Denison Witmer

Interview by: Clara Masters aka halofriendly
Photos from www.denisonwitmer.com

Denison Witmer
I love the movie High Fidelity, so to pay homage to it, I am adopting my own "top five list" John Cusack-style.
My Top Five Favorite CD's go:
1. Denison Witmer - Safe Away (bought it at a time in my life when everything was chaotic and I needed some low-key beautiful music for the calming effect)
2. Brandtson - Fallen Star Collection (bought at Cornerstone '99 because I thought the bass player was hot...*laughing*)
3. Unwed Sailor - The Faithful Anchor (got it when it first came out this past spring and it guarantees that I will smile everytime I hear it)
4. Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes (bought back in my early years of high school and represents the rebellious stage of my life)
5. The Cranberries - No Need to Argue (bought this back in eighth grade because I liked the radio hit "Linger"...it got me into my Celtic kick that has never gone away)
Most of these musicians are ones that I've been listening to for quite some time, but not the number one slot. Denison Witmer is someone I only discovered five months ago, but who has already blown me away musically and as a person. His concerts are very laid back and by the second song, you'll feel as if you've known him your whole life because he'll talk to you, his audience, as if you're a close friend of his. Denison Witmer is one of the most genuine people I have met...take time to talk with him after a show. If you've seen him, you know what I mean. If you haven't, please take the chance to see him and support him. You won't regret it.
I called Denison back in May and did a phone interview. Here it is:


Denison: Hello?

Clara: Hi it's Clara.

Denison: Hey, how's it going?

Clara: It's going pretty well, how about you?

Denison: It's going great...can you hold on for just a second?

Clara: Yeah, it's cool.

(muffled voices)

Denison: Okay I'm back. What's going on? I'm on my way to Lancaster right now. Lancaster's where I grew up. It's an hour and a half hour outside of Philadelphia. We were thinking we'd get there by now, but with Memorial Day traffic…

Clara: Ohhhh yeah. Is the traffic really bad?

Denison: It's actually a lot lighter than we were expecting.

Clara: Oh that's good.

Clara: So are you up for an interview right now?

Denison: I am...umm...I can tell you that, you know, I'd be a better interview in about 15 minutes...

Clara: Okay.

Denison: When I'm actually sitting down at my parents' house. Is that cool?

Clara: Yeah, that sounds fine.

Denison: So should I just give you a call or what?

Clara: Yeah, you want to call me on my cell phone? Denison: Yeah that's what I'll do.

Clara: Okay, sounds goods.

Denison: Okay, talk to you in a little bit.

Clara: See ya.

*****************************

Denison: Hey, thanks for letting me call you back. I was expecting to be at my parents' house and all comfortable by the time you called, but traffic got a hold of us, so...

Clara: Ohhh..yeah.

Denison: But I'm here now.

Clara: It's all good.

Denison: Yeah...

Clara: So the drive was good?

Denison: Yeah, well, it was actually kind of funny. My roommate has this van that he uses for work. It's brand new, it's really nice. But it only has two seats in it so he and his wife were sitting in those seats. We had to bring back this table to get refinished at this wood shop here in town. (laughing) So we had this table and all these chairs in there...

Clara: (laughing) Uh huh...

Denison: So I was sitting on a dining room chair, basically, with a blanket over it, strapped down and the other strap as my seat belt. It was pretty makeshift style.

Clara: It doesn't sound very comfortable.

Denison: It was actually pretty comfortable...I don't know.

Clara: So now you're at your parents?

Denison: Now I'm at my parents'. Stopped in to say hey. So anyway....

Clara: Anyway...

Denison: Are you mulling over all, you know, the deep and dark secrets you want to pry out of me?

Clara: Absolutely...(laughing) Actually, since you're at your parents' house, I might get them on the phone and ask them secrets from your childhood.

Denison: Well, they're not here, I arranged so they wouldn't be.

