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.
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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?
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.