John Dennis on Poetry, Hope, and Making a Second Album in Nashville

Nashville-based singer-songwriter John Dennis is gearing up for the release of his new album “Second Wind.” In the stories he tells, Dennis shows himself to be a boldly candid lyricist, holding nothing back as he works through themes of grief, addiction, and ultimately hope. He’s equally skilled as a guitarist in the tradition of Americana, bringing his words to life in timeless folk chord progressions and melodies.

“Second Wind” comes out July 28th via Rainfeather Records, and the poignant first single, “Til The Morning,” is available now. In anticipation of the record’s release, Dennis was available for a brief interview on how it came to be.

You just released this new music video on Country Music Chat Live, and it’s for the song “They Tell Me it’s Time.” What was it like making that video?

It’s funny, the video itself, we actually shot two videos in the same day, we kind of just realized that we needed videos, and my producer Bryan Clark had rented an HDR camera from a local studio in Nashville, and we decided to just go out and try and shoot some stuff. And what was amazing to me is that I don’t know a lot about videography myself, but just how high a quality of product you can put out just with your own stuff, with in iPhone, and a Mac, and this camera.

The filming of the video itself, we went to some historic houses outside of Nashville, in Brentwood, and it was about 95 degrees outside. But outside of that, it was just kind of enjoyable. And Bryan really had a vision for it, and knew what the filters were going to look like. I think that song is such a stripped, honest one for me that the video complements it. It was important that we had a song that could kind of stand by its own, and didn’t necessarily, you know, necessitate a plot in the video, but something that complimented it and allowed it to be sort of honest-feeling, and that filter gives it a little bit of a classic throwback home video look. I personally am kind of new to the music video filming thing, so it was an experience, but fun.

It is a very stripped down song, and a very personal and very emotional kind of song–is it more difficult to interpret [a song like that] in other ways, and do things like make a video with it?

You know, that’s a really interesting question because, in the course of this album, you know I think the theme, it’s autobiographical, I lost a girlfriend a few years ago to a car accident. And so, the album being about healing, and being very much about moving forward and choosing to move forward. That song was the last one written, and was the one written the night before we had to go in and finish up the album. It’s so brutally honest to me that it is difficult for me to imagine it being interpreted a different way.

However, I think that’s kind of the beauty of art, is that what a song means to me is going to inherently mean something different to the person listening, and I think that’s what gives it sort of that transcendent quality is the fact that, you know, they tell me it’s time, and whereas when I sing that song, I’m specifically thinking of Adrienne. Or when I wrote the song at least. Whereas, everybody else in the audience or watching that video has, I’m sure, a number of things in their life that they’re holding onto or having trouble moving forward with. And we have to allow art to do that, you know? We connect on our own unique levels. But as far as interpreting it visually with the video, it was definitely nice to have Bryan come at it from his angle and give it that strict, honest approach. However if he’d come at it with a different visual, like a story-line or something, I wouldn’t say it’d be difficult, it’s just it’s hard for me personally to have sat down with a storyboard and come up something. I actually kind of like it, you know? I like the idea that someone could listen to one of your songs and come up with something totally different, that’s absolutely valid as far as interpretation.

I also wanted to talk to you about the first single that you released off this album, “Til the Morning,” which was featured in American Songwriter just recently. One thing you mention is that it was influenced by traditional Irish and Scottish folk music, and Robert Burns. To what extent does that kind of traditional folk music, but also a literary background, influence your songwriting?

I think, as far as traditional Irish and folk music goes, I really didn’t get into falling in love with music until I picked up a guitar when I was 13. And it was the Beatles, which, you know, the most cliche of all. I was raised on sort of like the Carter Family, Appalachian folk, that type of stuff, and I don’t know what it is about that style of music, but the melodies, you know, “Barbara Allen,” and “Long Black Veil,” all those traditional ballads, they just are astonishingly beautiful to me.

And on the other side of the coin, I was raised by an attorney, it was my dad, but he was also very much a reader. And he was so into poetry. I remember at a very young age my first poetic love was Edgar Allan Poe, another kind of cliche, but as it went on I fell in love with Carl Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the traditional poets, John Donne, and Robert Burns, my dad was a big fan of his. And what’s interesting with Robert Burns is there’s a crossover with him, because he was a songwriter as well, so you’ve got “Auld Lang Syne” and so, he’s one of the instances where it sort of meets. But you know, I definitely think that lyrically speaking I come at it from a fairly traditional poetic standpoint. Not to make a comparison to myself, but to say like, Dylan or Paul Simon, or you can tell those folks that were coming at it from a more poetic, literary approach versus a more conversational, musical approach.

In the title track on the record, “Second Wind,” you, I think, are shouting out Bob Dylan and “Blowin in the Wind,” in the lyrics there.

