New Nashville music in the new year will start off strong with an ambitious effort from young Americana/Folk artist John Dennis. “Mortal Flames” will be his third thematic LP for Rainfeather Records. Recorded here in Music City, it’s a masterful sounding and thought-provoking conceptual collection of eleven songs that cycle through the journey of life. From creation (“First Light”) to death (the title track and “Oh Beloved”), the songs in between touch upon tender human emotions such as the innocence of childhood, the angst of adolescence and that unavoidable something we all experience: loss and the difficulty of recovering from it.
While written from his personal perspective, John’s songs will find their way into your own sensitive spirit as well. Each listen through this record will find a new touch point, such as a song like “The Innocents” which looks at the pain of guilt and shame we all seem to share.
“We aren’t so different / Just down / And we are the innocents / So be innocent now.”
Thanks, John, for a great visit with 11 Questions. Looking forward to seeing you play live and make a splash in 2020 with this exciting new record. Here’s a live television clip of John from a few years back singing “’Til the Morning” from his last LP that you can enjoy while waiting for “Mortal Flames.”
Where are you from originally, when did you move to Nashville and why?
I grew up in a small town called Freeburg, IL. It’s about 30 minutes outside St. Louis, and about 10 minutes from Belleville, IL and is notably the hometown of Uncle Tupelo. I moved to Nashville in 2010 to study Commercial Guitar at Belmont and stuck around after I graduated in 2014 to continue pursuing music. I had already signed a four-album deal with Bryan Clark and Rainfeather Records by that time, and this just seemed the best place for me to be.
What are the first and the last records you bought, and where did you buy them? Were they CD, vinyl or digital?
The first album I remember buying was a CD copy of The Beatles’ 1962-1966 (red cover) when I was 13. Up until then, I’d not been very musical. I played saxophone in the school band, but my real passion was baseball, which, admittedly, I wasn’t very good at. I remember being really down about not making the school team and while at a Borders book store with my parents, fatefully deciding to see what The Beatles were all about. My parents put it in on the way home and started singing all the words. Something magical happened on that car ride. Within the next week, I’d convinced my parents to get me an electric guitar and the rest was history. The most recent album I bought was either i,i by Bon Iver, which I purchased on vinyl from Grimey’s at the prerelease event they put on, or Wrestling with the Mystery by the great and local Nick Nace on CD at one of his shows in town.
First and last live concerts that you’ve seen?
Oddly enough, the first live concert I ever remember seeing was Puddle of Mudd. My friend gave me a free ticket to a St. Louis Ribs festival that they were headlining when I was 13. I’m not complaining. At that time especially, I was a sponge for anything and everything music related. I still try to be that way when I can, because I never know what will end up being inspiring even years later. Seeds are constantly being planted; and who knows, maybe “Blurry” is still playing somewhere deep beneath the surface of my (rugged) folky exterior. The last concert I went to was Ray Lamontagne’s recent show at the Ryman. That voice, in that theater was spellbinding. That, of course, isn’t counting the dozens of local shows I’ve been to since then. I think the last one of those I went to was at Tennessee Brew Works for my friends: Gracie and the Valley, Sun Brother, and Julia Cannon—every one of them is an inspiring local talent.
Whose star should be added to the Music City Walk of Fame?
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They’re national treasures as far as I’m concerned.
Where do you go in Nashville for coffee and pizza?
For pizza, Five Points is usually the move with Pie in the Sky being my second choice. As for coffee, I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic, so I’m inclined to say one of the many wonderful twelve step meetings the city has to offer (only partially kidding). Outside of those though, I’m not a coffee snob at all, so really anywhere that I can get a cheap black coffee and a somewhat quiet place to think is good enough for me. As a Belmont alum, I’ll give an honorary shout out to Bongo Java though.
What’s your favorite record to ever come out of Nashville?
This is such a tough question for obvious reasons, but the one that always comes to mind is Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. It seems like it’s the most overlooked of Dylan’s Nashville records with Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline being such monumental albums (for good reason). John Wesley is some of my absolute favorite Bob though. It features a return to the minimalistic, largely acoustic production that is so beautifully rough around the edges, and which allows Dylan, who had just looked death in the eye in his motorcycle accident, to weave his poetry in such a raw and confessional way. Of course, “All Along the Watchtower” is probably the most well-known of the tunes on it, but “As I Went Out One Morning” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” remain some of my favorites from his entire catalog.
Where’s the best place to eat late night after a show?
It has to be Waffle House. We didn’t really have them where I grew up. I guess Denny’s was our closest equivalent, so, to me, it is synonymous with my time in Nashville. Honestly, there’s something magical about a place where you can go hang out, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and eat waffles at any time of night and at any level of disarray without feeling judged in the least. Also, I’ve been sober for about four and a half years now, so Waffle House is a little more my speed after a show these days than hitting the bars while still usually being just as interesting.
The Bluebird calls and asks you to host an “In the Round.” Pick three local songwriters to join you.
Another really tough question. There are so many artists here I’m inspired by, and I’m lucky enough to call a lot of them friends. However, my immediate inclination would be to call my buddies: Brian Milligram, Jason Erie, and Josh Gray. They’re all killer writers and good people to ride the river with.
What are your favorite music venues to play in town?
Right now, like everyone else, I love The 5 Spot. It seems to be one of the cultural epicenters for the scene at the moment. I like the townie bar feel of it, and there’s always a good crowd of fellow artists willing to listen and to swap Netflix suggestions with after the music has stopped. I also LOVE The Bowery Vault. The owners could not be any kinder, and honestly, it’s one of my favorite listening room type venues in the city. They’re always so supportive, and the sound is great. Finally, I’d be remiss to leave out Cafe Coco and specifically, their open mics. In my opinion, it’s but a fragment of what it once was, but for a couple years there, it was THE place that so many of us would go to debut new songs and meet people. I met my current girlfriend of two years there, and it was that front porch and that stage that inspired most of the back half of my new record. I owe a ton to that place.
Name a musician who you’d like to see move here?
On one hand, I want to say Mark Knopfler, because just to be in same city as that guy would feel like such an honor. He’s simply world class. I’ve been lucky enough to see him twice, and sometimes on days when my anxiety is getting the best of me, I turn on one of his records on vinyl (Get Lucky, Kill to Get Crimson, or Down the Road Wherever) and always feel better. I’ve heard he’s a really kind man too, which makes me an even bigger fan. On the other hand, I’d love to see someone like Justin Vernon move to Nashville. I think he’s one of the premiere musical visionaries of my generation, and he’s one of those guys that seems to inspire droves of artists in his wake. Similar to Jack White’s presence in Nashville, I think someone like Vernon, an avid collaborator, would be bound bring about all kinds of creativity and experimentation to whatever scene he’s in.
Finally, what’s in your musical future?
Currently, I’m gearing up for the release of my third full length record, Mortal Flames, on January 31, 2020. I doubt I’m alone in saying that by the time I finally release an album, I feel like I’m well past it creatively, so I’m thinking a lot towards my next record already. However, I also think that it’s important for my personal growth to allow myself to feel the excitement and pride of having completed this one—especially since this is a concept record that took a lot more time and effort than anything I’ve ever done before. No matter what happens with it, I’m allowing myself to be pleased with it, at least for a while. That being said, I’m very excited for the press we have leading up to it, this interview included, and obviously still hope for overnight, international superstardom. But I’d be cool with getting to play a few more dates on the road this coming year and continuing to get to be a part of the ever-growing band of mystics we call our Nashville music scene. I get to create my own art, live my own truth as it reveals itself to me, and support other great people in doing the same. That’s such a gift, and everything on top of that is only bonus.