You have to hand it to optimists, what with their innate ability to always see the glass as half-full, turn the bitterest of lemons into the sweetest of lemonade and all that. But they’ve got nothing on the insightful singer-songwriter.
Only a skillful musical poet – someone like Denison Witmer – could take those same sour lemons and transform them into a sweeping opus about a heroic citrus farmer that overcomes staggering misfortune to save the world from ascorbic acid deficiency.
Or perhaps use a singular tale about an aging baseball player as inspiration to craft an epic collection of tunes about life’s mysteries, happy accidents, and calamities. It isn’t often that an artist’s muse plays on the baseball diamond rather than the stage.
But the account of pitcher R.A. Dickey’s comeback from personal and emotional trauma to win the 2012 Cy Young award was a recurring source of inspiration for the talented artist’s latest masterwork, 2013’s “Denison Witmer.” The singer-songwriter chatted with me recently about the stirring new album and his storied career.
It isn’t the first time that the tunesmith has used lessons learned from life’s challenges to craft a remarkable album. While working on the follow-up to his eighth full-length album, 2008’s “Carry the Weight,” Witmer’s father fell terminally ill and the artist took a break from music-making in order to care for him.
After helping friend and producer Devin Greenwood build the Honey Jar, a recording studio in Brooklyn, Witmer returned to finish the EP he had started recording. Instead he found himself putting together enough material for another full-length, 2012’s appropriately titled “The Ones Who Wait.”
For “Denison Witmer,” the talented artist channeled the renowned knuckleballer’s guiding maxim – to focus on the next pitch and let go of the mistakes – to craft an extraordinary collection of intimate and insightful tunes.
Witmer readily admitted that he learned a great deal from his eponymous 10th record. “Yeah I did. I'm a firm believer that you never really stop learning, or at least you never try to. And I find that with every album that I make, I learn something different.”
“In this case, I own my own recording studio now and I have an unlimited amount of time to work. I’ve taught myself to write songs in front of the microphone for a change. I used to have to make records where I was given a budget and I would take my budget, arrange the songs and go into a studio and execute the arrangements that I had made up.”
“But now I have the freedom of throwing whatever I want at the songs. It’s taught me to just trust that free association, gut instinct that I've always liked about song writing, and transfer that into the approach in the studio. And I love it.”
“I love it because I’ll never forget the things that I’ve learned up to this point. So if I can incorporate some new styles of working into my current work flow, then it sounds like a win/win situation to me.”
Given the astounding results of Witmer’s renewed creative freedom, it makes you wonder if he shouldn’t have built the studio a long time ago. “You know, it’s hard to say,” Witmer said with a laugh. “I've always dabbled in home recording. But I never had the resources to be able to do something like this. Hindsight is 20-20. All those clichés that we have in our lives are true for a reason (chuckles). But I'm glad I have it now. I feel like it’s gonna be a new perspective that I can take into the next chapter of my career.”
While an artist issuing a self-named album is nothing new, waiting to do it until your 10th certainly is. Witmer confessed that there was method to his “madness.”
“It’s very intentional…well, obviously (laughing). I wrote the lyrics in the song ‘Keep Moving Brother, Keep Moving Sister.’ There’s a lyric in the second verse that says, ‘I consider my name / the one I’m given and the one I became / and the difference between hangs inside the stars my love.’ And when I wrote that lyric, I knew I had to self-title the record, mostly because it is about my career journey up to this point.”
“My father passed away about three years ago and then I became a father about 16 months ago. And thinking about both of those events and thinking about where I am, smack in the middle of my mid-thirties, it just seemed that this was a very true, personal record. There’s just no way around it.”
“I knew that any title I came up with would fall short of the fact that this was very much about me. And it’s okay. You know, it was scary to self-title a record (laughing) because there’s a fear of being too self-involved. And even lyrically sometimes, 'Am I being too self-involved?'”
“But the truth is, you can only look at life through the lens that you look out through. Sure, we can incorporate everybody else’s stories into our own and there’s a time and a place for that. But I'm trying specifically to tell my story right now with this record.”
“I always relate to very personal creativity. I would tell people when they create something very selfishly, I always relate to it more. So I always feel like ‘create selfishly, give away your creation selflessly’ and hopefully that will translate in some way.”
