|Denison Witmer — Denison Witmer (2013)|
Denison Witmer —•— Denison Witmer
Birth name: Denison Stuart Witmer
Location: Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Album release: April 30, 2013
Record Label: Asthmatic Kitty Records
01. Born Without The Words (4:28)
02. Keep Moving Brother, Keep Moving Sister (5:11)
03. Constant Muse (3:51)
04. Made Out For This (3:27)
05. Let Go A Little (1:41)
06. Asa (Words & Music by — Bry Webb) (3:49)
07. Take More Than You Need (4:58)
08. Right Behind You (4:10)
09. The Other Side (2:07)
10. Take Yourself Seriously (6:47)
• Devin Greenwood (Norah Jones, Amos Lee)
• James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens)
• Charles Staub (Melody Gardot)
• CJ Camerieri (Bon Iver, Rufus Wainwright)
• Recorded At — The Honey Jar
• Accordion, Bass, Engineer, Keyboards, Mixed By, Organ, Producer — Devin Greenwood
• Acoustic Guitar — Denison Witmer, William Fitzsimmons
• Co-producer, Engineer [Additional], Written-By — Denison Witmer
• Drums — Devin Greenwood, Spencer Cohen
• Electric Guitar — Denison Witmer, Devin Greenwood, Don Peris, Ross Bellenoit
• Layout, Design — Jordan Gray
• Mastered By — T.W. Walsh
• Mellotron — Don Peris
• Percussion — Denison Witmer, Devin Greenwood
• Photography — Ryan Collard
• Piano — Denison Witmer, Devin Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens
• Vocals — Dawn Landes, Denison Witmer, Devin Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens, William Fitzsimmons
• Recorded at the Honey Jar In Brooklyn, NY.
• Additional recording at Denison's home in Philadelphia, PA.
• William Fitzsimmons appears courtesy of Nettwerk Music Group.
• All songs Havre De Grace Music Publishing (BMI) except "Asa" © Bry Webb, 2011 (SOCAN).
• Layout & Design for jordangraycreative.com.
• Photographs for ryancollerd.com.
• Track 10 dedicated to Rainer Maria Rilke.
• Track 10 lyrics inspired by "Letters to a Young Poet."
• © 2013 Asthmatic Kitty Records.
Ξ "Denison Witmer is Denison Witmer, a culmination of a story that started at the birth of independent music in the early 2000s. He began his career in 1998 with Safe Away. Three albums, dozens of hard, long tours, and several years later, Denison released his most popular record Are You a Dreamer? in 2005. The industry changed quickly though - losing its focus on singer-songwriter folk music.Instead of bowing to the pressure to follow musical trends, Denison continued to refine his sound, becoming more confident in creating something subtle and sublime."
Ξ Un singer songwriter a découvrir!
Written by Evan Schlansky April 28th, 2013 at 3:42 pm
• Rolling Stone once named Denison Witmer their “favorite underrated singer-songwriter.” His ninth album, Denison Witmer, was recorded for Sufjan Steven’s label Asthmatic Kitty (Stevens guests on the record). Witmer talked to us about why he named the album after himself, writing on a schedule, embarrassing first song attempts and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
• Neil Young, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Susumu Yokota, Max Ritchter, Olafur Arnalds, Debussy, Henri Goreki, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.
What’s your typical approach to songwriting?
• Free association, free association, and a little more free association. I play guitar until a chord structure takes shape and then I adlib words and a melody until things fall into place. A lot of my new album was written in front of the microphone, though a few songs were just instrumental tracks that I put on my iPod and listened to when I went running. I came up with the lyrics while I let my mind wander.
When did you start writing songs?
• I started when I was 16. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school before I knew how to play guitar. My oldest brother suggested that I get a guitar and I started teaching myself how to play shortly thereafter. I never had a good enough ear (or could figure out how) to play cover songs, so I just made up my own songs by shaping poems over the music. I don’t know if the songs were good or bad. I still don’t know if my new songs are good or bad. I know that I really felt something when I wrote those early songs, and that is important to me.