Yeah, I am, I’m glad you picked up on that.

So “Second Wind” is the name of this record, and it’s your second album. What’s it like making a second album versus making a debut album?

I don’t want to make generalizations, but I have read other accounts, and how it’s tough making a second album because have a whole lifetime to make the first, and then you’re sort of starting over and you’ve got a year or two to come up with tunes for the next. And a lot of bands I think struggle with that because it’s very easy, I think, from an artistic standpoint to think at the end of such a big project like an album that you’re out of ideas, you know? I don’t know of any artist that puts out an album and doesn’t somewhere deep inside think ‘this is the one, this is my masterpiece.’ And so after you put it out, with the first record there’s so much hope, so much vulnerability in that, like ‘this is my initial offering, I’ve put so much work into it,’ and then you’re done, and it’s like this total relief, and ‘where do I go from here?’ and then more ideas.

As far as making a second album goes, for me personally, so much happened in those two years as far as getting sober, and bottoming out, and then getting sober, and I definitely had a lot of material, but you know I think the key for artists going into those second and hopefully subsequent albums is realizing that there are songs all around all the time, just go back to living life and you’re going to encounter them. You know, get in another relationship, or any number of things. I think going into the second album is very daunting to think, ‘can I match it? Can I make it fresh?’ but I think coming out of the second album, after you’ve proven to yourself that you can do it, it’s very enriching. It encourages you to believe that this is something you could do your whole life, and that the muse doesn’t go away. And it doesn’t, it legitimately doesn’t.

There are certain songs on the record […] that really stuck out to me, just as being very impactful. Can you tell me about “Needles in the Schoolyard?”

“Needles in the Schoolyard” is an interesting one. That chorus dates back a little bit for me, I’ve had it for a few years. It’s very obviously inspired by the heroin epidemic. I’m from southern Illinois, right outside St. Louis, and I remember a few years back before I got into, you know, drinking, I’m an alcoholic, before I was really involved in the recovery community, just being struck by, you turn on the news and it’s another high-schooler overdosed on heroin. And you know, before I was involved myself, it’s easy to just see that as a statistic or a number. But it’s just astonishing to me, and you could go on a giant tangent about what it means for society, and what’s creating that, but the reality is we are losing Americans, and human beings to this disease, and I do believe it’s a disease. And there’s not seeming to be a lot done about it. That song was inspired largely by the realization that it’s hitting the children. I mean, the innocents of the world and of this country are falling into that and just slipping away. And so “Needles in the Schoolyard” is specifically about heroin, and in high schools specifically. And it seemed to be rampant in southern Illinois, unfortunately it seems to be rampant in a lot of other places too, and getting worse.

Sorry to dive so deep on that and then change gears,


but another song I enjoyed was the last song, “Sooner or Later.” And I love the chorus on that, “Sooner or later, it’ll all go to hell, but oh well.” It’s at once very, not pessimistic, or defeatist, but in a way, it’s sort of sarcastically hopeful, is the way I think about it. 

I think ‘sarcastically hopeful’ is fairly accurate for what I was going in with, sort of a jaded cynicism. That specific song was first inspired by an old, I was going through my iPhone voice memos one night, and went way back. And some late night I’d forgotten and written that chorus, I guess. It was just this little acoustic demo. And I sat with it, and thought about it, and I was just getting into a new relationship with somebody at that time, who I dated for a year, and it’s since over, but that song and its sentiment is largely about going into something and knowing it has to end. And that’s the way it goes, you know, having lost a relationship, and like everybody else having had relationships that you thought were going to last forever that didn’t. Because they’re mortal human relationships, it’s easy to just not get into them anymore, and say it’s not worth it.

But the point of that song for me is very much, it’s inevitable that it’s going to end. There’s going to be pain involved. And this is one of the most cynical or jaded things to say, if you get in a relationship with somebody romantically, and you stay together, the best case scenario is that one person passes and the other is left, you know? The reality is that it’s going to end, but what that song was trying to say is that it’s still worth it. Even though it has to end, and maybe because it has to end, there’s so much beauty involved in it. Even if this lasts eight months, that’s eight beautiful months that I can look back on, regardless of how it ended. And that’s something that was a philosophy that I had to come to terms with on this record, is looking back at my past and seeing that the things that had left me with the scars were still worth it.

How did you first make the decision to move to Nashville and pursue music there?

I actually came down for college. I went to Belmont University. I was a musician back home, and really enjoyed it, and Nashville seemed like the best place for me because it wasn’t New York or LA, I didn’t want to be that far from home. And my family, my parents and I had taken some trips down to Nashville every summer, it’s only a four-and-a-half hour drive down, we did the music tour and hit the Country Music Hall of Fame type of stuff, and we were on a tour in the city on a bus and they pointed out Belmont, and said ‘this is the up-and-coming music school.’ I did some research, and at first was going to do music business, because I was terrified of auditioning as a musician, and finally Adrienne and my parents convinced me that I should at least try, and that’s what I really love to do, it wasn’t the business of it. I tried, and made it as a guitar major, and that’s how I came down here. And it stuck. I graduated in 2014, and stayed around. Signed a deal while I was in school. 

