to make people realize I don't take myself too seriously and that I'm really comfortable. I think if I do that, then the audience will feel more comfortable and can come along for the ride. And the lyrics, the things I sing about, are positive. It’s all about positive change, which is what Mosaic is about. So I think very much in my performance and in my songwriting I embody the values of The Mosaic Project.


Madeline OstranderMadeline conducted this interview for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Madeline is senior editor for YES! Magazine.

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