Catching Up With... Denison Witmer
Carry the Weight is an apt title for Philadelphia-based folk singer Denison Witmer's latest record, in terms of both his recent professional and personal life. Professionally, Witmer has enjoyed a steady, incremental increase in his fan base over the years, especially after 2005's Are You a Dreamer?. That record—his first with indie label The Miltia Group—featured a guest spot from indie titan Sufjan Stevens, and garnered positive reviews with everyone from Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly. After nearly 10 years in the business, Witmer found himself privvy to a burgeoning, expanded new fan base.
But recently, Witmer says he hasn't felt much like a dreamer in his
personal life. Since the release of his last album, he's been
through some transformative experiences that manifest in not only the
lyrics of Carry the Weight, but the tone and philosophy behind the
album as well. Paste caught up with Witmer to talk about his latest
work. For a soft-spoken, self-described "straightforward" guy, he was
particularly candid and talkative about the weights he carried into the studio this time around.
Paste: Are You a Dreamer? came out in 2005. Prior to that, you had released some form of new music from 1998 on, more or less. What gives on the break?
Denison Witmer: Well, there were a few different things. I was kind of exploring other parts of my music like production and engineering and things like that. When Rosie [Thomas] was making her record These Friends of Mine, I had the opportunity to record part of that and help her with production. So I decided to take a little bit of a break from my own music and just kind of help her out and experiment with teaching myself how to engineer.
The other part of it was I bought a house in Philadelphia. It was a lifelong dream of mine to just buy a house that was kind of beat up and fix it up. I spent a lot of time fixing up that house, and that kept me occupied. And it was just a lot of moving around. A good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer right around the time I was supposed to record my album, which was a year and a half ago. I was in a position where I didn't have to be anywhere, or on any particular time schedule, so I ended up moving in with them and helping out with their everyday lives. I was writing a lot during that time, but it just didn't lend itself to actually getting into the studio and committing anything to tape.
Paste: Getting a house and having that dream realized smacks of adulthood. Have you developed a new perspective on things?
Witmer: Yes and no. It's really weird. I feel like Are You a Dreamer was all about hope and finding hope in the hopeless. With this new record, I've had this slight backlash against that. I was feeling like with the different things that was going in my life, where I was in a serious relationship that fell apart and my friend being diagnosed with cancer, all these things left me in a place where I wasn't feeling super hopeful. The record ended up being this argument with myself about whether or not I believe hope is a real thing I can attach to. I'm a little bit leery talk too much about hope, hope, hope because it has been thrown around like crazy now with the presidential election and whatnot. But at the same time, I want to be able to find hope in the hopeless situations. I don't believe it's just a coping mechanism.
Lyrically, I'm less concerned with things blatantly adding up. I find myself more interested in the abstract and phonetics. I let myself have a lot of creative freedom in writing without worrying whether people will understand what I was signing about. But, I'm a pretty straightforward guy, so there's no real hidden meaning in anything.
Paste: How would you characterize this album for you at this stage in your career? What does it mean to you?
Witmer: It's the first time I ever made a full-studio album, where I got to go to a professional studio and work from start to finish in that kind of uninterrupted environment. There's upsides and downsides to that. Everyone says, "Oh, I love home recordings because there's no pressure." I'm kind of the other way. I love home recordings, but I've been recording enough now I don't feel that much pressure in front of a microphone. The opportunity to go into the studio and just knock out an album in a month, with absolutely no interruptions in a place where I have all the tools to do what I want was a real pleasure for me. We demoed some of the songs before we went in but we really didn't try to figure anything out too much because I like the element of the surprise. I like the way songs sound in their infancy. We tried to perform as a band and capture the songs as best we could. I feel really good about it. I feel like it's a more fully realized version of some of my folkier-type music, but at the same time it's me pushing in a bit of a different direction, just because I have the studio and musicians to be able to do it. I can't pull that off live a lot of times, because I tour solo with my acoustic guitar.
Paste: "Beautiful Boys and Girls" is the lead single. It sounds a lot different from the stuff on Are You a Dreamer. More upbeat would you say?
