Q&A with Denison Witmer

From Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Denison Witmer finds himself these days doing a whole lot of traveling. In fact, Witmer responded to these questions at about 36,000 feet in the air. Witmer has been very influential in the indie-folk realm, especially over the past decade and a half. Working with such artists as Sufjan StevensDon Peris of The Innocence Mission, and Rosie Thomas, Witmer’s quiet style can easily be compared to the likes of Cat StevensSam Beam, and the great Nick Drake.

While receiving critical acclaim from Pitchfork and Entertainment Weekly, Witmer still finds himself grateful that he has an audience to hear his art. A big fan of his, Arthur Alligood, a consistent contributor to The Blue Indian, was pretty excited to be able to chat with one of his biggest influences musically.

[The following interview was done by Arthur Alligood.]

Blue Indian: First off, Denison let me say I am big fan. I remember the exact moment when I first heard your music. I was a senior in high school. I was in a mediocre band and I could barely play guitar. In front of a computer screen one night I stumbled upon your song “Los Angeles.” Quite literally I was stopped in my tracks. I think I listened to the song about 10 times in row. I immediately bought the “River Bends EP” from Velvet Blue and wore it out. I fell in love with your quiet style of songwriting.

Denison Witmer: Thanks. I appreciate your kind words about my songs. I am amazed by how often that Velvet Blue compilation still comes up in respect to discovery of my music.

BI: In other interviews you mention your love of the journey. What are some of your favorite moments of your career-journey so far? Have you ever thought of throwing in the towel for good?

DW: I try my best not to speculate about what will or could happen. I believe it is important to have a vision and goals to strive for, but more importantly I believe in doing what you want to do to the best of your ability, then reacting to the outcome to the best of your ability. I never planned on being a musician for my living. Most of the time I feel like becoming a musician was something that happened to me.

When I was a younger, naïve in some ways, and directionless in regards to what to do for work, music presented itself to me as the path of the least resistance. That might sound lame or like some kind of cop out, but that’s really how it started. I wasn’t interested in going go college right after high school. Music was one of the only things I felt like I knew how to do. I loved writing songs and I enjoyed playing shows. When the opportunity to release my songs and tour presented itself, I gave it a try and it snowballed into a job.

I’m not saying that it simply fell into my lap and worked out with no effort. I have worked really hard, toured a lot (maybe more than I should have at times), and kept at it despite having times when I felt like quitting.  Sometimes I think it worked out because I chose to keep at it.

I think it’s Woody Allen that said something like, “80 percent of life is simply showing up.” The older I get, the more I believe that to be true. No matter what you do, being consistent and working hard pays off.  It doesn’t always pay off in the ways you think it will, but the meaning of everything reveals itself in time and on it’s own terms.

I guess I’m coming back to what I was saying in the beginning about not speculating too much about what I think should happen. I should add that the fact that I can make music for a living is constantly surprising to me, but being paid to make music isn’t what drives me to do it. I will be writing and recording my songs long after I stop being able to release records and tour.

BI: Flannery O’Connor said “Somewhere is better than anywhere.” You have lived in Philadelphia for many years now. Do you believe O’Connor? How does where you live affect your writing and mindset?

DW: I’m not sure I really understand that quote.I wish I had the context in which she said it. If I am understanding her to mean “You should wholly own where you are from and actually BE from somewhere,” I disagree with O’Conner. I think that may have been true for her writing considering she wrote a lot about life in the south, but her themes often transcended that sense of place. I definitely believe that the most personal writing reveals itself in the most universal way, but that is not limited to sense of place.  If it is, that sense of place is emotional and not physical for every writer.

I believe that you can write about anyone, anything, anywhere – as long as it’s good writing, it will translate fine. I just started reading a book by John Steinbeck called “Travels With Charley In Search of America.” He drives all over the United States in a camper style truck with his dog (Charley) in hopes that he could reconnect with the country he had long been writing about, but not “living in.”

I in the beginning of the second chapter he says, “I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir.  I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen it’s hills and water, it’s color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers.”  Through his desire to reconnect with America he is also admitting that he has been writing about it through his memory of it.  I love Steinbeck’s writing and I’ve never given a single thought as to where Steinbeck was actually located when he wrote.

BI: Your Happy Birthday Denison site was such a wonderful idea. I especially enjoyed the podcast about Nick Drake. Have you seen the documentary “A Skin too Few?”  Why do you think you connect so much with Drake’s music?

