When Denison Witmer wanted piano for a track on his latest CD, Philadelphia Songs, he did what any musician who might have watched Fletch too many times would do: carry bags filled with musical equipment into the ballroom of Philadelphia’s downtown Ritz Carlton and ask the bartender to turn off the house music so he and a conspirator could inspect the grand piano. Witmer spent the next 25 minutes secretly recording to mini-disc and hoping not to raise suspicion among the swanky patrons.
The two finally announced the piano to be in fine form. With a hearty thank you, the bartender turned the dinner music back on, and they quietly walked out the door.
"You can hear bus people dropping silverware and dishes and people talking and stuff," he laughs, recounting the adventure. "So yeah, the Ritz Carlton Hotel piano is featured on my CD. I don’t know if they know that, but I’ll go down and give them a copy so they can hear it."
While often witty, the quiet, unassuming Witmer is not someone you’d expect to march confidently into an upscale hotel and take over. His music is beautiful and personal, finding inspiration in life’s difficulties. The melodies springing from his struggles have found loyal fans in those who see their life stories told by someone else -- people who have seen life move, grow, and disappoint but who still know hope and joy.
The current chapter, captured on the aptly titled new release Philadelphia Songs, began a few years ago with Witmer moving to the city after growing up in a small Pennsylvania town and working in his parents’ greenhouse, spending days thinking and writing songs. The transition was a bit different than he expected, with an office job taking all his time and draining him of inspiration.
"I felt like a fish out of water when I was first here," he says. "I was holed up in my apartment and didn’t go out too much and do too much. I liked the city, I had always liked visiting it, and then after moving here it took me a while to adjust. I probably said a lot of things I shouldn’t have said in the time I was adjusting," he half-laughs. "One of my personality problems is I say things as I think them, so then I have to retract them later."
Turning quite serious, Witmer admits that the problem was not the town, but himself. "I moved here because I romanticized it to begin with," he states. "I needed to get to a place where it was more fast-paced, more music going on, more art, a more diverse culture, and Philadelphia was the best option because my older brother lived here. It was easy."
But living in the City of Brotherly Love was more difficult than expected -- something he had to come to terms with. After touring the country and finding that he really missed the city, he realized what was there all along. "I went through a phase where I didn’t really like it ... but that was just an emotional phase that I needed to go through until things clicked in place and it started to feel more like home."
With a new perspective, Witmer’s experiences in Philly now span an entire record that evidences the circle of sorts he has completed.
"I definitely am in love with the city," he says. "I think it’s a city with just a very real population, very real people in the sense that a lot of people feel it’s rough around the edges. And in some ways it is, but it also is full of people who are trying to make something happen in a place where somehow it seems like it’s hard to. For me there’s just a positive energy here, and it’s down to earth, and it’s not pretentious."
Wanting to grasp this feeling, Witmer recorded guitar tracks to a mini-disc player he took to the apartments of several friends, often writing lyrics later at local parks and coffee shops, watching people stroll by as his home recordings played through a laptop. He makes sure to add that it is not, however, a walking tour of the town.
"I needed to be careful in calling the record Philadelphia Songs because I know that my Philadelphia is so different than a lot of other people’s Philadelphia. I know that my life is so different than so many lives that are here." He starts to laugh again and adds, "I wanted to call the record ‘My Philadelphia’ at first, but it just sounded too much like ‘My McDonald’s,’ and that’s never going to work."
Musically, this new album also curves back around, falling between Witmer’s debut, the guitar and vocal-only Safe Away, and its more orchestrated follow-up Of Joy and Sorrow. Driven by his home recordings, the album brings to mind the intimacy of the former and uses the arranging lessons learned on the latter.
"I love the sound of hearing a guitar when someone else is playing it a couple rooms away, and so I definitely tried to capture some of that," Witmer says. "I think there’s something to be said for home recordings because you just hear a little bit more the intricacies of what’s happening in the rooms, the white noise or whatever. That’s something that I’m conscious of."
But Philadelphia Songs is not a return to the minimalist Safe Away. After the basic ideas were down, Witmer brought in Cleveland-based The Six Part Seven to flesh out songs in the studio. Taking control with production for the first time, Witmer thought an instrumental band he enjoyed touring with would be perfect for adding the right touches to his home sounds without making them overdone.
"I never want to make the same record twice," he states. "I knew that with Of Joy and Sorrow I alienated some people with some of the production style. And maybe some of the songs are too produced, but I just felt like it would be such a cop out to make the same record over again with the same exact sound."
He continues the line of thought, "I need to stretch myself as a person; I need to push myself to try new things, and sometimes they go well and sometimes they don’t. In retrospect there’s some things I would change on Of Joy and Sorrow, and so this time around, being able to take the reins a bit more, I feel like this is right the way I want it."
He says it landed between his two previous records and almost seems like a missing step between the two. "I just feel like I accomplished something that I’ve been trying to accomplish for a while."
Witmer’s albums are known for sounding as though he’s next door, and his goal was to make that feeling the backbone of this project, to have people play his record and at some point think that somebody could be playing guitar in the room where the speakers are. "But of course, it’s just the speakers," Witmer adds, amused at the idea. "I knew it worked when I was recording in my brother’s apartment, and I had just finished a guitar part, and I was listening back to it through his speakers. He came back down the stairs and was like, ‘Oh. That’s the stereo?’ I was like, ‘Perfect’." But stories keep being written, and just as this album marks part of Witmer’s life, he can’t help but feel things are always changing. "I’ve been in so many cities now ... and so some of the writing comes down to actually leaving, feeling like there’s a certain chapter that’s over -- though, I don’t know. The last couple of days I’m starting to feel like it’s just beginning. ... Philadelphia was something that I did for a while and stayed in place, and now my music is something I’m doing consistently, but it’s taking me from place to place."
He mentions maybe needing to settle down somewhere, and then laughs. "But not for a little while." For now, there is simply life to live.