Denison Witmer:
building spaces through song

The evidence of his first musical endeavor is still out there for anyone with a little luck and the patience to look for it.

"I put out a cassette tape when I was a student at Lancaster Mennonite High School," Denison Witmer recalls. "That's my unofficial first album, the one I will never play for anyone. ... But maybe if you go to the Salvation Army in Lancaster, you can turn one up."

Now 34, Witmer has been busy since those heady high school days. While working on a new recording ("It's my ninth or tenth, I'd have to count back," he says) in a southern New Jersey recording studio, Witmer looks back over his career to date.

"Songwriting for me has always been about presenting an idea to people. You hope there is some sort of relationship with the song -- but you can't choose how people are going to relate to your music," he says.

"Maybe you're going to have an epiphany because of this. Maybe you won't."

Crafting music, Witmer says, is "like trying to build a space where the truth can move inside. All art is that way. You try to open a door or window where some kind of realization can come to someone.

"But I don't feel that it's my job to state what the truths are. I don't need to say these are the facts, this is how it is. But conclusions can be drawn from the way you relate to the music."

To his mind, at least, "the best songs are the ones that come back to me later in life and mean something different to me than they did when I wrote them. That's a sign of success."

Contacted by telephone this week, Witmer ponders the autobiographical nature of his songs.

"I guess that's the way I started making music. It started as a journaling process. Then it became journaling on top of guitar parts," he says. "I write about things that really touch me."

Much of his recent music, for instance, delved into his father's struggle with cancer.

"I was watching my dad come to terms with the illness that took his life," Witmer says.

"For the last few weeks, my father was waiting to die. I was impressed and really inspired with the mindfulness and the care that he took through that time. He reached out to friends and was just an amazing person."

Consequently, he says, "this new album is about reverence, it's about patience, it's about understanding that sometimes you're waiting for something, even if you don't know what it is."

Born and raised in Lancaster, Witmer now calls Philadelphia home, although he often comes back to visit kin.

"I love Lancaster -- and that's not just to kiss up to the place I was raised," he says.

"I never ran away from Lancaster because it felt like it was closed or there wasn't enough going on. I left because, at 19, I didn't know better. I felt like I needed to experience Philadelphia, then suddenly I was living in Seattle."

He shifted around for a while before returning to Philly.

"I've thought about moving back to Lancaster before too long. It's not outside of the realm of possibilities," he confesses.

"Put that in the newspaper, and my mom will get really excited."

Long-term, Witmer isn't sure if music is a lifelong career.

"It's an interesting time for making music," he says. "People are very comfortable stealing downloadable music ... although I guess if enough people are stealing your music, they're still coming out to see your shows."

He owns a New York City recording studio, which he hopes will keep him moving in creative directions, and he was recently hired to score an interactive children's book application for iPad.

"I'm just trying to change with the industry without compromising the integrity of the art," he says.

"One thing you need to remember as a writer is, it's a selfish process. Writing is something I do for myself. I'm lucky -- and I'm flattered -- that I can do it as a living.

"But when things start compromising my art, I'll stop doing it," he says. "I'd probably go to nursing school."

Looking back at that high school cassette, Witmer sees a few some changes -- and a few similarities -- in his work.

"I write in a different way. I'm a lot more well-rounded, I've traveled a lot and my world view has changed. And I feel less limited when I sit down to write a song," he says.

"But at the root, it's still about waiting for creativity to strike. It's about trying to work through something in myself. ... In a lot of ways, I haven't changed."

interview by
Tom Knapp

4 June 2011

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