Christopher Denny has some explaining to do. Back in August 2007, Denny released his debut, the promising Age Old Hunger, an alt-country set with undercurrents of Orbison-esque, southern pop crooning. And then, in the seven years that followed, he released a cover of a My Morning Jacket song, and nothing else.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have a label — the Brooklyn indie Partisan was ready to move forward with what would become his revelatory follow-up, If the Roses Don’t Kill Us, years ago. It was Denny who stalled. Musician friends he’d assembled for recording sessions couldn’t match the sounds he heard in his head. Partisan cofounder Tim Putnam stopped by the studio one day, offered a critique, and instantly became the target of Denny’s wrath.
“He got the brunt of all of the shit that was going on with me,” Denny says of Putnam. “It wasn’t really a physical altercation, but I laid my hands on him and he didn’t want anything to do with it. I said, ‘Leave. You all leave.’ They actually were there the next morning, and I felt terrible.”
This was hardly an isolated incident. Working with the Little Rock, Arkansas native was no picnic in those days. He could be irrational, impatient, uncooperative and unpredictable — he was either up in your face or off the grid entirely. “I just hated my whole situation at the time,” Denny reflects, “so I was kind of connecting the recordings to [my life], and walked away. I sort of wasn’t available. You can’t really do anything when someone’s not available. I would call [Partisan] and just be like, ‘Hey, where are we at with this?’ And they’d be like, ‘Are you insane? You haven’t been in contact.’ A lot of my issues have not been drugs as much as just, like, obliviousness.”
Which is not to say that drug use wasn’t a factor. At one point, Denny’s habit became so severe that he would go as many as eight straight, strung-out days without sleeping. But the paralysis he felt when he attempted sobriety, only to find himself defenseless against the emotional tumult inside of him, was just as bad. (He describes that state in the new album’s paradoxically buoyant country-rocker “Radio”: “I don’t think I’m gonna walk out of the house at all…because I just don’t feel like it today.”) Whatever the cause, the end result was the same: Denny seldom returned calls, rarely answered emails and was hardly aware of missing shows and interviews. “I’m telling you,” he says, “when they kicked me off the label and told me I was done, and I knew no one was gonna work with me, because the word was spreading fast that I was a junkie — and that I didn’t perform well as one. That didn’t mean shit to me. I couldn’t have cared less.”
He cares now, though. After navigating the Appalachian Mountains and an endless string of highway construction zones to get from North Carolina to Nashville (his tour-managing wife Tiffany doesn’t quite meet the age requirement to get behind the wheel of a rental vehicle), Denny arrived at the High Watt, the club he was scheduled to play that night, sat down at a table inside and, with very little prompting, launched into a candid account of the emotional baggage that got in the way of his music. “I had severe anger issues,” he began. “You know, like, I was just mad at the world from the time I was a kid.”
Denny was two years old when his mom divorced his alarmingly violent, alcoholic dad. But being a freewheeling addict herself, she had trouble providing a stable home. Eventually, Denny’s older half-sister went to live with her own dad. Says Denny, leaning in intently, “April — my sister — went away, and I was attached to the hip of my mother. I just took it so personal that April left us. I looked at it like, ‘I’m gonna stand by Mom.’ And then she sends me to live with my aunt and uncle as I’m starting my adolescence, 11-and-a-half, 12 years old. So I felt totally abandoned.”
Denny picked up a weed habit not too long after. When he was 17, his mother came back around, bringing drama with her, and that’s when Denny started self-medicating with alcohol. The harder drugs — pills, heroin, meth, whatever — entered the picture after he cleared his teens.
The one album Denny did manage to put out during his early 20s was defined by a kind of subtle edginess. He sang in its spare title track of wanting to get in touch with his feelings and “rip through this world with an age-old hunger.” The rollicking instrumental “Goin’ Home” was bookended by his terse spoken instructions to the band. At moments, the billowing sensitivity of his vocals gave way to a livewire vibrato, implying a tug of war between his tender and testy impulses.
He married for the first time at 23, and when that didn’t last, he picked up where he’d left off with his high school sweetheart. Meanwhile, his dad had grown so depleted by cirrhosis of the liver, and had become such a pitiful shell of his formerly threatening self that Denny joined his mom in helping look after him. “I watched my dad die because he was so mad and so controlling and so stubborn,” says Denny. “He was going through the same things that I was, and it killed him. He died of cirrhosis. When I saw him so weak and no one wanting to take care of him, [I decided] I was doing it. Even though he’d treated me so badly, it was like, ‘OK, it’s really not worth trying to get your point across [at all costs].’”
That was a pivotal epiphany, but it didn’t halt Denny’s own descent to the bottom. For a while, he was technically homeless. He’d play a show and raise the cash to rent a room from somebody he knew, or he’d crash on a couch. Once, he bunked in a boat behind his drug dealer’s place. Eventually, he resorted to petty theft — or as he sheepishly puts it, “taking shit from the backyards of people’s houses” — in order to buy a self-prescribed cocktail of drugs.