Clara: Oh shoot. I'm sure they could tell me some interesting things about you.

(cell phone dies)

Clara: Oh man…

(redials)

Clara: Hi.

Denison: Cell phones are weird things sometimes.

Clara: I know...if we keep cutting out, just hang up and I'll call you back.

Denison: Okay...you know, it'll get to that really heavy question, and I'll be like, "What? I can't hear you..." and I'll just hang up and then I'll be like, "Oh man, I lost you, sorry, where were we?" (laughing)

Clara: (laughing) Not too many heavy questions, just sporadic ones and anything you want to bring up.

Denison: Right on.

Clara: Well, first of all, what is your full name?


Denison Witmer
Denison: My full name? It's kind of embarrassing actually, well it's actually not that embarrassing... it just sounds very country club-ish...my middle name is Stuart...with a u. S-T-U-A-R-T. Denison Stuart Witmer.

Clara: How did your parents come up with your name?

Denison: Well, actually, all my brothers have the same initials that I do. Like, my oldest brother is Douglas Scott, my other brother between us is Donovan Sean, then Denison Stuart and then David Stanley.

Clara: Oh wow.

Denison: I have another question for you.

Clara: Go for it.

Denison: Do you mind if I eat while I talk to you?

Clara: Absolutely not...as long as I can understand you.

Denison: Right... (laughing) So yeah, I don't know why my parents felt the necessity to have children with all the same initials. I think it has something to do with hand-me-down clothes, you know? My mom could just write 'DSW' on my older brother's clothes and then she never had to deal with it again.

Clara: It's a smart idea. (laughing) So where did you grow up? Where are you from?

Denison: I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Clara: Okay and do you have any fun stories from childhood that you're not too embarrassed to share?

Denison: Um...um...I don't know if I have any particularly stories that are funny. I don't know. (silence) It's hard pulling them up at random. (silence) When I was a little kid, I had a fascination with glasses, but now I can't stand them.

Clara: Like glasses on your face or glasses you drink out of?

Denison: Glasses on my face. Like now I can't even wear sunglasses anymore. It just feels weird. Like if I have something on my face, I just have this animal instinct to knock it off of my face. It just feels like it gets in the way. I don't know why. I just want to swat at them so I don't wear sunglasses at all. But when I was little, I just had this fascination with them and I would like, put any glasses that I saw on my head. And my mom has these great pictures of me with glasses on my head. But I had this one particular pair that were my favorite and they were my Mr. Potato Head glasses.

Clara: (laughing)

Denison: And for some reason I would wear them. They were way too small for my head, but I thought they looked good.

Clara: Maybe you should scan some of those photos so I can use them with this interview.

Denison: Yeah, there you go. I don't know about that....(laughing)

Clara: Just kidding. Okay. Kind of going on to your music. How many cd's do you have out now?

Denison: I am going to be releasing number four in August two of them are EP's though and two of them are full lengths.

Clara: I only have one of the full lengths.

Denison: Oh really?

Clara: It's really good. I love it. It's the one with the white cover [Safe Away].

Denison: Oh good, thanks. I have another EP that came out around the same time as that one. Then there's another one called "The 80's EP" which is kind of like the single and the pre-release to my CD that I have coming out. A couple songs from my CD that is coming out are on it plus some unreleased and b side stuff are on it, that's out and then the other one is coming out.

Clara: So where can someone pick your CD's up at?

Denison: Through my webpage [http://www.denisonwitmer.com] or through burnttoastvinyl.com and pretty much any record stores pretty soon. We're working on a distribution deal with, I think, Carrot Top and a couple other people. It should be available anywhere.

Clara: In your own words, how would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you before?

Denison: Acoustic...uhh...I don't know... (laughing)

Clara: (laughing) 'Acoustic I don't know'....

