An honest songwriter: this is the definition that better fits Denison Witmer, a young U.S. songwriter who paints the emotional landscapes in his lyrics pastel, through delicate acoustic phrasings and dreamy melodies. Discovered by Don Peris, Denison boasts collaborations with many artists, including Sufjan Stevens and Rosie Thomas, as well as the same Don, deus ex-machina of The Innocence Mission. While waiting for the imminent release of his new studio album, together with Denison we will have a tour into more than ten years of a bright music career, characterized by a generous and sincere songwriting, permeated by a deep spirituality and an uncommon (stylistic as well as emotional) gentleness.
You are thirty-one years old and you are now at your seventh studio album. Which is the main “engine” for such an intense and prolific artistic inspiration?
I don’t view myself as such a prolific person. I am the type of person who always has large life questions floating around in my head, and music is my way of trying to understand the world around me. I use songs to try to explain myself to myself. Usually my songwriting is like keeping a daily journal to and adding music to the words.
In reviewing your discography, it is immediately evident, especially to a music collector, your self-released cassette tape, “My Luck, My Love”, now nearly a “cult item” impossible to recover anywhere. The name seems almost prophetic, as that of a precious amulet intended to few people. Could you tell me about its genesis?
I recorded “My Luck, My Love” as a project for my English class during my senior year of high school. Everyone in the class was allowed to pick their own style of project to make for our final grades. The teacher’s only real requirement was that our project involved writing in some way. Originally I was going to do a book of poetry, but then I thought it would be nice to try recording for the first time and I also wanted to be able to give my songs to my family and friends.... So I recorded “My Luck, My Love” and only made 250 copies of it. Even though “My Luck, My Love” is my first album, I don’t really view it as my debut. I view “Safe Away” as my true debut because that was the record that got me to start touring and taking music more seriously. “My Luck, My Love” was more of an extension of a hobby.
“My Luck, My Love” has never been re-released. Is there a “sentimental” reason behind this decision?
It’s not sentimental as much as it is a little embarrassing for me. (smiles)
I was very very young and I am not sure I want people to hear those songs. Who knows though, maybe some day I’ll make them available on the internet for free.
“Safe Away”, the first album that has “more officially” been released, arose under the best auspices, since it had the support, both as a producer and as a musician, of that sacred monster named Don Peris (The Innocence Mission), also giving rise to a true artistic partnership. Your linear and mild songwriting well goes with Peris’ gentle picking, which embroiders fine guitar decorations on the delicate texture of your songs. How did your collaboration start?
Don Peris and I met when I was 16 years old. He was originally my guitar teacher. After taking guitar lessons from him for almost a year, he asked me if I had ever considered recording my own music and he offered to help me because he had recording equipment. Don actually recorded “My Luck, My Love” as well, but he didn’t help arrange the songs (produce) or play any guitar on it. Don is the main reason I am a musician today... He has encouraged me to be sure of myself and pursue sharing my music with others from the very beginning. I am forever grateful for how kind and amazing he has been to me.
You have cooperated and still cooperate with many artists belonging to the American independent scene. In addition to Don Peris a special mention goes to Sufjan Stevens and Rosie Thomas, whom you are moreover bound to by a deep affection. Do you believe in friendship being an important aspect when collaborating with other musicians?
I have known both Rosie and Sufjan for a long time now. I don’t think that you need to be friends with someone to be creative and have great collaborations with them, but I know from experience that it is more fun for me to collaborate with people I know and trust well. Like any relationship between good friends, there is an unspoken understanding of each other's instincts in decision making, style and creativity. The three of us met each other through our music and our collaboration has been one more of just relating as friends more than an intentional collaboration. When we recorded Rosie’s last album “These Friends Of Mine”, we never intended for people to hear it... We were just having fun. I am glad the songs were released and that the joy of our creation together can now be shared with others.
The title of your second album, “Of Joy And Sorrow” is taken from “The Prophet” by Khalil Gibran. In one of the stories, the prophet is asked by a woman to talk about the meaning “of joy and sorrow” and then he replies: “[...] they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.” In your opinion may this tight bond between joy and sorrow be the real secret to fully enjoy those moments when the needle tips to the scale of joy?
I want to experience every emotion as fully as possible. I am not trying to fabricate those emotions, but I am trying to be in a mindful place where I do not hide from the moods and emotions that face me in my life’s ups and downs. I don’t think that people NEED to experience sorrow... I would never wish sorrow on anyone. However, any new experience gives you a better understanding and appreciation for the opposite of its experience. I think that joy and sorrow are forever tied together in this way. Understanding the sorrow in my own life has given me a appreciation for the joy I have. Sorrow has encouraged me to never take my joy for granted.
