Patrick Dethlefs on Fall + Rise: "I feel like, with the new album, I just got better at writing songs"

Patrick Dethlefs (due Friday, June 8, at Swallow Hill's Daniels Hall) has been building his name as a songwriter of note for the last few years. His debut album Stays the Same is credited to "Patrick Dethlefs & Friends," which is a testament to Dethlefs's unassuming persona and humility, not only with his own songwriting, but in relation to his friends and colleagues that have helped along the way.

Dethlefs got support early on from some Evergreen friends and then was taken under the wing of Mark Anderson of Paper Bird. Over the last year and more, Dethlefs has experimented with his songwriting to a far greater degree than before, and the result is Fall + Rise, his latest effort, which exudes a notable amount of emotional depth and sophistication. Dethlefs may be young, but his songs are, at this point, the work of an artist coming into his own. We spoke with the mild-mannered yet passionate songwriter about his evolution as a musician and his latest release.

Westword: You were born in Tacoma. Where did you move to when you came to Colorado?

Patrick Dethlefs: There might have been a short bit in Littleton, but shortly after that, we lived in Golden for a year or two. Then we moved up to Kittredge, which is near Evergreen. I went to a lot of my schooling in Evergreen, but then I ended up going to Lakewood to go to Jefferson County Open School. But I did go to Evergreen High School for a few months.

I had fun up there with friends. That was the main source of fun, hanging out with friends. We did a lot of hiking. I'd come down to the city quite a bit and hang out down here. I'd go to a lot of shows. I went through a bunch of different phases of music. I started going to see a bunch of Denver bands, like Paper Bird and Laura Goldhamer. I'd go to Brooks Center Arts a lot and seeing that old pop punk band, folk band the Fainting Fansies. Hanging out with people like that.

Oh yeah, the acoustic crust punk band.

Yeah, exactly. The guy, Mark Anderson, who plays in Paper Bird now, and plays on my new album, was in the Fainting Fansies, which is crazy.

Did you ever go to the Pitchfork House?

Yeah, he lived there, too. I was in high school then. It was cool because I'd never been around that sort of thing in Denver before. But I went to house shows often. I remember seeing Paper Bird playing there in the attic.

It's the Mouth House now, right?

I think it is the same house.

What made you want to get an electric guitar when you were a kid?

Before I was twelve, my neighbor had an electric bass. We were into pop punk and music, probably more pop than punk, Sum 41 and things like that. So he had the bass, and I said, "Oh, I'll get an electric guitar and I'll start learning that, and hopefully we'll start this band." We never really started that band, but it did start me learning. My parents bought me that guitar, and I started learning that guitar on my birthday.

You mentioned you've been through various phases of musical interest. What got you interested in something other than punk?

I grew up around my dad, and he was into rock and roll and jam band music. A lot of older stuff and singer-songwriter stuff as well because he wrote songs. He was into Jackson Browne. I remember going to see the Allman Brothers a bunch at Red Rocks. He eventually showed me Led Zeppelin and classic rock. Then I got into jam music and then into more folk songwriting.

How did you get introduced to the folk world?

I don't know. It may have been getting into bands like Paper Bird. I consider Jackson Browne a folk musician. My parents listened to that music, so even Simon & Garfunkel may have been my first exposure to folk or folk-influenced music.

When was the first time you saw Paper Bird?

There's this coffee house in Evergreen where I saw what may have been the beginnings of Paper Bird, when it wasn't Paper Bird. It was at this place called the Coffee House or something like that. But that Pitchfork House show I mentioned might have been one of the first shows I saw them and then I ended up playing with them down the line.

You met them through being in Evergreen?

Well, yeah, Mark Anderson and Sarah Anderson, who are in the band...I went to high school with Mark, and I met him kind of young, but I'd known him a long time from going to school and then I just kind of heard about the band through him, and I ended up meeting a bunch of people through that. Now I have Mark, Sarah and Susan, which is Mark's twin, on this new album, which is kind of cool. Sort of a family effort.

When did you start playing acoustic guitar?

