INTERVIEW: Denison Witmer
Denison Witmer at the American Songwriter offices. photo credit: Bradley Spitzer
Our very own Rachel Briggs sits down with one of her favorite singer/songwriters, Denison Witmer, to discuss life, community, the creative process and his albums, new and old.
So, tell me about Carry the Weight. It’s been a while since you’ve put out an album.
Yeah, it has been a while. I took a little break. This record was one of those moments where I was set to go into the studio and just a couple things in my life prevented me from doing so. I actually shouldn’t use the word “prevented”… I should say that I had some decisions I had to make that were, to me, a priority over making another record. Those things were just like, you know, it’s been a life long dream of mine to own a house. I bought a house that I had to completely gut and rebuild and right before that, a good friend of mine was sick with cancer and I was in a position where I didn’t really have to be anywhere. I had some savings, so, I moved in with them and helped take care through chemo and radiation, trips to the hospital… just being around the house. Though it was an amazing experience for me, they were such an optimistic person, it was also a hard experience, because it’s hard to watch bad things happen to good people in your life.
So after that, when I bought my house, I needed some time to clear my head, and not think about those things in terms of songwriting. Rather, think about life in terms of just working with my hands, just working in silence and thinking. And, you know, I don’t feel guilty for that at all. I’m in this for a living, I’m in this as a lifer at this point. I’ve been making music for a while, so if there’s a lag between some of my records it’s no big deal [laughs].
So, yes, it is a little bit later than I anticipated but at the same time, it’s OK. And it’s interesting because my last record, Are You a Dreamer?, is all about finding hope in hopeless situations, and I don’t reinvent myself that often. Lyrically, I’m on a lot of the same themes and I think that this new record is definitely straight up that alley, just because I circle back over things. However, there is a new twist on everything as I come back to it and revisit it. With this record, I think I came at it from more of a having to convince myself to hopeful, more than I had to from with Are You A Dreamer?. And that’s OK, I think one thing that I always tell people is that I’m more concerned with the journey than I am with the answers. The answers never have come to me the way I thought they would. They always present themselves when you least expect it, or in a different way than anticipated. My concern is just asking those questions. Songwriting is a way to seek out those answers. And in a lot of ways, on Carry the Weight, a lot of the songs are open-ended. The questions aren’t really answered. I don’t know how people will react to it. I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t really care how people will react to it [laughs]. I don’t make music so people like it, I make music because, like I said, it’s a process, it’s a journey. I’ve been fortunate that I have enough people to share on that journey, and that I can do this all for a living. That’s all I could’ve really hoped for.
With other songwriters I’ve talked with, I’ve been interested in how they specifically develop a song. What’s your process?
When I first started writing songs, when I was 16, it was a form of journaling. I used to keep a journal, I used to write poetry. Then I learned how to play guitar and just kind of transferred into that. So sometimes, there would be words before there would be music. Then, I went through a big phrase of just playing guitar and then ad-libbing a melody to it. Then, I would sing whatever was on my mind, realizing with that, there’s something there, and then eventually it would form into a song. Largely, that’s the way I write music.
But this record is a little different, in that, with the downturn of the music business as it is, as far as the amount of money that is being thrown around, I didn’t know going in to this record if I’d ever have the same size budget in the future as I did for this album. And I always wanted to make a record in a professional studio, start to finish. I had the budget to do it, and I thought, “Well, I might not have this opportunity again.” So I went for it. I went out to Seattle, and worked in this place called London Bridge Studios. When you have only a limited amount of time in a studio, you have to really think about the arrangement of the songs a lot more. As I was creating for this album, wrapping up the writing of the songs, and picking the final songs, a few of them actually were just melodies that I heard. One of them in particular, the song “If You Are the Writer”, was strictly based on the guitar solo. I liked the way the guitar solo sounded in my demo, and it led me to writing an entire song around this guitar solo — so I figured out the chords and filled in the lyrics from there. I grew less concerned about what the lyrics meant in that song, and more concerned with phonetics and things. I wanted to try a different style of songwriting. So it changes. The thing is, you never have to limit yourself. Songwriting is limitless, you can write about anything. In some ways, that’s almost inhibiting, and in some cases, you may not even know where to start.
I think that would sum up the beauty of the creative process.
Yes, and like I said before, it’s all about that process. The joy of the recording process for me, is recording. I don’t spend a lot of time going back and listening to my albums, because I know there will be things that I want to change. If I had recorded that album a week earlier, it would sound differently. If I had recorded that album a week later, it would’ve sounded different as well. That’s the curse of being a recording musician. The public is always several months behind, so what gets released as this finite product, is really not at all finite in my mind. That’s why I enjoy playing live concerts so much. It gives me the opportunity to present the songs in a different form. Also, it helps me connect to listeners, and strip the songs down to just acoustic. I’ve revisited my songs and have different versions of ones over the years. I love to do that, because I don’t believe that there is a definitive way of how to play a specific song. And I don’t really take ownership of my songs in that way either. If you take a song like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a lot more people are familiar with Jeff Buckley’s version. And I don’t think that this is a bother to Leonard Cohen, nor does take away anything from his version either. Songs can exist in all these different formats, and it’s quite amazing. So when I redo my own songs it is almost like I’m covering my own songs, but people don’t call it a cover song when you’re doing a different version of your own song, but they should.