• When I listen back to them (which is hardly ever!), I usually have a few different reactions. Sometimes I don’t like the songs or I feel nothing when I hear them. Sometimes the song takes me back to that particular time in my life and I get sentimental. And sometimes a song will mean something different to me now than what it meant when I penned it. The third reaction is always a surprise, and in my opinion, the sign of a strong piece of art. When something can mean different things to different types of people in different phases of their lives, it seems like it transcends the artist. Every once and a while, I get lucky enough to open a window in my mind and let one of those creations pass through me. I think most artists are in search of that type of creativity in some way.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
• I don’t remember but it was probably about some romance in high school or an everyday epiphany of some sort. I recently found an old cassette tape recording of a song I wrote about the wild ponies on Assateague and Chincoteague Islands. It was painful to listen to but also hilarious. I think one of the lyrics was “I’m the man who likes to watch the ponies…” Not sure what prompted that but there is a time and place for everything, so I guess I’m okay with it.
• I think it’s important to own your own feelings and create and express them freely. Even if they end up being cliché in some way, you have to experience things fully in order to take ownership of them. Life is a series of clichés but when they are happening to you they feel original. I’m okay with that. There’s a great lyric in an older Josh Ritter song where he’s talking about moving to California in search of a career and he says, “Please don’t say its been done a hundred thousand times… because this one is mine.” That particular lyric has stuck with me — Life as the original cliché.
What’s a song on Denison Witmer you’re particularly proud of and why?
• “Born Without The Words.” I feel like I said everything I wanted to say and I feel like I recorded a fully realized version of the music I heard in my head. I’m a father now (my son is 15 months old). I wanted to write a song that was both from the perspective of a child who has their entire life ahead of them (and needs to learn everything) juxtaposed against my current place in life where I have some things figured out. It’s an encouragement from a father or friend. I’d be lying if I said that song is not also a reminder and encouragement to myself.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
• In the song “Keep Moving Brother, Keep Moving Sister,” there’s a line in the second verse: “I’ve considered my name / the one I’m given and the one I became / and the difference between hangs inside the stars.”
• When I wrote that lyric, I immediately knew I would self title my new album. Self-titling an album is like painting a self-portrait. You have to have a good hard look at yourself in the mirror and, as you attempt to replicate your reflection, you have to come to terms with the discrepancies between the person you think you are and the person you actually are. The lyric I quoted above gets as close as I can to describing the discrepancies I felt when making this album.
Why do you consider this album to be a turning point for you?
• I think this album is another chapter in the arc of my career. I do sense a new level of maturity in my ability to write and arrange, but I’ve been working toward that goal for a very long time and I know that I still have a lot to learn. I have always felt like I struggled to find my voice in the studio, like some of my songs were stronger than my ability to perform and record them. As a result, the full meaning sometimes got lost in translation. Since I feel more confident in my studio abilities now, I feel inclined to go back and revisit some older material and give the songs a new life. I think that new confidence in performance also affects how I write. I’m in a rhythm now and I feel good about that.
What are the themes found on your new record? Did you consciously attempt to apply any themes?
• Despite moments of doubt, I wrote this album as much for myself as I did for anyone who is in a season of their life where they need encouragement. Like I mentioned before, I write a lot of my lyrics on the fly, so the theme revealed itself to me around the time we were completing the album.
• One reoccurring source of inspiration for this record was the story of the knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey. I heard an interview with him on Fresh Air (NPR) and the story of his career really spoke to me. Without going into the entire story, he was tossed back and forth between majors and minors a lot over the course of his (and now great) career. There was specific low point where he was basically giving up and he tried to swim across the Missouri River to impress his teammates and almost drowned. He spoke of accepting his death in that moment and being completely humbled. He was able to make it back to the surface of the water and was pulled ashore by another teammate. After that experience, he changed his style of pitching. He’s the only pitcher in the league who throws a knuckleball, which is a very erratic, completely unpredictable, and difficult pitch to learn. Despite a lot of personal and emotional trauma, he gave himself completely to his craft. He won the Cy Young award last year and is at the top of his game.
• One specific thing that stuck with me about his story was listening to the way he described pitching a knuckleball. He said that some days you pitch it perfectly, other days you don’t. It’s so erratic that when the ball leaves your hand, you have to immediately accept that it might not be great or go where you want it to. You have to focus on the next pitch and let go of the mistakes behind you. That idea – focusing on your next move with concentration and intentionality – stuck with me and encouraged me.
You’ve spent some time thinking about what it means to perform under your own name, as opposed to having a band name. What were your conclusions?
• Self-titling my album should give you a pretty good idea of where I landed on that one. That said, there is an element of my decision to self-title this album that is tongue-in-cheek. The world of business (especially e-commerce and music business) is so obsessed with branding right now. I wanted to make fun of that mentality and of myself while also taking ownership over my brand at the same time. I’m proud of this album—If people googled my name, I’ll be happy that this is one of the first things that come up in search results.
