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Denison Witmer Interview
July 5, 2002
By Trae Cadenhead
Photographs by Jason Moreland
I caught up with Denison Witmer on Friday, July 5, 2002 about half an hour before he left Cornerstone Festival 2002. He was in a bit of hurry, but kind enough to let me interview him. We found a golf cart to sit on in the shade and I started the tape recorder.
Cadenhead: When did you begin making music?
Witmer: When I was seventeen. I started playing guitar when I was a junior in high school. I never really learned how to play other peopleís songs; I just started writing my own from the first day. But professionally, Iíve been making music for two and a half years.
Cadenhead: Iíve noticed kind of a difference between Safe Away and Of Joy and Sorrow with Of Joy seeming a bit more accessible and involving more instruments with songs like ďStations,Ē ďRock Run,Ē and ďYesterday, Tomorrow.Ē How did that progression come about?
Witmer: Most of that comes from me not wanting to make the same record over again. All those songs could have been arranged the same way they were on Safe Away. I think in retrospect a lot of people wish they were since people seem to like Safe Away better than Of Joy and Sorrow just because itís a little more mellow and thatís what my live show is usually like. But I went into the studio and didnít want to make the same record over again. I wanted to try to push myself as an artist. There are some things on there I wish I could change, but itís too late now. I like it for what it is. I was listening to a lot of Ď70s singer/songwriter stuff like Jackson Brown and Carol King and Neil Young and Van Morrison and I was going for a little bit of that style.
Cadenhead: Listening to Of Joy and Sorrow made me want to go back and take a closer listen to Safe Away. So your next album is Philadelphia Songs. What direction are you heading in with that album?
Witmer: I took the production a little lower on this one. The first record was produced by Don Perris who is in Innocence Mission. Production is basically someone helping you arrange the songs and decide what instruments to use on them. Whether it needs drums or whether it doesnít. Do you put an organ here? Do you think you should use an electric guitar? Acoustic guitar? The second record was produced by Blake Wescott who did the first Pedro the Lion record. He does a band called Seldom and runs the record label Pascal Recording Company. He made a lot of those choices on the second album. But this last one, I did all the production. I brought in Six Parts Seven, an instrumental band from Cleveland, Ohio. Theyíre on a record label called Suicide Squeeze. I toured with them in March. They played some songs with me on tour and I thought it sounded cool. So I brought those guys in and we discussed the arrangements, then I formulated how I wanted the songs to go from there.
Cadenhead: What kind of process do you go through for writing songs?
Witmer: Usually itís a guitar part first and then just whatever journaling Iíve done will come to mind. The melody will come on top of the guitar part and then Iíll write the words. Sometimes it all happens at once, sometimes it takes months.
Cadenhead: Do you think your music reflects your life or your life reflects your music or some combination of the two?
Witmer: It reflects the more serious side of my life. What I went for with Of Joy and Sorrow was I was trying to write something that met the title pretty well, happy and sad. Safe Away has a lot sadder tone to it. Most of my writing is just journaling anyway. Itís really personal. Lately Iíve been trying to write some more happy songs. Thatís harder to do. It takes like three good things to outweigh one bad thing. Songwriting is that way too but it directly reflects my life. Itís one hundred percent biographical. I donít know how to write any other way. Iíve tried to write stories before and it always sounded really bad so I donít bother anymore.
Cadenhead: In some of your songs you talk about April. Is that a girlfriend?
Witmer: No, April is a metaphor I use in place of some peopleís names sometimes because I donít want to be too direct. I also use it in place of the more spiritual side of things. April is one of my favorite months as well and itís a time of change. At least in Pennsylvania it definitely is. Itís springtime and thereís a lot going on. Itís just always been a really close month to me, so in some ways itís a very spiritual thing.
Cadenhead: Are you in a relationship with someone?
Witmer: No, no. Not right now. I have been and a lot of the songs are about people I have been with, but not right now.
Cadenhead: Is there a certain audience that you find your music appealing to more than another?
Witmer: I donít know. I talk with some of my fans about what they listen to and some of them listen to the same stuff Iím into, but a lot of them donít. I just pretty much will play in front of anybody. Iíve been lucky enough to straddle a couple different audiences like AAA, [the[ kind of adult market that my records do okay in. Then thereís also the indie rock market. Both of them have been pretty great for me.
Cadenhead: Is there any meaning or message that you hope your listeners pick up on in your music?
Witmer: I just want it to be identifiable. If itís something that they can relate to and help them to see something about a situation that theyíre in that they donít see, then thatís great. Or just if it makes them feel less alone in some way, that someone else is going through the same experiences, thatís great too.
Cadenhead: What are your feelings on the whole idea of a Christian music industry or do you even think there is such a thing?
Witmer: I donít know. Thatís going to be argued forever. There definitely is a Christian music industry. I try not to get involved with it. I come to Cornerstone just because Iíve got a lot of friends here and some of my friends booked this place, but this is about as Christian as it gets for me as far as music is concerned, for sure. I donít really deal with anybody in the Christian music industry. Itís just not a place I want to be.
Cadenhead: Why is that?
Witmer: A lot of bands do it because itís easy. But itís not really what Iím about. Someoneís religious views can reflect the way they make art and they should in some ways, but I think people should make art for everyone. How do you label something you make for everyone? You canít really put it into one particular [category].
Cadenhead: Are you planning to tour for the new album?
Witmer: Oh yeah, Iíll be out a lot. Iíll do the whole country two or three times over, Iím sure.
Cadenhead: I really appreciate your time.
Witmer: Oh, itís no problem. Sorry if I seemed a little zoned out or something. Iíve got this slushy here and itís really bright green. I donít think Iíve had something this artificial looking for years.
Cadenhead: It was nice to be in a cushioned seat for a minute too.
Witmer: I know, it is. I
think Iím just going to sit here for a minute and fall asleep. So yeah