Patrick Dethlefs looks like he could have stepped out of a 1960s folk club, where some of his earlier songs would have fit right in. But his new six-song record, Beauty in the Unknown, is the kind of shimmering, atmospheric offering that wouldn’t have been possible had Bob Dylan not gone electric, had Neil Young not given country rock such a road-worn, big-sky sound, and had alt-country pioneers like Green on Red and Camper Van Beethoven not woven threads of psychedelia and punk into folk music.
Dethlefs didn’t pick up much from punk. His own songwriting, particularly with the current incarnation of his band, is thoughtful and rich, with slow, incandescent melodies — hallmarks of his lyrics and melodies from the beginning.
There’s a delicacy of feeling, a vivid articulation of emotion in his best material. It’s a hard mix for Dethlefs to summon and then craft with confidence, which may explain why he hasn’t put out a release since the three-song While You’re Carrying That Weight EP, from 2013.
“It’s not me being a perfectionist,” says Dethlefs. “It’s not being sure if you’re good enough, and just not being happy with what you’re doing at the same time, and curious if you should keep trying. Not that I was going to quit music....”
The trouble for Dethlefs was that he didn’t really believe in himself; he feared he didn’t stack up to other artists he respected.
“It’s hard to look at what other people are doing and be so impressed with it, and look at your own stuff and not see it the same way,” he says.
Dethlefs has assembled a band to realize his evolving vision. He recruited former Casey James Prestwood & the Burning Angels guitarist Jeff Rady to play pedal steel; drummer David Barnes, brother of Rose Hill Drive’s Nate Barnes; and bassist Blake Stepan, formerly of Dovekins. Having the group of musicians around him has opened Dethlefs to a broader palette of sounds in his own songs.
At first the band had to work out some kinks in how the music fit together. Then Dethlefs and his bandmates left Denver to set up shop at Hideaway Studio in Sedalia, with recording engineer Mark Benning, who has worked with indie-rock band Ark Life and with Nathaniel Rateliff, pre-Night Sweats.
Out in the sticks at Hideaway, the band jelled between recording sessions, playing pool and pinball to relax. Before tracking, Benning’s ProTools rig went on the fritz, so he proposed to Dethlefs that the band record to tape. The musicians agreed and, as a result, the album has an analog feel, a warmth that suits the vibe of the music.
“I felt like a king,” says Dethlefs of the experience. “I wouldn’t want to do much else but play music with friends and be in that beautiful area.”
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The finished product has an inquisitiveness; it mines all of life’s stages for meaning. Dethlefs hasn’t had an easy life. When he was fifteen, his father passed away, leaving Dethlefs to discover on his own what it means to be a man. That journey colors some of his music, which has a melancholic tone that he calls hopeful.
“Playing in a minor key or in a certain way can seem sad, but I like to think of them as reflective, hopeful songs,” Dethlefs says. “I also think that sometimes I write these songs as reminders to myself. When I sing them, it sounds like I’m giving you advice, but I’m also bouncing it back at me, so I can feel the emotions of the songs as much as...relate to someone else.”
Patrick Dethlefs will release Beauty in the Unknown on Thursday, February 2, at the hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, 303-733-0230. For more information, go to the hi-dive website.