Philadelphia songwriter Denison Witmer crafts songs of uncommon incisiveness, sung directly and piercingly in his simple tenor. I’ve known his music for a few years, having probably first noticed him through his musical collaborations with his friends Sufjan Stevens and Rosie Thomas.
I fell hard for his cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” years before that fella from Wisconsin did it, and his song “The Gift of Grace” scores every Christmastime for me. I’ve adopted “California Brown and Blue” as a (slightly depressing) theme song. There’s something in the way that he sings that just lays it all out for me, bare and unadorned.
But there is also much more to Denison’s music than I was familiar with. On a sticky hot Sunday last weekend, he sat comfortably in a big empty church, slight and snappily-clad in a pink micro-checkered shirt. He unfolded four of his songs for us, and each one blew us away. His voice is unassuming, and I find it all the more powerful for that – similar to how one of those nimble lasers can cut you so much more quickly and effectively than the big heavy scalpels. If I had to pick one single word to describe his music, I would call it simply “piercing,” right to the core.
DENISON WITMER CHAPEL SESSION, JULY 24, 2011
Take More Than You Need
This. Song. Is. Amazing. Denison hopes to release it on a future EP, and I had never heard it before. As I sat next to Conor the sound guy while Denison did a few takes of this, we kept looking over at each other, wordlessly saying “Wow.” To me, this is a stunning song about authentic (and scary) intimacy. Intimacy is a word that gets thrown around a lot, with varying meanings and depths implied. But the way Denison understands it reminds me of Kelli Schaefer’s song “Gone In Love” as she sings: “When the burden is love, it is the only weight that ever was worth carrying.”
It’s an invitation to gorge on a reliable love. We get so damn used to taking just the minimum from each other, afraid to be ravenous at times, afraid to be desperate, even though we all are.
Stay, stay with me here for a while
when the water in me dries, when the water in me dries
Wait, wait with me all afternoon
when the spirit in me moves, when the spirit in me moves
If you’re lying awake
with a lifetime to go
and the thoughts that you take with you
take more than you know
…If you’re lying awake
with my hands on your waist
wondering what you can take from me
…take more than you need.
California Brown and Blue (revisited)
I came across this perfect song when I was crafting the very personal San Francisco mix last year, full of all the songs all about and for and reminiscent of my hometown area. It does a really good job at getting into this hot-edged tangle of feelings I have in my belly and my heart for California, and for the people that live there and still hold parts of me. The arrangement Denison played at the chapel session is elegant and reinvented as something even more stunning. Another coastline gives in to waves and fades away…
According to Denison, the themes of his newest record are patience, mindfulness, and reverence. This song carries through some of the themes of the work of growing in intimacy that I hear in “Take More Than You Need.” Denison wrote:
“I wanted to take a very simple phrase like ‘I’ll be your friend’ and dive into what it truly means. I wrote this song for my wife… so it is primarily about getting married — the long term implications of that type commitment. It feels overwhelming because there is a certain death of self or lack of ego required to make things work. I don’t see the death of self as being a bad thing at all. I see it as a positive. We have much more to gain from losing our ego than we do in holding tightly to our selfish motivations.
Jennie and I got married in our early 30s. We had both been in a decent number of serious relationships before we met each other. We all carry the baggage of our past into our future relationships. We carry the baggage we create in real-time in our relationships as well. In the last verse of the song leading up through the ending, I sing: “…scattered our young hearts in the stones / in the weeks away / how your garden changed / but day by day you’d hardly know / now the fruits of our love fall out of the trees…” Even though we feel like we aren’t improving at times, being patient and mindful can result in true change within… The garden grows even when we don’t notice it.”
Three Little Birds (Bob Marley)
Denison is known for loving covers, arguably as much as I do. It’s one of the reasons we get along so well. He’s reinvented so many fantastic songs in his own vernacular, as part of his Covers Project (now permanently hosted over at Cover Lay Down); he probes the underpinnings and the rough edges in songs, bringing them to us in ways we’ve never heard them. Instead of a steel drum dancealong tune, this one becomes a simple little wisp of reassurance.
Denison’s new album The Ones Who Wait is out now, as well as a great collection of live material from house shows in the past year, Live In Your Living Room, Vol. 1. The live album is fun because it also captures Denison’s banter; for all the pristinely humble beauty of his songs, he can absolutely tell a great story or ten. We went out for beers after the chapel session and he had us in stitches with his story about the worst Denver show he ever played: it involved a dude with a skullet (bald mullet) and a lady that looked like Stevie Nicks, lifting up her flowy skirt during his set. It was incredible.
If you’re new to Denison, I would strongly recommend his 2005 album Are You A Dreamer? for a starting point (Sufjan appears on almost every track; this was around the time they were touring together), and watch for his new EP sometime later this year. Denison is a gem.