DW: Thank you. The idea for the site came out of wanting to raise some money for my favorite charities.  It’s been amazing to see my fans be so generous over the last few years.   The podcast was fun too, but it was a lot of work!  I have a new respect for radio personalities… Listening to yourself talking is one of the most revealing and terrifying things. I don’t know exactly why I connect so much with Nick Drake’s music. A lot of times it’s the things that I can’t clearly describe about someone’s music that keep me coming back to it.  Art has always been the window with a view into some sense of mystic or surreal in my life and I generally gravitate toward anything that opens that window or pulls the blinds back from it.  Sometimes Drake’s lyrics do that for me and sometimes it’s just listening to the way he plays his guitar.

BI: “Little Flowers” is such a great song. Would the world do well to take another look at the life and words of St. Francis of Assisi especially considering his great love and appreciation for nature?

DW: Thanks. I have always wanted to make an entire album about St. Francis, and Little Flowers is the first song I wrote for that album. I have about 5 or 6 other songs done, but so far no album to show for all of the writing. I hope to make that record sometime in the next few years. The world would possibly correct itself and everything evil and wrong with it if people lived like Saint Francis.  Anyone who dedicates their lives to the well being of less fortunate and marginalized people deserves to be looked up to.

BI: Tell us about your precious Guild acoustic?

DW: My favorite of all of my Guild guitars is my 1966 M-20.  It’s a solid mahogany guitar (top and sides).  It’s a “000” size guitar, which means it is parlor guitar and rather small in size.  I gravitate toward smaller instruments because my hands are small.  I love this guitar because it’s boxy and woody sounding.  It’s braced very lightly, which makes it loud despite it’s size and very clear in tone.
I am sad to say that my Guild M-20 is in the repair shop right now. The bridge started to separate itself from the body in the middle of a television performance I was doing in S. Korea two weeks ago.  The stage lights were so warm that the glue holding the bridge in place finally decided to let go.  I’m hoping they can glue it back in place and keep the same bridge.  If they have to change the bridge, that could change the entire personality of the guitar.  Keeping my fingers crossed…

BI: What are your plans for the future?  Working on any new material? Any side-projects?

DW: I am going into the studio again in December to make a 3-5 song EP.  It will include a new acoustic version of the song “Life Before Aesthetics” and a few new songs.  I’m hoping to release it digitally sometime in the spring of 2010. I am also planning a European tour and another trip back to S. Korea in the spring of 2010.

BI: How influenced are you by Don Peris (The Innocence Mission) and his guitar playing? Any other big influences?

DW: Don is a huge influence on my guitar playing. He gave me a few guitar lessons when was 17.  He’s recorded a few of my albums and his technical and performance suggestions from those recordings have stayed with me.

BI: Do you have a favorite song of yours? Do you listen to your own records?

DW: I don’t have a favorite song.  I have periods of time when certain songs become more meaningful to me than others, but that song list is changing.  It changes alongside my moods and whatever is happening in my life at the moment.  I also have times when I enjoy playing certain songs live for this or that reason, but there’s no formula as to why.  Sometimes a person will request a song live that I haven’t played in a while and the feeling of playing it is sentimental and interesting enough that I want to keep performing it at other shows. Other times a particular lyric will come back into my mind and I will want to revisit it to sort out the feeling again.   Sometimes certain lyrics don’t feel honest anymore and I won’t sing them because I want my listeners to feel like I am being honest with them above all other things. That said, sometimes those exact lyrics will feel honest again and I am comfortable singing them.

The best songs are somehow timeless and have an elastic quality to them – those songs have the ability to either take me right back to where I was when I wrote them, or mean something entirely different to me now.  When songs take on a new meaning, I’m always surprised.  It’s strange to know exactly what I was writing about when I wrote a song, and then have those same lyrics relate to my current life in a very applicable and different way. This entire answer to your question is really reinforcing why I have always chosen not to tell people which songs I relate to most and why.  It also reinforces why I rarely tell people what my songs are about.  If my songs can mean several different things to even me, I can only imagine the meaning that they take on for someone else.  If I told people what my songs meant, I would risk destroying whatever personal relation the listener has with the music.

BI: Thanks for taking the time. Any last words to share with your fans?

DW: Thank you. Thanks for listening to my music. It means a lot to me that I even have an audience. Sharing my music for a living isn’t something I take for granted – I feel really blessed and I hope people understand how blessed I really feel.