‘The first batch of honey’ An interview with singer-songwriter Denison Witmer
Humble arrangements and subdued melodies abound. Witmer’s quiet, oft-fingerpicked, confessionals delicately shuffle, sway and linger in your heart. The man is no different. With an eye for thoughtful self-study and journaling, Witmer conjures American life with a certain shaded contrast as he draws the listener into his soulful world. I recently interviewed Witmer by phone about his upbringing, songwriting philosophy, new recording studio and love for whiskey.
Will Kyle: Where did you grow up?
Denison Witmer: I grew up about 90 miles west of Philadelphia, in an area called Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s famous for being Amish country, but I grew up Mennonite.
Do you still practice?
Yes and no. I always tell people being Mennonite is kind of like being an ethnicity. You’re Mennonite forever. I think Mennonites and Jews share a lot of the same feelings when it comes to cultural ties. My friends who are Jewish here in Philly say, “Yeah, I’m Jewish, but non-practicing.”
Do you find that your Mennonite heritage creeps into your music?
Of course, it’s responsible for shaping my worldview. I really love the Mennonite church for the missions they seek out. They don’t try to Americanize people. Instead, they give power to the powerless. That’s their whole mission, to enable and empower people. That really resonates with me on a political level and on a spiritual level.
Music seems to have that empowerment aspect too, it helps people make sense of their world.
Right. Music has helped me through many phases of my life. It is kind of magical, because you’re creating something out of nothing. You create a melody you hear in your head and it can cast a spell on people. Since I have taken so much from music in my life, I feel it is my responsibility to give back in some way. Fortunately, I’m in a place where I get to do that and that’s something I don’t take for granted.
When you sit down to write a song, do you have a preconceived idea in mind or do you just start tinkering and follow the muse?
I’d say 80 percent of the time, I play the acoustic guitar and something will start to take shape, so I’ll work a melody on top of that. From there, I like to ad-lib lyrics. I always believed in seeing what comes out of me.
Usually, my favorite songs are ones that come about in an extemporaneous way. It’s kind of like things rise to the surface. That’s when I can focus in and try to work the rest of the song out. Music is also a journaling process for me, writing down my own personal epiphanies in some way, expressing my own worldview.
Past that, I don’t pretend to have it figured out or pretend to be the type of person who thinks my epiphanies are more special than everyone else’s. I pride myself on being a book between books on a shelf. We all have a story to tell, but in a sense, it’s nice to be just part of the library, I mean, it’s nice to simply be one among many stories.
Congratulations on your new record, “The Ones Who Wait.” Did you approach it differently than your previous outings?
“The Ones Who Wait” is kind of an accidental album. My life’s been crazy the past few years. Before my father passed away from cancer, I had started making an EP. Just recording for fun with a friend at his house. When things got more serious with my father, we took a break. After my father passed, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I took a really long break from recording and writing. I spent time with my wife and family.
In the interim, the producer who I had been working with in Philadelphia moved to New York to pursue more production work. He called me and asked if I wanted to go in on a studio with him. We ended up working with hammers, nails, drywall and sound treatments, building the studio as we worked on my album. One day we’d do construction, the next we’d record. By the time we were finished with the studio, we had an album.
What did you end up naming the studio?
It’s called the Honey Jar.
So, in a sense, your record was the first batch of honey out of the Honey Jar?
Exactly. The cool thing about owning a studio is that you have an unlimited amount of time to tinker. I didn’t realize I was writing these songs in front of a microphone, I would just pick a song and spend an afternoon throwing a hundred different things at it. It wasn’t until the mixing process that I started peeling back the layers to just the necessary parts. I never made a record that way before.
I like that kind of back-end music writing. You couldn’t work that way twenty years ago. Tape was too expensive.
I’ve never thought about how technology changes how people write music, but it really does. The opportunity is so much more plentiful now with the digital boom, which allows people to create in front of microphones. It’s great.
I know you’ve worked with Sufjan Stevens on “Are You A Dreamer?” Do you have guests on “The Ones Who Wait?”
Yeah, Devin Greenwood produced. He played with Amos Lee for a long time. He also played on a Norah Jones record. We also have Sufjan’s drummer, James McAllister, and CJ Camerieri, who plays with Bon Iver.
It’s really about surrounding yourself with people you trust. I like when musicians bring their own quality to a song. I’m never the kind of guy that says, “I want you to play this exact thing.” I usually try to pick someone who I really trust and say, “Why don’t you play something you think is interesting and we’ll work on it together if it doesn’t work.”
I see, you want their passion. You don’t want them to be some husk doing what they’re mandated to do.
Right. I fear complacency more than anything. The second I feel indifferent, I know I need to stop and regroup. If I create an environment in the studio where someone doesn’t feel good about what they’re creating, it’s not worth it.
So your St. Louis show at the Firebird on March 31, with William Fitzsimmons, will be the last night of the tour?
Yeah, it’s funny. The last time I was in St. Louis was the last date of that tour.
Do you have anything special planned?
I can’t say yet. The worst thing about being on tour is that it’s hard to carry a lot of things with you. If I could plan a surprise in advance, there is no way I could surprise the guys I’m traveling with. They would plainly see whatever I might have in the van. I’ll probably have to start some kind of sly thing on my Twitter feed.
Past that, I’ll probably find some good whiskey. Everyone on our tour appreciates whiskey, not in the we-drink-it till-we’re-passing-out sense or anything. We just enjoy a nice sip of whiskey.
Anyone ever give you a bottle after a show?
Actually, somebody in Philadelphia noticed that William and I were tweeting about it and brought us this amazing bottle of small-batch Colorado whiskey. It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for us.
Lastly, can you name a couple bands or songs you think you’re fans ought to hear?
I’m really in love with this album called “Take Care,” by a Portland musician named Daniel Dixon. You can find it on BandCamp. I like the production and the genuine nature with which he performs.
Other than that, I listen to the same things over and over; I’m stuck in the past. I’m in love with Ambulance LTD. I’ve also been listening to “The Descendants” movie soundtrack. All that instrumental, slap key, acoustic guitar playing is just so good.
There’s something about instrumental music that allows you to fill the empty space with your own thoughts. As a songwriter, I find those types of albums very thought provoking. I write a lot of lyrics to other people’s music. That’s one trick I have with my own music too. I record instrumental versions of my songs and listen to them in my car and just drive and think. You never know when an idea is going to rise to the surface.
Denison Witmer performs at the Firebird on Saturday, March 31.