Witmer: I never like to make the same record twice. I like to challenge myself creatively, because I like all different kinds of music. The whole record really doesn't sound that much like "Beautiful Boys and Girls," it's kind of all over the place. That song is mostly like a Bill Withers-inspired tune, you can hear it mostly in the drums. Blake Wescott, the guy I hired to produce the record with me, just has a different production style than Don Paris, who made my previous record. And I knew that would affect the outcome pretty drastically. But it's also something I wanted to do. I wanted to challenege myself to do somethign with a little bit of a different sound. It's just part of the journey. Every record I try something a little bit different, a little bit new. It's obviously a lot different for me than what it ends up being for the listener. I think if you heard the whole record, you'd feel like, "Oh ok, some of these songs definitely fit in the Are You a Dreamer category," and some of them are me pushing in a different direction. And that's generally the way I am with most of my records.
Paste: Sufjan Stevens guested on the last album. Can fans expect any similar guest appearances on the new album?
Witmer: It's the same drummer James McAlister, who also drums for Sufjan and also on Are You a Dreamer. There's also a guy named Noah Harris, he's a solo artist as well who also plays with Corey Chisel & the Wandering Sons. They're kind of a new RCA signee, who I really love. And Rosie Thomas sings quite a bit on the record. She sings on the harmony on on "Beautiful Boys and Girls."
Paste: What's the meaning behind the album's title track, "Carry the Weight," and why did you feel compelled to name the album after it?
Witmer: I wanted it to feel like a hymn. I wanted it to be a repetitious refrain that kept reminding me that there are times in life when we must carry on even when only have a vague idea of what we are doing. The idea to do different versions of the song and include both of them on the album came out of my desire to both sing it alone and also sing it in unison with my friends. The hymn-like outcome of the song lent itself to a collection of voices very easily, but the lyrics also seemed to take on a different meaning when I sang them alone. I decided I didn't need to bother picking one version over the other, so I put them both on the record.
The main difference between Carry the Weight and Are You A Dreamer is that I wasn't feeling very hopeful when I started writing Carry the Weight. Whether or not it was the political deterioration of our country, watching terrible things happen to good people, or the repeated mistakes I was making in my own life, I gave in to a lot of pessimism in the last couple of years. Carry the Weight became this argument with myself about whether or not the hope I have left is real or just idealistic naivete. I felt like a lot of the life decisions I was making were good, but I didn't feel like I was surpassing my struggles. As I was writing Carry the Weight, I was fully in a place where my answer to a lot of looming questions had become, "I don't know." I had to deal with exactly what that meant to me. What was left after I boiled off my thoughts was a very distilled weight, but that weight didn't have a specific name. Whether it be addictions, estranged relationships, or whatever makes a person feel isolated in some struggle, I think a lot of us have different weights we've distilled over time. I realize now that my weight is a combination of feeling homesick for something I can't pin down and feeling like I have at times failed the people closest to me despite my efforts to help them.
Songwriting has always been a form of dealing with those questions in my life. I would rather be in search of something real than feel completely perfect all of the time. With no search, no questions in my head, I risk slipping into some sort of complacency and that scares me far more than perfection. I am not saying that I do not like when things are good in life. I don't love drama in my life and I surely don't seek it out. I am just saying that unexpected things come at us (and have come at me in the last few years) and we are forced to make decisions. It's not surprise to me that I am just rehashing myself with a little spin on what I have previously done. I don't mind being that way and I don't get too hung up on it. I can accept that as a common form of personal growth. Art is more about the process than it is about the outcome, even though the outcome often determines whether or not those of us who do art for a living can continue to do so.
Paste: Would you consider a follow-up to your Recovered covers album?
Witmer: I definitely would. I'm in the middle of a covers project right now. I've been releasing a cover song you can download every Friday on MySpace leading up to the record. I restricted myself on those to just guitar and vocal performances, usually just with one microphone and a very simple setup. I have a lot of fun taking someone else's song and expressing it in my own way. But I would like to do another covers album at some point, if I can. There's so many songs I love that I would jump at the chance to put my personal take on.