Singer-songwriter Denison Witmer’s 2005 album Are you a Dreamer? was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence — his calm voice a sonic companion as I navigated the choppy waters of high school insecurities; his complex fingerpicking acoustic guitar style a mentor as I learned to play and write my own music. Witmer’s soulful voice, thoughtful lyrics and inimitable style (some critics have called it “neo-folk” a la Cat Stevens or Nick Drake), has stuck with me for years. Just a snippet of his lyrics or melody can transport me back to precisely where I was when I first heard them, a younger me dreaming of who I might become.
When Witmer’s latest tour brought him through Washington, D.C. last month, I caught up with him backstage before his gig at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. We talked in the artist lounge and sound check stage, before venturing out for a couple of veggie wraps while exploring a variety of subjects from music and family to saints and beer. And we even managed to persuade him to play a couple of songs for us, which we’ve captured here on video for you. (You’re welcome.)
Witmer reflected on his years of songwriting and how the joy of art is its unfolding. He said that over the years, he has found his musical journey both fulfilling and fascinating as he watches songs grow over time and manifest themselves in new ways.
His latest album, The Ones Who Wait, which drops March 6, is an outpouring of songs that chronicle and were inspired by a period of epic transition in the artist’s personal life. While recording and touring with the new album, Witmer got married, mourned his father’s death and — earlier this year — celebrated the birth of his son. After his show at the D.C. synagogue, Witmer had a break in his hectic tour schedule and was heading for Philadelphia to spend time with his family before returning to the road with William Fitzsimmons for a string of west coast tour dates this month.
Below is a transcript (gently edited for length and clarity) of our interview on Feb. 23, 2012 at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue:
SojoMusic: Is there something about playing in a sacred space like this that affects you? What does an atmosphere or a venue offer to a musician?
Denison Witmer: The venue actually has a pretty large affect on the way you feel onstage. For me, when I play in a space like this I feel like I have the opportunity to rise to the occasion a little bit.
Hearing your voice and your instrument kind of breathe in the room, it affects the way you perform the songs. For instance, if you have that reverb, you can give the songs a little more space. You can play them a little slower or you can play less of the guitar part and just let it open up, which I really love. It’s so nice to play a listening room, because the audience feels a certain way too.
I know what it feels like to walk into this space and just pause to take in this environment. It also puts me in a mindset where I acknowledge that we’re all in this environment together, and part of my job, part of what’s built into the equation of the evening, is that I’m sharing something with these people. If they feel a certain way about the space and that resonates with me, it makes that shared experience so much bigger.
Denison Witmer - Light on My Face
SM: You released your first album in 1997. What’s been fueling you all these years? What sparks your creativity?
DW: Honestly, it’s just desire to come to terms with the world around me. I don’t think it’s that much different from any artist’s journey. Whether or not you’re writing fiction or you’re making sculptures. You’re trying to create a space. You’re trying to make something where your own epiphanies and your own desires and your own understanding of the world can reveal itself.
I kind of talk about songwriting in the sense that it’s really not my job to try to state hard truths. I’m not out to say this is what truth is, this is what’s false, this is reality, this is not reality. What I prefer is to try to create a space where truth can move. I really try to remember that art that I like the most is born out of free association. I try to let my mind open up and see what comes out.
SM: Do your songs change over time?
DW: What’s interesting is that now that I have a catalogue of over 100 songs. Sometimes people will request a song I haven’t played in a while and I’ll play it and singing the lyrics will mean something different to me as a 35 year-old person than they did when I was 25. I know I’m still that person who wrote it and thought I knew what I meant when I was writing them. They meant something very exact to me in that time of my life. But it’s really cool when those same lyrics can transform into something else and mean something entirely different to me.
You don’t always get lucky enough to have songs that can breathe and shift meaning. But every once in a while you open up a window and something passes through. It’s really nice for me when I discover those songs in my catalogue. It’s one of the reasons I try not to get too specific about what my songs mean.
SM: You released a record in 2008 (Carry the Weight) and your newest record (The Ones Who Wait) came out last year and is being re-released in March. What has that time off brought to this new record?