Yes, you did that with your song “Stations.” There’s been different variations over the years, and I appreciate the differences in each recording.
Well, thanks. Yes, perfect example.
Looking back, each of your albums has been distinct to me as a listener, but it seemed like on Are You a Dreamer?, it was very apparent that you made it with a whole album concept in mind. When you write and compile final songs, are you thinking of a start and a finish?
Actually, all of them I think of as an album, as whole products. I suppose the only one that never sounded that way to me was Of Joy and Sorrow, mainly because it was recorded at two different times in two different spaces. And that was my second record, so I felt it a sophomore slump [laughs].
Oh please [laughs]. That’s a beautiful album.
Well, when I start to think about my records, I look at the songs I’ve written over the past several years and I look for a theme. Then I say, “OK, these songs work well as a collection.” Even though I love a particular song, it might not work well with the others, and it wouldn’t make sense to have them all together. And for that reason, some of my favorite songs have gotten lost along the way because they haven’t really fit on any album. On Are You a Dreamer?, from the way the record sounds, to the way I approached the collection of the songs was thought out for a long time. It is the same way for Carry the Weight. I wanted to find songs that worked in a studio setting, and that thematically matched up.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists, like Kerin and Don Perris, from the Innocence Mission, and Rosie Thomas…
Yes! Kerin and Don Perris are both on Are You a Dreamer? …
Right, her distinct voice cannot be missed in the background vocals.
Yes, yes… It’s wonderful and she’s a wonderful person as well. Her husband Don was my guitar teacher when I was a kid, and he engineered and produced Are You a Dreamer?. In a lot of ways, I owe my music career to him, because he really encouraged me to pursue it. With this newest album, I recorded with a guy named Blake Westcott who recorded an older Damien Jurado record called Rehearsals for Departure.
Ah, that’s one of my favorite albums.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful record. Blake also recorded some of my songs on Of Joy and Sorrow, and we have stayed friends over the years. I was going into a professional studio for Carry the Weight, and I knew that that he would be good and efficient, and would have a clear mind when it came to the engineering and mixing paired with the amount of time we had. I just knew he could do it. And as far musicians, Rosie sings a lot on the new album and the drummer, James McCallister, was the same drummer from Are You a Dreamer?.
You’ve kept familiar musicians around you. I actually spoke with Damien Jurado a while back, and we discussed community in Seattle. You sing often of your hometown of Philadelphia, and I’m curious to know what it has offered you. People and places can be such a strong influence.
You know, I’m kind of on the fringe of the Philadelphia music scene, and that’s not by choice necessarily. I think that there’s a lot of amazing musicians in Philadelphia, a lot of great songwriters and bands, and I’m really excited about the scene there. But I’m not that connected to the Philadelphia music scene; I seem more connected to the Seattle scene. That is a byproduct of having toured more with Seattle musicians, and having recorded out there more so. And, I guess I tour a lot, so I’m not in Philadelphia enough to just play with a lot of locals. Although, I do have a few Philly folks that I play with consistently when I am home.
And you’ve lived there for a big part of your life?
Yeah, I’ve lived there for about 10 years off and on, between Seattle and Madison, Wisconsin.
Which album was it with the song “Chestnut Street”? That’s a Philadelphia-inspired song that pops into mind..
[Laughs] Well, there’s my album Philadelphia Songs, with a song called “Chestnut Hill.” Then there’s the song, “Chestnut Street” on The River Bends, which is my full band side-project album. But Philadelphia Songs was the album all basically Philly things.
Right, that album conveyed to me somewhat of a mental picture of what it was like living there, being a part of that town.
Right. Philadelphia is one of those places I think is extremely romantic. I know that sounds a bit corny, but I think it is the most European American city, aside form the French quarter in New Orleans. But it has a mixture feel of some Scandinavian towns and also, Vienna — in that we have this big stråssa that leads up to our art museum, very grand with our sculptures and grass parks on either side… that kind of thing. It’s also a very walk-able town, and we benefit from having residential living downtown and it’s always been that way, so there are apartments above almost every store, and that keeps people in the city at night. It doesn’t clear out, so you can kinda just get everywhere relatively easily. And the thing about Philadelphia is that I find it romantic in that way, that it feels like some other place.
And politically, we’ve just been really hard on ourselves. We make progress, then we shoot ourselves in the foot and do something stupid. It sometimes feels as if it’s in a standstill. So there is this struggle there, a city pushing to be a better place, pushing against a crime rate that seems to rear its nasty head every once in a while and scare people off, and just rebuilding from the blight that took place in the ‘70s. There are people that are really investing in the city and pushing forward. I thrive from that feeling of pushing against the odds a bit. We spent all this time being in the shadow on New York City, and when you’re driving north on I-95, past Washington D.C., signs read “Baltimore,” “New York”; Philadelphia is not even on the sign! I think we felt this shadow looming over us. and then, at some point, we realized, it wasn’t really a bad thing that no one was paying attention. That means we can be creative, buy properties and enjoy it. It is then that people have picked up on it, “Oh wait a minute, something’s going on here!” I think it just took the blight, the inferiority complex, to really find itself as a city, and so we continue struggle through that. I just think it’s a great place to be a creative individual. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.