“Self-titling the record is a bit like a self-portrait too. You have to come to terms with the discrepancy between how you think you appear and how you actually appear. And that’s sort of a fun place to write from.”
Witmer must have been doing something right because the new record is one exceptional cut after another. One of the best is “Let Go A Little,” which has Witmer lyrically admonishing some mysterious uptight subject, “Why are you so precious about everything? / Let go a little.”
Ironically, the discerning songwriter admitted that with “Denison Witmer,” he finally learned how to do just that. “Yeah, I think I did. What I discovered about myself is that the thing that remains true to me on all of my records, the songs that I still gravitate towards, is something that has some type of happy accident in it. And had some element of things a little bit out of control, instead of trying to force it into place, just kind of letting it develop.”
“I'm trying to trust that more and more. So this record is about encouraging myself to do that exact thing, to let go a little bit. I'm not saying be complacent and I'm not saying don’t pay attention. It’s just that I feel like I’ve really finally learned how to follow the song a little bit and kind of let it lead me where it wants to go. I like that. I like that push and pull in creativity when you don’t really know exactly how the melody’s gonna work out.”
“One great way of explaining this is when we recorded the album, I hired the best players I could find. I had people who were friends of mine and people I trust musically who I know have some personal understanding of me, but also have a great musical sense.”
“Instead of teaching them the songs ahead of time, I just taught them the songs five minutes before we recorded. I said, ‘This is the basic structure of the song and here is the kind of feel that I'm going for.’ We already had the microphones set up and I said, ‘Let’s play it.’ And we played the song about four or five times. Most of the songs, I have to say, within those five takes were the final recordings. They just felt right.”
“And I wanted that because I didn’t want them to have the songs too figured out. I wanted them to trust their musical sense. I wanted the drummer to take the chance and maybe put fill or hit a cymbal in a place where he wasn’t quite sure it was supposed to fit. But at least I knew he was really trying to pay attention to where the song was going.”
“If you trust the people that you’re working with and they have a good musical sense, chances are you’re going to catch them at a very free moment when you record that way. I think it worked out.”
The release of his 10th full-length record was an occasion for Witmer to reflect on what he's learned from a career in music: to be patient, to trust in the happy accidents, and to admit every once in a while that he isn't totally in control. And while it may appear somewhat disordered, it’s really just chaotic brilliance.
“I used to go into the studio with a lot more of a selection of songs and much more of an idea of the record that I was gonna make. This record’s not really that way. In fact the last two records weren’t really that way. Some of it was written in the studio.”
“And so I really didn’t think too much about how the songs were gonna fit together as much as I did the production. I just knew that if we arranged them with a certain band set up and stayed within the instrumentation that we had selected in the studio, hopefully they would have a cohesive feel.”
“I have a pretty high threshold for things sounding similar. You’re not quite sure one song to the next where the separation is and that’s okay with me because I'm trying to create a space that you step into to for an entire album.”
“I'm an album listener. I don’t listen to just one song by one artist and skip to another one. Unless it’s a great mix tape, it’s not really my style. I definitely like the experience of an entire record.”
With “Denison Witmer,” the gifted tunesmith has given us an entire record of nuanced melodies, songs that reward the attentive listener with endless musical insights. Unfortunately for Witmer, not every listener will take the time to search for the lyrical and melodic gems – particularly when he plays them live. That can present some challenges for an artist that is serious about their craft.
“(Laughing). Yeah, I experience that sometimes. But the thing is, I've been doing it so long now that I really just try to perform to the people who are there to listen. In a situation where people are really loud, I politely ask them to quiet down. I try to find a way to do it.”
“I'm not mean about it, but I have a certain number of fans out there that pay to come to the show. I feel like, ‘Hey we’re all in it together. You all paid the same amount to be here. Some of these people are here to actually hear my songs. So if you can give ‘em a couple quiet songs, that’s all I ask for.’”
“And it’s not about my ego. It’s not about anything like that. It’s just about having a space where I can hopefully make the songs translate. I find too that people root for you, not against you. I really believe in that.”
“If you just go up there and you try your best – and for me it’s just about trying to honor the song and be in the moment of the song – even if some people are talking, there’s gonna be people out there that it makes it to and that’s what you play for. You go for that connection when you’re in the live setting.”