Denison: 'Acoustic I don't know music'....yeah… That's a tough question because I listen to a lot of people like Richard Buckner, Gillian Welch and The Red House Painters and stuff like that. So I guess it falls into that category of 'folk rock'. I don't know. I hate that term. I would say 'folk', but I think a lot of people would say 'folk', but for some reason my records sound like an indie kind of album too. Like with my newest record, it's very much just straight forward, like a little bit more 'folky'. It's pretty straight forward folk, I would say.

Clara: As far as your lyrics go, what do you want your listeners to get out of those? What are you trying to do with your lyrics?

Denison: Well, for me it's never been about what I want people to feel or anything like that. It's always been. Well, the clichéd answer I have for that is that I used to journal a lot before I started playing guitar. After I started my guitar, I kind of feel like I kept journaling but just did it with songs instead. And when I made my first record, I made that record for myself. I didn't really make it to try to sell or anything. I didn't really know anything about the music business and I didn't know that that's what I wanted to do. My friend had some recording equipment and he said, "You know, you should make a record", and I said "Okay". I did and then I played a couple shows and people were like, "I really want to buy this", and I was like, "Well, okay". It was only then that I realized maybe... People say to me that they really identify with what I'm singing about even though it's really personal and I was glad that people identified to it, but I wasn't just necessarily writings songs for people to identify to, you know? I don't make albums because I want them to sell. I only write songs because I really have to. I feel the need to constantly write. My last record was really hard to make because of that. Because I felt like, it started so pure and then it came to the point where I have to make this record and do I have to worry about selling or what do I do? What's the natural progression of a second album and now that all these people have written me letters and they like my lyrics and they like this and that? It's almost like I felt I had to feel a certain way so people keep liking what I'm doing and it really stressed me out; it kept me from writing for a really long time.

Clara: I know, isn't it weird how you can write about such personal experiences and you think that nobody else deals with and then you let people read them or listen to them or whatever and people are like, "You're writing about me!" It's a humbling experience really.

Denison: Yeah definitely. I think that's why I keep doing it. You know, it's great that people can identify to what I'm doing, but I never want it to get to the point where I'm writing the songs for other people. And maybe I'll make a record that no one identifies to, I don't know. I just want to keep making records about how I feel..my main concern is how I feel at that moment. With my new record I actually made it a little bit more accessible than the one before it. So it's a little bit more straightforward, but that's how I've been feeling these days. I feel a little bit more tangible, I feel a little less obscure. It's not another record about breaking up with someone. It's not another record about losing that one particular person. It's more of a record of my friends, like, this one deals with a broader amount of relationships. A lot more happy songs on it. But it also deals with, you know, watching people grow, just not one particular person. (laughs)

Clara: (laughs)

Denison: And it's a lot about me too.

Clara: So is there one song that you can pick out that means the most to you? Or is that too hard to do?

Denison: No, I think that…(phone rings in background) Sorry, that's my parents' phone.

Clara: That's okay.

Denison: On this record? No, not really. I mean, I really like the song "Forgiven", it's the first song on the record. And I like how that came out. But I wouldn't say there is just one song. I like a lot of the songs, I mean I don't pick songs from the past two and a half years of writing and whittle them down to the ones that I felt would make a pretty conducive album.
I think I picked well. The title of the record is called "Of Joy and Sorrow" and it's taken from Kahlil Gibran. Have you ever read him?

Clara: Yes. I love his work!

Denison: Yeah, it's taken from his book, The Prophet.

Clara: I have it.

Denison: It's taken from the part where he says or someone says, "Speak to us of joy and sorrow." I just think he's an amazing writer and I think everyone needs to read his books, you know?

Clara: Oh yeah.


Denison Witmer
Denison: But that particular book to me, that moment, "of joy and sorrow", those words in there are just really beautiful, you know? I just took these songs that I had and I thought, "Which ones of these are of joy or maybe of sorrow and aren't the same things, and can show the different perspective of joy or sorrow surrounding one kind of particular theme. Which ones of those worked the best together, but uh, that's my record based on, you know.