DW: From the time I released Carry the Weight up until now I’ve been occupied with a lot of personal stuff. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and he passed away in 2010. I really kind of slowed down on the music side of things. I was still active, but I was doing other things that kept me closer to home. I bought a house. I met my wife and got married. And at that time my father’s sickness got worse so I moved home to Lancaster, PA, and spent the last few months of his life with him. He passed away in Feb 2010.
I don’t regret letting music slide to the background for a little bit during that time.
One of the other things is I now own a recording studio in Brooklyn. I spent a lot of time building that space and making my record at the same time. I didn’t have an idea of what I was making. I was really just writing in front of the microphone. I put down my guitar part and I would sing some lyrics. I’d ask what else it needs and I threw everything at the song without being too picky about it. It was a totally different style of recording for me.
It’s interesting, this new album was kind of an accidental record. I didn’t really set out to make an album. I just wanted to find time to be creative in between all the things that were going on in my life. It wasn’t until after we had the record finished that I realized that I had an album. And when we first released it last year, I wasn’t prepared to play the songs. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now. Being on this tour I realize that I am now prepared to play these songs.
But it was a different style of recording than I had ever done before.
SM: Doing it all from your studio you have control?
DW: Yeah, I had no time constraints. I was free to make the record as I saw fit and when I saw fit. I loved it, but I didn’t know what I was making. It wasn’t the way I’ve made my other records. To try to go out and tour it last year would have been too early. I’m glad that it found a record label. Really glad that Asthmatic Kitty saw something in this album that they wanted to work with.
I guess in some ways it took hearing from colleagues like that who I really trust that they were interested in this, it made me realize I made something I need to look at more seriously. Figure out what’s there. It brought it into a new perspective for me and in a lot of ways saved the album.
This tour is very serendipitous. All the timing came together. I’m a true believer in not forcing anything. I hate forced art, forced anything. These last six months have been about trying to be open to see what comes along and be thankful when it lines up.
SM: What’s next for you?
DW: I have so many different projects in mind, things that I want to do. I’ve been wanting to make an album of songs about Saint Francis of Assisi for a long time. I’ve been wanting to take his book Little Flowers and try to write songs for the different chapters and see what comes of that. I have some ideas swirling around in my mind, I’ve had them for years, and I’m trying to get to that project but something else always comes up.
Denison Witmer - One More Day
SM: What attracts you to Saint Francis?
DW: I think I’m attracted to the mystics, to seeing needs in the world. I’m attracted to caring for people who are disenfranchised. I’m attracted to getting rid of worldly possessions.
There’s something about Saint Francis's approach to life, zero expectations but pleasant surprise. In a lot of ways he was a really conflicted person. Some people would say he’s masochistic . I don’t really know, but I’ve always loved his reverence and his mindfulness. That’s something that I take really seriously and I want to try to tell stories through his lens.
SM: I’m excited to hear that.
DW: Thanks. I’ve already done one song for it, on my album Are You a Dreamer? It’s just an overall song about the inception of when Saint Francis felt called to give up his worldly possessions and become a beggar, the inception of his mysticism, but there was something brewing in him a long time that was the mystic part of him. That leap of faith is really attractive to me.
I also read a lot of Thomas Merton and I hold him in that same place. The song “One More Day” on my new album is about him. I’m fascinated by Catholic mystics, even though I grew up Mennonite in Pennsylvania.
I like when people don’t feel the need to have everything add up perfectly. I don’t think we need that, what I think we need is to let ourselves have room to move and understand that life is a journey. And with that comes freedom. I think the more you try to compartmentalize and snap it all into place you may rob yourself of an experience that’s really important for you.
SM: When you’re not writing music and not touring, what do you like to do?
DW: Believe it or not, I had this conversation with my wife three weeks ago where I said to her “Ok, I’ll come straight with you, I love power tools.” [Laughs]
It’s not because of their power, it’s because of their design and what they’re set out to do, what they enable you to do. I’m the same way about music stuff too. Instruments of a trade are really fascinating to me. Things that enable you to do your job better. Rehabbing houses is really fun to me. I love taking a space and seeing the potential, gutting it, and putting it back together and I love the tools used to do that.
Joshua Witchger is an online assistant at Sojourners. Read more from Joshua on his blog hail fellow well met.