One song that’s sure to connect with Witmer’s loyal fans is “Made Out For This,” a tune that has him introspectively singing about making “my way back to the river.” More than any other cut on the album, “Made Out For This” hearkens back to Dickey’s motivational tale. Witmer spoke of the song’s personal significance.
“Well hopefully people don’t see that as a cheesy metaphor. But for me the river is obviously to have a forward motion, going where it will, following its path and trusting that the path is already determined. It just needs to go along with it.”
“I'm not saying this very eloquently, but I just want to do what I'm doing as honestly as I can. I'm flattered that I've been able to do this for a living for this long and I hope that I get to keep doing it. I have to trust if there’s day that comes where I no longer get paid to do this, that’s okay. I'm still gonna write songs and still gonna make records and I’ll do something else as a vocation. It’s really just an encouragement to myself to remember.”
“But that song was really strongly inspired by both my career to date and also a story I heard on NPR about this knuckleball pitcher named R.A. Dickey. His whole story really moves me and I ended up buying his memoir.”
“He had this moment before he became a knuckleball pitcher where he was getting tossed around between the major leagues and the minor leagues and he kept getting older and his career wasn’t going to a place where he wanted it to go. As a bet one night with one of the minor league teams, he tried to impress his teammates and swim across the Missouri River. He knew when he got out that the current was too strong for him and it pulled him down.”
“He talked about this moment where he accepted his death and he thought he was going to drown. He considered his family and had that near-death experience where all those things are going through his head. And luckily the current kicked him back out and his teammates pulled him to shore. He went on to change his style of pitching to a knuckleball pitcher and ended up winning the Cy Young award last year.”
“Aside from the fact that the story is really inspirational, the idea that if you give your life to something, you try so hard, and sometimes it just takes giving up and realizing that in his case, the power of the river was just bigger than him. It was so much bigger than him. He’s trying to force that whole square peg into a round hole and if it’s not working, sometimes you need to admit it. And so I'm really trying to trust that I can pursue creativity very freely and just let it take me where it wants me to go.”
The ironic thing about melodic bard’s story is that it further convinces me that the “cheesy metaphors” are what makes life such an incredible learning experience.
“(Laughing) Yeah, it’s funny. I think the same thing too. People ask me what it’s like being a parent and I said, ‘It’s all the clichés you hear it is.’ But when it’s happening to you, it’s real original. It feels brand new and that’s really great. That reminds us we’re all in this together. We have a shared experience.”
“And that’s what making art is about for me, just trying to give back to that shared experience. I take from it so much as a listener and as a fan of music that I feel like it’s the least I can do to try to give back.”
Just promise us that you’ll keep hitting us with the clichés and cheesy metaphors Mr. Witmer.
Fans will get a chance to hear Denison Witmer live when he kicks off his fall tour on Sep. 7. Witmer stops in Arizona on Sep. 14 at the Last Exit. Here is a complete list of dates:
Sep. 7 Fresno, Calif. Love The Captive
Sep. 9 San Francisco, Calif. Cafe Du Nord
Sep. 10 Los Angeles, Calif. Bootleg Bar
Sep. 12 Ventura, Calif. Zooey’s Cafe
Sep. 13 San Diego, Calif. Music Thing Festival
Sep. 14 Tempe, Ariz. Last Exit
Sep. 16 Colorado Springs, Colo. Fuel Friends House Show
Sep. 17 Ft. Collins, Colo. Everyday Joe’s
Sep. 18 Denver, Colo. Soiled Dove
Sep. 21 Wenatchee, Wash. Cafe Mela
Sep. 22 Seattle, Wash. Tractor Tavern
Sep. 23 Portland, Ore. Doug Fir Lounge
Oct. 10 Harrisburg, Pa. Midtown Scholar
Oct. 11 Pittsburgh, Pa. Club Cafe
Oct. 12 Columbus, Ohio Rumba Cafe
Oct. 13 Indianapolis, Ind. Do317 Lounge
Oct. 15 Louisville, Ky. Zanzabar
Oct. 17 Charlotte, N.C. The Evening Muse
Oct. 18 Chapel Hill, N.C. Local 506
Oct. 19 Asheville, N.C. The Emerald Lounge
Oct. 25 New York, N.Y. Rockwood Music Hall / Stage 3
Oct. 26 Philadelphia, Pa. First Unitarian / Side Chapel
Nov. 2 Lancaster, Pa. Mosaic Presents