Denny wrote “Some Things” about becoming fed up with the way he was living, and being determined to turn himself around. Since he’d watched both of his parents spend their lives struggling, simply believing that change was possible was a significant step. The track is animated by down-home gospel flair — a testifying style of delivery, a mini-chorus of female voices in emphatic support, an energized, piano-pumping attack. It’s the kind of song that’s usually reserved for celebrating completed transformations.
After ending things with his on-again off-again girlfriend, Denny had begun dating Tiffany, and she, too, was starting a recovery program, so he opted for outpatient treatment to keep them from being cut off from one another. She encouraged him to take to heart an email he received — once he finally checked his inbox — notifying him that the tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris wanted to license a couple of his songs. Maybe it was a sign that he could rekindle interest in his music. Denny reflects, “It’s like the money that came in was just a reminder of, ‘Oh, yeah. I do have a career.’ I wasn’t sitting in [recovery] classes and meetings going, ‘Oh man, I can’t wait ’til this is over so I can put my record out.’ You know what I mean? I had forgotten about that, and I think I needed to [in order] to get sober.”
Once he did, Partisan gave him another chance. He’s doing his part to promote If the Roses Don’t Kill Us, including patiently fielding questions about his lost years. “In some ways, I’m so over talking about it,” Denny sighs. “But I know that it has to be talked about, that people want to hear about it. I think it’s good for accountability, in a lot of ways, to remind me of where I’ve been.”
It’s also been good for his capacity for empathy — even toward the mother who handed him off all those years ago. “I started thinking about it a whole different way,” he marvels, “which is the advanced portion of letting something go: seeing the positive in it. Like, when something’s terrible, you say either, ‘I forgive you’ or, ‘This isn’t gonna help me grow to be upset about it.’ Now I see that that one of the best decisions she ever made, and maybe one of the only things that ever gave me some stability in my childhood, was sending me to live with [my aunt and uncle].”
Going into the studio as a sober 29-year-old man (he turned 30 this past January) was an entirely different experience for Denny, who’d previously insisted on producing himself and typically laid down rigid rules about how many takes he’d allow for each song. “On this one,” he says, “I let people play my guitar parts. The producer would ask me something, and I’m like, ‘I just wanna sing and play my songs.’ I just gave up control.”
Realism and woundedness still have a place in Denny’s music, but he’s also revealed himself to be jaunty, gentle and romantic by turns. If ever you need a song to help third graders grasp the notion that people have the potential to be at their worst or their best, “Happy Sad” ought to do the trick (except for that one little line about “drinking all night”). The endearingly simple lyrics embrace the ups and downs of Denny’s story, and the track plays like a waltz-time sing-along, with a droll tuba oom-pah-pah chiming in halfway through. “Watch Me Shine,” a grand chamber pop number, dives deeper into that duality. Here, the relief’s found in dragging profoundly human vacillations out into the open: “I fall in and out of believin’/ and in and out of faith/ I won’t lie to say I don’t/ maybe that’s what keeps me sane.”
Much of Denny’s writing treats the dissolution of relationships with startling softheartedness. There’s no emotionally stunted bitterness or blame, only complex and contrite affection, evident in the valedictory spirit of painfully pretty songs “Our Kind of Love,” “Wings” and “Ride On.” Denny says of the latter, “That was about my first [marriage]. I was already going through lessons in life where I loved her and knew that. And I knew that it takes two to mess something up. So why in the world would I put it all on her? That was one of my first lessons where it was like, ‘If I do want you to be happy, then we need to get away from each other.’”
He later elaborates, “I know I have realized a lot about love. It’s nothing that I thought it was, and it’s so much more about sticking it out, forgetting about the shit. And when you can’t, when you’re like, ‘This hurts too bad,’ that’s when you really have to let go of people’s pasts, where they’ve been, who they were. Give them a chance to be a new person.”
As a singer, and a distinctive one at that, Denny’s aiming to meet the listener halfway, to balance ornate flourishes with swept-up emotionalism and to temper his vibrato with a plainer vulnerability. “Because I mean, here’s the thing — I’m already different enough,” he says. “I don’t have to do anything to prove it. I don’t have to go out there and go, ‘Hey, look. This is gonna be really different.’”
Denny gets a whole other line of questioning from family and friends who’d like nothing more than to see him reach stardom. “I make up these just-joking songs,” he says. “I’ve had people talk about a couple of these [fake] country songs I made up and say I could make a million dollars off of ‘em. And I know I could. I’ve had people ask me if they could try to sell them and stuff. I’m just like, ‘No.’ That’s almost part of the whole, like, ‘I’m trying to make things hard on myself in my life’ thing. But I’m being hard on myself trying to be true to something.”
He adds, “I’m just saying, there’s no mainstream for me to throw myself into. It’s hard for other people to understand that. Hopefully, unlike a lot of artists like myself, I will get some good recognition before I’m dead.”
Denny punctuates the sentence with a low-key laugh. If ever he considered hastening his exit from this life in hopes of winning a cult following, thankfully, that’s a thought he put away a long time ago.