It was probably pretty shortly after I started playing electric guitar. I remember my dad getting my first acoustic guitar, and I was probably playing acoustic and electric pretty evenly. But I eventually made the switch to playing more acoustic. I think acoustic guitar just has a distinct sound. Writing my own songs seemed easier to do, just grabbing the acoustic guitar and playing. I really like finger picking, and I like rootsy music. I love the sound of electric guitar, and I have electric guitar on the album, but having an acoustic guitar in the band as well sounds really nice to me. My first acoustic guitar was an Ibanez, but my dad had a Martin, and I have it now, so I guess I grew up around one.

Where were your first shows?

I did a middle school talent show in seventh grade. Then I remember playing again in high school with a friend. It was the first time I'd played in front of people in a really long time, and I was so nervous. At the end of high school, I got into bluegrass music, and I played with two of my friends -- one on mandolin and one on upright bass. Then we just started playing out a lot.

How did you get into bluegrass?

Jerry Garcia was in this band Old & In the Way with David Grisman. When I was listening to jam band music, I would listen to Yonder Mountain String Band. But I started listening to more traditional bluegrass, which goes really well with folk music -- it's sort of another part of it. Then I just ended up getting really invested in it and going and taking some lessons, just to kind of learn the technique of it. I got into it a while, and, I mean, I still like it a lot, but I think I've kind of taken that to be another phase.

I'll still play it with people, but I'm more focused on songwriting and doing something a bit more creative and not trying to buckle down to a particular style. I like a lot of older songs and bluegrass is based on this repertoire. I like that, but I also kind of get tired of hearing the same song. There's no need for me to play that song. It's been played by so many people that it could be fun to sing, but it's not as fun as playing a song that you've written yourself.

When did you first start writing your own music?

I guess in middle school I was trying to write songs. I never kept any of them. Or I kept them for a little while and would be too embarrassed by them or something like that. Then I took some time away from writing, and at the end of high school, I started to write again. When I started playing with my friends who played mandolin and bass, I showed them the songs, and they worked them up.

That was fun for me because I was the only one of us writing songs. Playing in front of people or playing shows is fun. I've taken some time off for a couple of months trying to get the CD ready so this is the longest I've gone without playing live for a few years. The first show I did with my friend Robert who played upright bass and Kyle who played mandolin I set up as a solo show. It was at the Brooks Center. We started playing places around Evergreen -- coffee shops and stuff like that. At Brooks Center, we played Henry Sugar, an offshoot of the Fainting Fansies.

Have you played the Little Bear?

I have played there recently, and it's been fun. You know The Eye and the Arrow? They've been backing me up, so we set up this show that was Patrick Dethlefs, Eye and the Arrow and the Devil Whale from Salt Lake City. We did that over New Year's, and it was packed, over two hundred people. It's kind of cool because the Little Bear is not a place a lot of people go for that type of music.

You met Laura Goldhamer through going to Brooks Center, obviously.

Yeah! She helped me record my first album in a basement. What helped was getting into that Denver music scene and playing at Brooks Center because it catered to that sort of thing. Meeting all these people made me think, "I like that. I want to play and write songs." Then becoming good friends lead to collaborating with them.

Would you say your first album reflects your evolution beyond the bluegrass phase?

The first band was more of a string band arrangement. I was just accompanied by acoustic guitar, banjo, upright bass, mandolin, fiddle -- the makings of a bluegrass band. But I wasn't playing bluegrass songs -- maybe old-timey stuff -- but it was my songs so it was a different style but it was inspired by my liking of bluegrass. The new album is quite a bit different.

Did you consciously try to make Fall + Rise different, or was it more organic?

It was more organic. It was just me listening to a lot more music. Listening to a lot more singer-songwriters and musicians. I really like Ray LaMontagne. I also like Feist. Even before I saw her [this past Thursday opening for Bon Iver at Red Rocks], I saw her a long time ago, but I didn't know her then. But then I got into Metals, her most recent album. Then listening to The Reminder and liking that too and then going insane for her. Seeing her on Thursday, I like how big her sound is. I like Nathaniel Rateliff a lot, too. In his songwriting, he can portray so much even if it's just him solo. I like the Fleet Foxes a lot. The songwriting and just the sound of the band -- the instruments they use.