Clara: You kind of answered this previously, but when and how did music come into your life? Was there a certain point or did you always grow up around it?

Denison: Well, I grew up in a very musical family. My mom plays piano a lot and she's the church song leader and stuff like that. But my brother Douglas has always been. I've always kind of given him the credit for getting me into music because it was following the older brother's footsteps kind of thing. He was the one who encouraged me to buy a guitar when I did and that was when I was in junior high school. He showed me a couple chords and kind of let me go from there. That is pretty much how it started. He wrote a lot of songs here while he was in college and I was in high school and he was constantly writing songs that were interesting to me, you know? Playing guitar, seeing all that kind of stuff. I don't think that I'm that great of singer, I know I'm not, I can't sing, like, choral things because I don't know what my range is. I don't know if I'm a tenor or baritone or what I am. All I know is how to sing songs that I come up with. It just kind of happened that way.

Clara: So did you ever picture yourself becoming a singer and songwriter?

Denison: Did I?

Clara: Yeah.

Denison: No. I really didn't know what direction I was going to go honestly. I didn't know what I was going to do.

Clara: Do you have a job besides music?

Denison: Nope. Just music. I did for a long time. I worked in a greenhouse, my family owns a greenhouse. So I worked there for awhile and then it got to the point where music was taking up a lot more time and I wanted to keep doing music more, so I stopped working at the greenhouse.

Clara: What kind of goals have you set for yourself in regard to your music? Like are there any future goals that you are hoping to reach at some point and how will you know that you've reached them?

Denison: I haven't really. I'm aiming low. (laughs) I don't really have a particular goal. I can say that my goal for my music is to just keep it honest. Just be patient with it because I don't want to put out records just for the sake of putting out records. I want to put out records that I've worked hard on and spent time and try to make them right. And I don't want my music to ever become contrived and I don't want to ever feel like…My main goal is to keep it simple, keep it pure. If I never find a major record deal, I don't care. I am happy where I'm at. I couldn't be happier.

Clara: Nice. Do your particular beliefs play into your music or do you try to keep them separate?

Denison: Well, I don't keep anything separate from anything in my life. I think that it's just important to be a fluent person. I think that who you are should come into every aspect of your life. But if it doesn't, then that seems strange to me, you know? So I think, yeah, any and all of my beliefs definitely come out in my music.

Clara: Are you ever questioned about that or do people pretty much take the music as it is and enjoy it?

Denison: No one really questions anything about it, I mean, people sometimes inquire, you know? "What does that lyric mean?" or "Is that spiritual" or something like that. (laughs) It's so funny because I grew up in a Christian family all my life and then you kind of like set out on your own, you know, and you try to develop what you really believe. You have your own belief system that you know you grew up with and so a lot of that kind of stuff will play into how you believe. What you believe now and it also plays into your worldly perception and I try to write about a lot of that. I have a very spiritual mix of you know, just a very spiritual outlook on life and I definitely write about that. Christians are like, "I don't know, that's really not as Christian as…" I think Christians are more uptight about how Christian your lyrics are then non-Christians.

I don't really like the Christian music industry at all. I play some of those festivals, like Cornerstone and Purple Door and things like that because I know that some of those kids are at similar stages that I used to be at in my life and I like a lot of the people that are involved with those festivals. But I really don't talk about my Christianity and I don't really talk about Christianity or that kind of stuff too much. Just because I think that a lot of Christians might be disappointed with my actual beliefs on some of that stuff. (laughs) I mean, here I am, making a record called "Of Joy and Sorrow" based on the writings of Kahlil Gibran and he's not a Christian, you know?

Clara: Exactly.


