Denison Witmer gets a fresh start with not-so-new release
By Naila Francis
It was news to even his biggest fans.
When Denison Witmer‘s “The Ones Who Wait” was released last year, it appeared so quietly, even those who had long been following his career were surprised to discover its existence.
“I would get tweets: ‘Apparently, you released a new album ….’ We didn’t have a publicist behind it and there was no proper touring or anything that was arranged,” says Witmer, of the project, which was released on Mono vs. Stereo, an indie label just outside of Nashville.
That the album, his ninth, languished in the absence of a major promotional campaign wasn’t altogether dreadful. Witmer, a Lancaster native and longtime Philadelphia resident, was emerging from a difficult and engrossing few years. He got married in 2009, lost his dad to cancer in 2010 and opened his own recording studio, The Honey Jar, with friend and collaborator Devin Greenwood in Brooklyn not long afterward. He also learned he was going to be a dad around the time “The Ones Who Wait” made its bow.
“All of that just took a lot of time. I didn’t feel like playing concerts that much. I just didn’t feel like I could get onstage and present my songs. I was in too introverted of a space to do that. In some ways, it was a blessing that the album came out really quietly and I got to sit with the songs and take stock of what I created,” says Witmer, whose son is about five weeks old. “Now, I feel I can go out and perform the songs with more honesty and a greater understanding of what I was going through when I wrote them.”
He also has a new label behind him — “The Ones Who Wait” will be re-released March 6 on Asthmatic Kitty Records — and a new tour to promote the album. It stops Sunday at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.
“For all intents and purposes, the label is really trying to treat it like a brand-new record,” he says. “It’s just a really exciting time for me to feel like I’m coming back to being able to make music and that the music is getting some publicity.”
He recorded “The Ones Who Wait” in 2010. It was originally intended as an EP of songs he decided to make with Greenwood, a singer-songwriter, as well as a producer, from Philadelphia, with little expectation or pressure. The project was interrupted when Witmer returned to Lancaster to be with his father, who’d been diagnosed with cancer three years earlier, as his health declined.
“The thing about my dad that was really amazing was he was really graceful about the whole process. When things switch from trying to get the cancer out of your body to palliative care and they’re saying, ‘You’re going to die, we don’t know when,’ there’s a mental shift that happens. He really allowed himself to be taken care of. He took the time to say goodbye to his friends. He gave us a gift of being present,” says Witmer.
It is that gift that ultimately shaped the majority of “The Ones Who Wait,” an acoustic folk album of delicate warmth and restrained urgency, which fleshes out its sparer moments with the help of musicians including Greenwood, now a Philadelphia expat, percussionist James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens), trumpet player CJ Camerieri (Bon Iver, Rufus Wainwright), guitarist Don Peris (The Innocence Mission) and singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas. The songs are musings on confronting mortality and living with a deeper awareness of what matters because of it, on holding onto the love that remains and entertaining the questions that rage even when striving for acceptance and peace. Witmer, who wrote and recorded the album at The Honey Jar, also ponders the beginnings inherent in all endings and the adjustments, sometimes bittersweet, that love’s entwining requires.
“It’s about trying to be mindful, trying to really still yourself and understand whatever’s transpiring in your life and to really own it and make sense of it and try to stay encouraged, even though sometimes it’s discouraging and even to try to own the discouraging parts of it,” he says, of the album’s themes. “For me, you don’t know sorrow unless you really let yourself wallow in it a little bit. That’s something I say not because I want people to think I’m coming off as some depressed person; I just think you shouldn’t be afraid to feel the feelings you have and really experience them and through those experiences comes understanding.”
It was some time after his father passed before he returned to music. Instead, when he felt the creative itch, it was to work with his hands, and so, when Greenwood announced he was looking for his own recording space, Witmer, having refurbished his home in South Philadelphia several years ago, decided to help him build it. As he began working on The Honey Jar in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, the songwriting impulse began to stir.
“We really built the studio at the same time that we made the record. One day, we would be building sound treatment walls, and then the next day, we’d pack up our tools and record a song,” says Witmer. “It was kind of a project I was just working on on the side, but before I knew it, I had this album that felt cohesive to me in some way and I felt I should release it.”
Though he is often cited for his succinct eloquence and keen emotional awareness, he admits he could be more meticulous with his craft, preferring to write by free association to keep his lyrics fresh and limit the tendency to endlessly rewrite them.
What Witmer does strive for is honesty, which he believes requires constant re-invention, though he says fans may think he’s prone to offering more of the same, with subtle changes here and there. But he strives to keep audience expectation as far from his creative process as he can.
“I think my history will always build up and come out of me in anything I’m creating that is new, but I’m always trying to create something that sonically meets me where I am at this point in my life,” he says. “For me, that’s what it’s about, trying to create selfishly and then giving it away selflessly once the creation is done and hoping that it resonates with people.”
– The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times and Burlington County Times