• I pushed back against being branded for the longest time, but the truth is that I am a brand in some way. I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% comfortable with that. Music has always been about making honest art and creating an emotional connection for me, but adhering to the business side is necessary because I have bills to pay and a family to provide for. I’m in the music business machine and it’s bigger than me. My quiet protest to being swallowed up by it is to make fun of both it and myself, and juxtapose that with being more intentional about my decisions from now on. If its sounds like I’ve over-thought this, I probably have. Forgetting everything you know is important from time to time. To go a back to your question about “turning point in my career,” it’s fair to say that this album is a new chapter for me in the business side of things too. I’m working with Asthmatic Kitty Records now (and am so grateful for that). I have a new booking agent as well. I’m working with a manager now and delegating a lot of the decisions I used to have to make on my own. Freeing myself up to perform and write has allowed me to create more purely.
Is it easier or harder to write songs the more you write?
• Harder. Thought that’s only in the sense that I have a lot more moving parts in my life now. Taking the time to get into my creative headspace is a little more sporadic. That said, once I get into a creative space, the workflow feels about the same as it used to. I am a firm believer in structure and schedule. I don’t wait for creativity to strike and then drop everything around me to run off and channel it. I start working at a particular time and I work (and trust me, it sometimes feels like a lot of work) until the creativity starts to flow. I trust muscle memory and practice. A good work ethic is incredibly important and it’s good to form habits that protect your creative space and allow it to surface.
When you’re making music for yourself, and you’re not writing a song, what sort of stuff do you play?
• I’m not sure how to decipher between when the music I am making is or is not a song. I typically write instrumental guitar pieces. Those songs are usually the beginnings of the more fully realized songs that end up on my albums. I have several different types of acoustic guitars, and I find myself gravitating toward specific ones for a period of time. When I get sick of the way one sounds, I switch to another guitar for a while. I’m currently playing a lot of classical guitar. The nylon strings feel right to me, emotionally. I’m constantly in search of a sound that fits my mood. If I’m not writing a song, I’m usually figuring out or rearranging a cover of some kind. I am not really a cover artist, but I do find that learning covers can teach you a lot about arrangement. When the pressure of both writing and arranging the song is removed, you can concentrate wholly on one aspect, and I find that to be very informative to my creative process.
Do you do any other kinds of writing?
• Not really.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
• Probably “Little Flowers,” “Are You A Dreamer?,” “The ‘80s,” “Stations,” or “Los Angeles.” It’s hard to say. Different people mention different songs after shows. I find that some songs have seasons too. I’ll be out on tour and several people will mention the same song in particular, then the next time I’m touring again people mention a different song.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
• My two favorite albums of the last couple years are Daniel Dixon’s Take Care and Kim Janssen’s Ancient Crime. If more people heard those albums it would make me really happy.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
• For a very long time, my favorite song was “Brockwell Park” by Red House Painters (Mark Kozelek). The guitar playing is beautiful and the lyrics are stark and plain, yet mysterious. That song always puts images in my head and I find I can’t do much else other than exclusively concentrate on it when it’s playing. I’m not sure that makes it perfect though.
• I don’t really know what makes any song perfect. The word perfect insinuates a sense of calculation that turns me off. I am usually trying to avoid anything overly calculated in my own songs. When I make albums, I hire great musicians who I trust and I teach them the songs about an hour before we record. I want them to be finding their way through the song while we are recording. I find that a great musician’s instincts are best before they have too much time to work out exact parts. When things get too perfect, I start to lose interest.
“Let Go A Little.”
• It’s a line from Denison Witmer’s latest album, Denison Witmer, but it’s also the lesson that the acoustic singer-songwriter has learned from his first fifteen years of underground success. The release of his self-titled disc—his tenth full-length—comes as an occasion to reflect on what he’s learned from a career in music: to be patient, to trust in happy accidents, and to admit every once in a while that he isn’t totally in control.
• In a way, even the start of his musical career was an accident. Hoping to print a hundred or so copies of his first CD, Safe Away (1998), a teenaged Denison found himself stuck with ten times that many, and went on his first tour in an attempt to keep the extras from going to waste. He sold the whole thousand, including one copy that found its way into the hands of the Burnt Toast Vinyl label, and a recording project intended for a tiny audience turned into a full-fledged album release.
• The title of his seventh album, Are You a Dreamer? (Militia, 2005), offers a clue to Denison’s songwriting process. According to Denison, music—or life—is sometimes like a dream, the connections between one idea and another, or one moment and the next, making sense on an intuitive level rather than a rational one.