You come from a family with a deeply rooted Christian tradition, and you yourself profess to be a believer. In your lyrics there is strong evidence of a spirituality that is devoid of specific religious connotations, a sort of “universal spirituality”, far from any catechetical intention. How do you live your faith in relation to music and what is your position regarding “Christian music”?
People have personal beliefs (sometimes that is religion) and those convictions should affect how you make decisions in your every day life, but those convictions are not always the reason you should do something. Especially your job. Take a plumber for example.... If your water pipes in your house burst and the plumber that comes to fix them is Muslim, they don’t fix the water pipes in a Muslim way. They do their job outside of their personal beliefs. I am a musician. My job is to write songs. I think that people will recognize that I do have serious convictions in my personal life because of some of my lyrics, but my beliefs do not make me a songwriter. I don’t believe that “Christian Music” exists. I think music exists. I think that sometimes Christians make music. I also know that people of all beliefs (and NO beliefs) make music. I think everyone is invited to be creative in whatever way they wish to be.
Your third album, “Philadelphia Songs” is dedicated to the city of Pennsylvania where several years ago you chose to go and live, and it has been composed in the very first period of your stay in Philadelphia. Far from celebratory or simply “tourist” descriptive purposes, this album is a very intimate story, a picture of the city filtered through Denison’s soul. How did your personal relationship with Philadelphia evolve in all these years?
The best answer to this question would be the lyrics to “Sets Of Keys” (the first song) from “Philadelphia Songs”. I moved from a small town with a predictable environment to a large city where I felt like anything could happen. Philadelphia was the perfect town for me to experience the ups and downs of my young adulthood because I feel like my personality is similar to the city itself. Philadelphia is one of those towns that is constantly looking ahead and romanticizing about what it can do to be a better place. However, the city ends up making decisions that sets it back and slows its progress down dramatically. I tend to do the same things in my own life... I think most of us do. Maybe this is a silly metaphor, but I think we are all cities to ourselves. We all have neighbourhoods in our minds that are filled with art and bars and are fun places to be. We all have slums where we feel poor and confused. We all have tree lined streets with colourful buildings and beautiful people, but we also have a section outside of town where all of the trash from our daily lives piles up and stinks. I was 20 when I first moved to Philadelphia and I think I was very jumbled emotionally at that time. I didn’t know how to manage the city of my mind.
The redeeming thing about Philadelphia is that it always keeps its head up, learns from its mistakes, and tries again with a better attitude. It tries to be better organized with every year and to take care of itself. I have always tried to be this way in my own life. I have always wanted to look ahead optimistically and hope for the best. I try not to beat myself up about the bad choices I have made. It’s cliché, but you can’t change what is behind you. You are responsible for decisions you have made but you are more responsible for the decisions you have to make next.
What do you think of the Pennsylvania songwriting scene?
I am not sure. I have never really existed in a particular music scene because I started touring at a very early time in my career. I do like a lot of other bands from Philadelphia, but I don’t know that I like them better than any place else. Sorry that isn’t much of an answer...
That’s ok. No worries.
I’ve read on the web a very funny story regarding “Philadelphia Songs”. It was about a put-on at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, in the city centre, in order to record a piano solo to be included in a song of the album. Could you exactly tell me what happened?
I wanted to end the record with a song called “Saint Cecilia”. It was written on piano but I had spent all of my studio recording budget and had no money left to record piano. My friend Devin and I came up with this strange idea... We decided to pretend like we were piano tuners and go to the nicest hotel in downtown Philadelphia and record the song there. We dressed like piano technicians (however that is???) and we walked right into the lobby and told the bar tender to turn off the house music because we needed to check the piano. They believed us and let us “work” on the piano for about 15 minutes... We recorded the song, closed the grand ballroom piano, and told the bartender we had fixed the problem... The funniest part of it all is that we could only schedule to do this during the dinner hour, so you can hear a lot of background noise in the song. Servers are dropping plates and cutlery, people are talking rather loud, and you can hear people shoes echoing across the floor. I think it gives the song a nice personality.
You made an amazing tribute to the 70s songwriting scene, called “Recovered”, where paying extreme attention to the nuances of the original versions, songs are revisited with great regard to details in Denison Witmer’s very personal style, while maintaining a strong continuity with their age. Who are the most influential artists in your music development?
Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, Nick Drake.... I listen to a lot of older music.
Regarding Nick Drake, he was a “great absentee” among the artists who got a tribute in “Recovered”. Nevertheless, a suggestive cover of “Northern Sky” can be found in your alter-website “Happy Birthday Denison”. What’s your relation with the British songwriter?
When I made “Recovered”, I felt like I could not record Bob Dylan or Nick Drake songs because Dylan seemed too obvious and Nick Drake was experiencing a major resurgence in popularity at that time. I didn’t want people to feel like I was using either of them for my own personal exposure. Actually, as I explain in the liner notes in the record, I wasn’t trying to use any of the musicians I covered for my own exposure. I simply wanted to pay them respect and sing their songs as honestly as I could. I love Nick Drake (as I have said) and I have always loved his song “Northern Sky”. I had been playing that song at my live shows for some time so when I decided to make my Happy Birthday Denison website I wanted to include that song on the project. I have a strange connection to Nick Drake that is too long to explain in this interview, but you can download a story podcast where I talk all about it on the birthday website.
Since you just mentioned “Happy Birthday Denison”, I would like to talk a bit more about that project. Happybirthdaydenison.com is a website where every November 4th (day of your birthday) you add new freely downloadable songs. This site also represents a wonderful initiative of social solidarity, since you invite listeners to donate if they wish, in exchange for the free songs, indicating two associations involved in assistance to the sick. How did you get the idea for this project-site?
I have always wanted to help people with my music but I never knew exactly how. Of course I know that music relates to people emotionally and that music is very helpful to all of us for that reason, but unless you can translate that “help” into some kind of spendable currency, how can you help them beyond emotions? When I was 29, it occurred to me that I could make a special website where I could give a big 30th birthday gift to my fans by giving them new recordings of my songs for free. Then I decided to ask my fans to donate money in exchange for the songs. Like you mentioned, the songs are free (and will always be free) and the idea is that you can donate whatever amount you wish (or no money at all). Through this, I have been able to see my music turn into something tangible... Like medical supplies for a poor child in Haiti, or a CD for someone to listen to in the hospital. I have always felt like a poor musician living in a rich country. I have always wanted to give away more money than I have been able to afford to... So it is nice to finally see my music helping others in more than one way. I hope this doesn’t sound like me bragging or being proud of myself. I don’t mean it to sound that way.... I am really just meaning to say that I am encouraged by how giving people are and I am emotionally touched by people coming together to help those who are in need. My fans have encouraged me through their generosity.
You are directly involved as a musician in one of the two no-profit associations chosen in Happy Birthday Denison, “Musicians On Call”, since through live “individual” performances you bring your music into the rooms of bedridden patients. Each of us, presumably at least once in his life, through music received some relief, even just a fleeting sensation, in a moment of trouble. In some situations the musician is a sort of “souls keeper”, or at least his songs act as a balm to those who listen. What do you think about it?
The first time someone came up to me after a concert and said, “Thank you for your songs... They touch me emotionally....” I realized that it is essentially like me saying the same thing back to them. I felt like I was part of something larger than myself. I think people forget that the musicians they see or listen to are not always musicians. We are also LISTENERS. I have been the listener many times in my life and will continue to be. I acknowledge how much music has helped me and I only hope I can help people in that same way. I refuse to see myself as a “souls keeper” because I cannot control how someone reacts to my music. Either they relate to it or they do not. I choose not to worry so much about that and try my best to just be honest and thankful.
Apart from being a listener (as many of us are), you are also a musician, and this means that you can alternatively be both sides of the “donating coin”. If we try to observe the musician-listener exchange from the opposite point of view, what does a musician receive from his listeners?
Having been the listener, I know how much music has helped me through all of my life’s ups and downs. To know that am on the opposite (giving) end of that relationship is a very special feeling... It’s something that I do not take for granted. I think what we are trying to discuss is a very sacred thing, so I find it hard to discuss without sounding coy. Sorry. I can only describe it as an unspoken understanding between people... Like an old married couple that sits in silence because they already know what the other person is thinking. There’s no need to discuss it. There is an unspoken understanding and that is a special feeling. I try not to think about this too much because it can contrive what I do. That would be a disaster and immediately destroy the relationship. I always want to be honest with people and I expect honesty from them as well.
