It’s amazing how far Denison Witmer has come since that English class project nearly two decades ago.
Indeed, when the young Pennsylvania-housed Witmer began releasing his material in the late ‘90s (spurred by a tape cassette of songs that he did in fact record for a class project but was something that he never truly considered a “debut”), he began gaining notoriety outside of the usual strum-and-sip coffee shop set.
While his low-key demeanor didn’t entice gigantic mainstream spotlights, he slowly and carefully has been working on his craft for years, filling the sizable emotional void left in the absence of Elliott Smith for some, endearing himself to the indie-folk and alt-country crowd for others, that latter aspect noted by his collaborations with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and One Star Hotel.
Although his original works—simple in appearance yet complex in construction—garnered attention all on their own, his knack for finding a good pop song and reinterpreting it from the ground up (as he did with this cover of “Champagne Supernova” from 2008) is what helped cement his legacy as a dorm-room mixtape staple.
Now, after years of having gone from label to label (with Burnt Toast Vinyl and The Militia Group serving as his most notable homes), Witmer has found a new partner in Sufjan Stevens’ own Asthmatic Kitty Records, who is releasing Witmer’s self-titled new disc, featuring the notable, emotionally resonant style that has become his trademark and which can be heard echoing through the likes of Will Stratton and the new class of acoustic wunderkids.
Sitting down to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions, Witmer reveals a great deal, ranging from his appreciation of Kafka On the Shore to his surprising juggling talents to his rather profound advice to up-and-coming songwriters, which includes not being afraid to write actually bad songs.
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I have been reading a lot of Haruki Murakami novels. My favorite is Kafka On the Shore. I find that as I near the end of each book, I drag it out because I know I’ll miss the characters. The way he describes his characters’ inner worlds and epiphanies always makes me tear up at some point. He bridges the realistic and mystic together in a way that makes a lot of sense to me.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Can I just be a culmination of all of the great people on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing? That would make me a superhero though. This is a hard question to answer. I think there is the person I think I am and the person I actually am. There is always a divide between the two.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek. There has never been a cheesy moment in Star Trek than I can think of. It’s always been smart, classy, and dealt with a lot of big picture issues.
5. Your ideal brain food?
NPR. This American Life. The Stuff You Should Know podcast. Instrumental music by Susumu Yokota, Max Richter, or Olafur Arnalds. I find that listening to instrumental music always makes me think of counter melodies and lyrics and jumpstarts my creative process in a good way. Going for a jog also helps me with that.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m really proud of my new album. It’s another chapter in the arc of my career. I own a recording studio in NYC and that has greatly affected my writing process. I have unlimited time in the studio now and I write a lot in front of the microphone, which has been a great learning experience. I like that no matter how long I have been working in this medium of music, I am still learning new ways to create and refine my art. The fact that I made and released this album is one more reminder that I am still doing what I love for a living. It may not always be so (and I’m okay with that), but I remain flattered that people still buy my records, come to my shows, and allow me to pursue my creativity and share it with them.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
Being honest. Whenever a younger artist asks me for advice, I always say, “Create selfishly and give away your creations selflessly.”
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I don’t even know where to start with this question. Really. Consider your life and think about all of the people who made you the person you are. Try to be that encouragement to your circle of family and friends. This question made me think of Mr. Rogers’ acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Emmy. If you haven’t watched that, you should. It sums up everything I wish I could say here.
Going back to the first question you asked, that particular video of Mr. Rogers makes me cry every time.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
“These Days” by Jackson Browne. His version, not the one sung by Nico. She changed the lyrics and I don’t like those as much as the version that Jackson Browne recorded on his album For Everyman.
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
Juggling. Making things with my hands.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
A close friend who is also a musician reminded me once that you can write about anything. Don’t back yourself into the corner of your own ideas about what you should be creating. Don’t be afraid to assign yourself things to write about and don’t be afraid of writing bad songs. You need to be creative until you get to the workflow or creativity you are happy with.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My 1966 Guild M20 Guitar. I bought it from a fan after a show in Ashville, North Carolina. He brought it to the show hoping I’d be interested and he had a hunch it would be a good fit for me. He was spot on. It was a very serendipitous moment.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
Flat front chinos, button-up shirt, and a cardigan.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I use to be very interested in meeting my heroes, but that has since changed. Ever since I met a few of mine and they weren’t very pleasant people, I realized I’m quite happy to enjoy their art in the ways I do and leave it at that.
My ideal dinner situation would be to go to an incredible Japanese restaurant with Masaharu Morimoto and have him order all of the food and then tell me about it before I eat it.
I think the Ritz is most famous for its “high tea” and that’s not really my thing.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I like the here and now. Woody Allen’s movie Midnight In Paris hit the nail on the head.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa vacation. I wish America was more in tune with bathing culture like Korea, Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia…
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
Coffee. Chocolate. Fruit.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Apartment in the city, house in the country. I love Philadelphia and wouldn’t mind staying here, though New York City is a close second for me.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Thanks for being so well spoken. If I ever wrote a book, I would beg Barrack Obama to read the audio book version of it.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m remodeling a few rooms in my house. I’m going from room to room and reframing the doors. It’s way more tricky than I anticipated considering everything has to be level, plumb, and square in order for the door to swing open and closed correctly.
I’m also playing a lot of classical guitar and trying to write some lullabies for my son.
// Notes from the Road
"We’re coming to see HEALTH for the experience, for the kind of intense musical attack that leaves one needing a stiff drink...READ the article