I feel like, with the new album, I just got better at writing songs. I'm not saying I'm really good or anything like that, but just on this album, I feel like I've improved, and I'm proud of the songs I've written. They were written just on acoustic guitar in my room, and then I brought them to the Eye and the Arrow and other friends and worked them up. Hearing the songs in that arrangement was really nice.

So were the songs on the new album a mixture of old and new compositions, or mostly new since your first album?

Maybe one of the songs I wrote shortly after the first album. It was kind of a period, after I wrote the first album -- the first album was just kind of a collection of songs it wasn't like, "I'm writing an album" -- and then I took a break and couldn't write or didn't try and in the back of my mind I thought, "I need to write. Hopefully I can keep doing this." Then I just ended up being able to get into this cycle, and the songs started coming and came together pretty closely. So a bulk of the songs came together fairly recently.

It doesn't seem like you wrote a certain genre of song on the new album either.

What I'm trying to do with my songs is that it has to make sense to me as far as how I connect with it, but I want to keep it open enough, or use the right words, that other people can still relate. Not be so specific with it. I think that even if it is a love song, I would feel so cheesy if I was like, "I'm going to write a love song right now." It usually just comes, and then it's like, "Oh, this is sort of embodying that."

You really feel a strong sense of sincerity in these songs as well.

Even if they're not about specific things, they're all things I'm dealing with. I wouldn't be able to say it if I wasn't sincere. Sometimes it takes a lot for me to write something. I have to be sure of it in order for me to say it without feeling fake about it. Usually, if I feel comfortable with it, I feel like other people will like it. I'm not just worrying about myself; I take into consideration how it might affect someone else. I know that if I'm lying to myself that it's just not going to work.

What is the significance to the title of the album?

It was the third to last song I wrote for the album. It's sort of the overall theme to the album. I don't want to sound cheesy, but in life you fall and then you rise. I don't know if I meant it that way and when I wrote the song I first said, "Rise to fall," but I didn't think that was uplifting enough. So I thought if I switched it around it would sound nice. When I was writing the album -- I'd written it quickly -- I felt like it would best represent the album.

Who did the cover art?

Paul DeHaven, who is the guitarist in Paper Bird. He's also the lead guy in the Eye and the Arrow. He did a poster that he did in this style, and I came to him and asked if he would do something like that for me. We bounced back and forth ideas, and the cover art is fitting for the time too, because I had worked up these songs with him with Eye and the Arrow. So it was natural to ask my friend to do the cover art.

It looks like there's a bit of a water color element here.

Yeah, water color. I like how it sits in the white -- the brush marks and everything. The clouds and the mountains are cut out. I think the [sunset] was colored pencil.

You're playing at Swallow Hill? How did that come about?

My mom liked Sheryl Wheeler, who is a folk musician who plays guitar. We would go and see her at Swallow Hill in the Daniels Hall, which is the bigger theater of the two. I liked that people are really attentive there. Then, when I was eighteen, I won the teen songwriter competition there. That was the first such contest they had. I won both awards for Best Song and Best Performance. I ended up playing the cafe and the Tuft Theater, which is the smaller theater.

Then I opened for the band Horse Feathers in Daniels Hall. When I was recording the album, I thought it would be awesome to have the CD release in Daniels Hall. So I created a relationship with David Weingarden from Swallow Hill and other people. I approached him with the idea, and I got an email back from him a few days later indicating he was into the idea. I like going to be an attentive listener and getting into the music or even zoning out to the music. It's just a beautiful theater too.

Do you have anything special planned for the show that you can share?

Esmé [Tiger Collins] will be opening the show. I love her solo work, and she'll have a band behind her, I guess. I get to do two sets that night, apparently. The first will be a string band devoted to the first album. The second set will be the entire new album. Some of the new album might crossover to the first one. But I think that will be cool to showcase what the first album was like and then what I'm doing now.

Patrick Dethlefs, with Esmé Tiger Collins, 8 p.m., Friday, June 8, Daniels Hall at Swallow Hill, $14-$16, 303-773-1003, all-ages

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.