Denison Witmer
Denison: But I think he's got some of the most spiritually beautiful things to say. I have come to the point where I'm having a really hard time accepting that someone like Ghandi would go to hell, you know what I mean? And so I'm feeling a bit more inclusive about other religions in some facets these days. I mean, Christians definitely buy my records and I'm thankful for that…but…I don't know. (laughs) I don't want to make them for Christians, I want to make them for everybody. I definitely don't want to get pigeonholed into that. Especially because if you end up getting really pigeonholed in the Christian market, you end up becoming this big disappointment if your beliefs change. Everyone looks at you like this fallen thing. It's just too much stress. I don't want to deal with that.

Clara: It's a lot more judgmental than other music scenes.

Denison: It definitely is. I just kind of have this belief lately, where it was like there is more than one way to get to New York City from Philadelphia on 95. You can look on a map and like, there's one way for me and one way for someone else. I kind of have the theory that we're all heading in the same direction, so…

Clara: With summer coming up I know we talked a couple days ago about you booking a tour. Are you going to be touring at all this summer or what are your plans?

Denison: I won't be touring much this summer, but this fall I will be. This fall I'm going to go out for September through early November. I'll be out for around six weeks.

Clara: What areas of the U.S. are you hitting?

Denison: Pretty much everywhere. I'm going to try to cover the whole country. Try to paint the whole country. Start in Philadelphia, maybe head northeast and then go west. Then from Seattle down and back across.

Clara: So if someone wanted to book you for this fall, how would they contact you?

Denison: Just through my email address: Denison@denisonwitmer.com

Clara: Any particular areas you're having trouble getting shows?

Denison: No, I think it's going to be fine. I hope so anyway. I don't know, I haven't checked.

Clara: Okay, well, that's all I had. Do you have anything else to add?

Denison: No, I think we covered all the bases. You can just email and I can write you back if you have any other questions. It's weird, talking about music is always a strange thing for me too because when I first started writing songs I didn't have to explain them to anybody. I could just write them.

Clara: And you understood them, so…

Denison: Yeah, I understood it. Sometimes it's like interviews can be really daunting and sometimes they can be really great. This time it was great. People want to know all these things and you're just kind of like, man, I don't really think about it that much and it's like this big disappointing interview because you can't explain yourself away.

Clara: I tried not to get too deep. (laughs)

Denison: Yeah…it's weird. My brother's a painter and he hates it. He feels like he has to explain himself all the time. People want to know like, "Why'd you use this color opposed to that color?" With painting, you can't just say it felt right. You have to say, "Well, my composition style and the reason why I picked this color..." You just have to explain it so much.

Clara: Because that's what people want to hear.

Denison: Yeah, that's what people want to hear. Somehow it seems less valid if you say, "Well, that's what felt right." So I don't buy that. I think it's valid.

Clara: Oh definitely.

Denison: I see how much feeling. I think intellect has its place and I think you can never read too many books and I think it's great to be a knowledgeable person, and what it comes down to is, "How does it make you feel?", you know? That's a big thing that carries me everywhere, intuition, feeling. Sometimes in all the craziness of having to explain yourself away, I kinda retreat to this place inside my head. It's weird because this last record that I made I definitely think it's a little bit more straightforward. It's a little bit more accessible than I thought it would be. It went into a direction that was like a lot less obscure and I think it's going to be identifiable to a larger amount of people than my first record. I think my first record might be more geared towards people who are very deep feelers, you know? I mean, not that this record lacks feeling, it's just a little bit more accessible somehow. I don't know if my next record will be that way because through making this record I definitely went through that phase of feeling a little bit more accessible and things like that, but lately I'm into a lot more obscurity. (laughs)

Clara: (laughs)

Denison: I might shrink back in the new record. Maybe it's the process of making this record right now that makes me want to do that. Just gotta let it happen, you know?

Clara: Exactly. Just keep up with being genuine.

Denison: Yeah, that's what I hope to do.

Clara: Good. Well, thank you very much!

Denison: Thank you!

Clara: (laughs) No problem, I love your music so...

Denison: Well, thank you so much. (laughs) I'm glad you do.

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