How has the Nashville music scene influenced the direction you’ve gone as an artist?

Nashville is such a music city that it can be discouraging at times. And that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of opportunity here, and it’s not great. But it’s music city and everybody knows it, you know? It’s a pretty saturated market and it’s easy to get discouraged, it’s easy to get intimidated. Artistically speaking, I would say what it’s helped me to do creatively is really come to terms with what I want and who I am as an artist. Certainly I’m getting influence from writers around me, and just constantly being exposed to music I haven’t heard, but I think being in the big pond of Nashville versus the smaller ponds of St. Louis, or any of those cities, nothing against those scenes, but I think being here you’re forced to say ‘do I believe in what I’m doing? Do I actually want to do this? What is it I bring to the table uniquely my own?’ and hone in on it.

And so it’s definitely thickened my skin, and definitely made me more confident, and I think what’s happening right now for me is I found a spot in Nashville, Cafe Coco is what it’s called, and they do a writers’ night on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s gotten to the point where there are so many great writers that are coming in that aren’t necessarily country, but are great writers, and so I’ll go and listen and I’ll hear somebody and I’ll say ‘I need to go back and write.’ Not to compete, I don’t think of it as competition, but I think, ‘wow, I need to go get a guitar and write, and see what happens.’ And that’s the beautiful thing, is when that happens, and Nashville gives me that in a way that I haven’t had before.

You’ve got a lot of folks like Margo Price or Sturgill Simpson in the outlaw country genre talking about how difficult it is trying to make it in Nashville. And you worry that the pressure might either be discouraging or also produce more of a homogeneous music culture. 

And it can. I mean it’s sad to see, but I’ve had several friends in the last year move to Austin. It definitely can be, and to anyone in Nashville that may hear this, it’s about just going out there, realizing that you just have to keep doing it and people will eventually show up, and be your own. But it is a big wall, it feels like sometimes. But like you said, Sturgill, and Jason Isbell is one of my favorites, and Margo, that’s hope right there, that those things are coming out, and there certainly are places where you run into the competitive nature of things, but you’ve just gotta find the pockets, because there’s a lot of places here that it’s not all bro-country. There’s great music happening, you’ve just gotta find it.

Can you recommend any up-and-coming Nashville folks we should be paying attention to?

There’s a friend of mine named Jason Erie, who used to be in a pop-punk band up in the northeast, but he’s doing Americana, and he’s got a record he’s going to cut in the next month. There’s a dude named Josh Gray who is from up in Maryland, and he’s got an EP out and he’s pushing it. The Harmaleighs, you may have heard of them by now. They’re a female folk duo, they’re really good. And Miles Baker, the guy who did guitar on my album, plays for them. But yeah, there’s a whole number of them. 

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote and why you wrote it?

The funny thing is the first song I ever wrote was this like, country tune, and it’s unusual because it was about a guy who was like, the cliche sitting on a gravestone, playing for folks he’d lost, and my dad remembers it a lot better than I do. I remember playing it for him and he really liked it. And you know, I think the reason I probably wrote it at that time was just to write a song, just to try it. And figure it out. But you know what I think is interesting about it is that the theme of that, and the loss, and the impending tragedy is something that hadn’t happened to me. It was prior to Adrienne dying, and that goes back throughout my life, is that impending tragedy. And I think the reason for that is I had that tortured romantic poet archetype in my head, which a lot of artists have, which I think is a dark tunnel that we ought to try and avoid. 

A little bit of the Gothic going on, some of that Edgar Allan Poe.

It was absolutely Edgar Allan Poe, I think, the idea that you have to lose to be legitimate as an artist. And so I think I was writing to that before it had happened to me. Interestingly, that song I guess was pretty good, my dad says, but the songs after that were way too over-thought, very complex, like crazy plays on words that I understood, but no one on Earth would understand, because I think I was just trying to sound intelligent.

That’s something that listening to the new record I can tell has filtered through a little bit. It’s not crazy dense like you’re talking about, but every now and then a piece of wordplay will hit me, and it will stand out more because it’s not every line.

Well thank you. I guess years and years of it, I think it was largely because of playing songs for my dad, he was kind of my number one support slash critic back then, and still, I would play it for him, and he wasn’t afraid to say ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ So, I’ve come to terms with it, and I guess filtered it some.


For more info on John Dennis, including upcoming tour dates, check out his website and Facebook

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