• But that’s the beauty of a dream: ”I like it when things don’t necessarily add up,” says Denison, “and I’m okay with that, when things spin a little bit out of control.” And when his songwriting follows along with that intuitive logic, “instead of necessarily guiding it,” he says, “for me, those have always been the most successful moments creatively.”
• But calamity struck while Denison was working on the follow-up to his eighth album, 2008′s Carry the Weight (Militia). His father fell terminally ill, and Denison took a break from music-making in order to care for him. He helped friend and producer Devin Greenwood build the Honey Jar, a recording studio in Brooklyn, and when he finally returned to finish the EP he had started recording, he instead found himself putting together enough material for a full-length—The Ones Who Wait (Asthmatic Kitty, 2012)—a whole album created, in a sense, by accident.
• Co-owning a studio has made it possible for him to create a recording using the same intuitive processes that drive his songwriting, rather than showing up with a strict plan for his time in the studio, to bring in trusted collaborators like Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens, and Rosie Thomas, and give them free reign to realize his music. It has given him the control he needs, in other words, to relinquish control.
• For Denison Witmer, Denison takes the same spirit of quiet acceptance that he has brought to life’s mysteries, happy accidents, and even calamities, and turns it towards—as the title might suggest—himself. Citing inspirations as different as Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the life of knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey, he reflects on the life he’s led, from his earliest days on the road.
• “One day I put out an album, and then I was packing up my car and going on tour. Then ten years in,” he says, “I was still doing the same thing.” The song “Constant Muse” is about those first years: ”I think it’s the most direct song on this album, about deciding to keep doing something that chose me, rather than I chose it—and now, choosing it.”
• Having lost a father, Denison is now father to a son of his own, named Asa, and the new album looks towards the future as much as it reflects upon the past. In another one of those happy accidents, a friend introduced him to a song called “Asa” that just happens to weave the name’s different meanings (“healer” in Hebrew, “morning” in Japanese, and so on) into the album’s themes of comfort and consolation.
• In an age of flashy pop hits that give off more light than heat, Denison’s music is, like his career, a slow burn, but it offers an enduring warmth. He makes “quiet music” (his words), intimate and introspective, that trusts his audience to bring something of themselves to it.
• It’s an open-ended, patient approach to songwriting. “You could be whatever you want,” goes the first verse of Denison Witmer’s ”Made Out for This”—”but I know that you’re feeling older.” It could be addressed to the listener, or to a lover, or even to Denison himself. But the second verse sounds less like a love song than a hymn: “I follow the light as it moves,” Denison sings, “And I’m still making my way back to the river.” And while the verses offer reassurance, the refrain is nagged by doubt: “What if I’m just not made out for this?”
• He doesn’t offer easy answers. ”I guess what’s encouraging to me,” says Denison, “is that you hear sometimes people, who you never thought they had any doubts about what they’re doing, have some doubts.”
• At the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, given a chance to survey the work of one of his artistic heroes, Denison experienced a small epiphany: no one ever thinks of the obscure, early paintings when they think of the name Van Gogh, but those famous, late masterpieces would have been impossible without them. Even when he was making drawings for art school, Van Gogh was already Van Gogh.
• “Looking over the arc of a career, there are moments when you got it right and moments where you didn’t,” says Denison. “For me, music’s always about the process. It’s not always about the final product; it’s more about the journey. You work song by song and album by album in pursuit of something—I really try to trust that approach.”
• Denison Witmer, the album, brings Denison Witmer, the artist, one step closer to that something.
• 1998 Safe Away / Burnt Toast Vinyl, The Militia Group (2006 re-release)
• 1999 River Bends EP / Velvet Blue Music
• 2001 The '80s EP / Burnt Toast Vinyl
• 2001 Of Joy & Sorrow / Burnt Toast Vinyl
• 2002 Denison Witmer Live / Burnt Toast Vinyl
• 2002 Philadelphia Songs / Burnt Toast Vinyl, Bad Taste Records (2004 re-release)
• 2003 Recovered / Fugitive Recordings
• 2005 The River Bends ...And Flows Into the Sea / Bad Taste Records
• 2005 Are You a Dreamer? / The Militia Group
• 2008 Carry the Weight / The Militia Group
• 2012 The Ones Who Wait / Asthmatic Kitty Records, Mono Vs Stereo (2011 limited release)
• 2013 Denison Witmer / Asthmatic Kitty Records
|Denison Witmer — Denison Witmer (2013)|