Your latest album “Are You A Dreamer?”, apart from the conventional single cd edition, has also been released in a limited double cd edition. This one includes a precious Ep with an alt-version of the original titletrack in “Are You A Dreamer?”, re-named as “Are You A Sleeper?”, a question that gives the title to the Ep as well. The two titles are like the two heads of a two-headed Janus, and by countering sleep to dream, they almost seem to submit a philosophical-metaphysical question to the listener’s attention. Sleep or dream, as if to say: concrete or abstract, reality or fantasy, material or spiritual, earth or clouds. In your opinion, is there a balance (or at least a compromise) between these two aspects?
Lyrically, I think a lot of my last record is about the compromise you suggest (concrete or abstract). I have always felt like music is a place for me to escape the concrete parts of my life. Though by “escaping” them, I often end up explaining them. Writing or listening to music and be like a dream state at times. You can step into a moment where time passes you but you know longer think about it passing by... 2 + 2 doesn’t always have to make 4. I can slip into the song writing process for hours and when I am finished, I wake up from it as if I was in a dream. The information age we now live in brings with it a lot of concrete pressures: “Have your facts right.” “Give us full proof.” “Does science support your answer?” “Can you be disproved?” - This seems to be the way we relate to each other now. Though, if you ask almost anyone you know, I am sure they will tell you that life doesn’t always go that way. The concrete is always eluding us. For every answer we get, a new question (or more than one question) comes with it. I choose to embrace this mystery in my own life. Please do not misunderstand me, I love answers and am always in search of them, though I am more and more accepting of different answer than I was expecting. Life is much more interesting when your curiosity is answered by surprises.
At the end of the booklet in “Are You A Dreamer?”, after the image of the embroidered album frontcover and those of embroidered song titles, one can read: “The artwork you are viewing has been hand-knitted [...] by the patient and never sleeping Kaleen Enke. Additional simpleton knitting by Denison Witmer.” Thus, we find you involved in an unusual hobby, and judging from some pictures published on your MySpace you are still into it. When and how did this passion start?
I started knitting because I wanted something else to do other than reading in the tour van. I like to keep myself busy with projects and I like doing things that have a end product that I can see. A friend of mine was knitting (it seemed to be a fad here in the states about 2 years ago) and it seemed interesting, so I tried it and really liked the process. It is very meditative... like counting prayer beads or something... Once I start knitting, my mind can wonder on to whatever... I can tune everything out and just sit and think. It’s also nice to be able to make your own gloves, hats, scarves, and socks. (smiles)
While going to record your new studio album, you decided to give your fans periodic updates through a Flickr profile, created on purpose, by publishing pictures of the various recording phases. What about this experience?
This answer may not be so interesting to you... (laughs)
Sadly, I found myself so busy recording that a lot of my recording photos were either never taken or haven’t been put up there yet. I love photography and I have a large collection of different cameras. I started the Flickr page mainly to post all of my pictures from tour, recording, and life in general. Once I get a good day in front of the computer (which I have very little patience for - I hate staring at computer screens), I’ll get those photos up there.
Could you give us any anticipation about the new album?
The album will be called “Carry The Weight” and will feature two versions of the song also named “Carry The Weight”. One of them is a full band version and the other is acoustic. Overall, the album is very band oriented... With a little fuller but similar sound to my last record “Are You A Dreamer?”. I recorded in Seattle, WA, with a producer and friend of mine named Blake Wescott (of Saltine, Damien Jurado, Pedro The Lion). My friend James McAlister (drummer on “Are You A Dreamer?” and for Sufjan Stevens) is on drums and Rosie Thomas (solo artist) join me for most of the songs. “Carry The Weight” is set to be released in either September or October of this year.
Lastly, I would like to ask you a little gift, if I can dare. Today is not your birthday, neither is mine and maybe it is not most of the OndaRock readers’ one. But being inspired by Alice In Wonderland, I would like to celebrate this unbirthday day with something special. Could you give the OndaRock readers an unreleased live track as a present for this unbirthday? In this way, I am sure, today would become a sweetly shining, unforgettable day.
Sure. I am on tour right now with USA labelmates named The New Frontiers... I’ll have them help me record a live track or two from this tour and we’ll send them your way. (smiles)
Denison kept his word, and on June 30, 2008 the gift intended to the OndaRock readers has magically materialized: two exclusive new songs recorded live at Southpaw in Brooklyn, NY, on June 11, 2008.
Happy unbirthday (or birthday, if this is the case) from Denison Witmer.
Denison Witmer – Carry The Weight (live @ Southpaw)
Denison Witmer – Life Before Aesthetics (live @ Southpaw)