August 1, 2011

Fuel/Friends Chapel Session #5: Denison Witmer

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.


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…

Your Friend
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.

January 28, 2011

“Left My Heart In San Francisco” mix

Five years ago I moved out of the San Francisco Bay Area for the snowy, crisp mountains of Colorado. I absolutely love my adopted home, our vibrant music scene, and the fresh air here, but no foolin’ I do often long for my hometown hills.

Over the holidays I went to San Francisco for a week to stay at the Noe Valley apartment of friends who were out of town and graciously let me “housesit.” It was a part of town I had never stayed in before. When I first let myself into their empty place on Christmas evening, and walked out to their deck, I took in a sharp breath and smiled.

The first picture below is the desktop image I’ve had on my computer for the last two years, to remind me of my homeland:


…then these two are photos I took on Christmas from the deck where I was staying:

Christmas-NY 2010 076

Christmas-NY 2010 049

Same hill, same view as the one I’d been looking at daily for the last two years. It’s smile-inducing moments of kismet like that which reassure me no matter how far I roam from Pacific coast, it will keep finding me.

It finds me lately in the music that celebrates the Bay Area; I started this mix to accompany my recent trip, finishing it up after that view happened on into my life. These are songs with references to all the favorite, special parts of California that helped catalyze bits of me – loosely centered around San Francisco, San Jose, and places you can (and I did) drive to in an afternoon with some friends and a picnic basket.

Thirty songs for home.


San Francisco Bay Blues (Lost Tapes Vol 14) – John Lennon
Starting this mix just like my New York one, with John just screwing around on his guitar and somehow still sounding pretty perfect.

16th And Valencia Roxy Music – Devendra Banhart
Right on the edge of the Mission District, by the hundred-year-old artsy Roxie Theater, Devendra is taking us out to find our lovers tonight. Oh, and they’re gonna be riding six white horses and wearing pressed blue jeans, he suggests. But hey, this is SF. Go with it.

Piazza, New York Catcher – Belle & Sebastian
Not at all about NYC, but the story of a love affair set throughout the city of San Francisco, hanging about the stadium where the Giants and Mets will play, the Tenderloin, borrowed bedrooms virginal and spare. Meet you at the statue in an hour.

California On My Mind – Wild Light
Something a reader recommended for this mix, this is absolutely one of my favorite new songs, even if the core songwriting lyric is a repeated refrain of “fuck today, fuck San Francisco, fuck California” with a “…fuck Oakland” thrown in later for good measure. The rousing harmonica and the charmingly awkward vocals are enough to win me, and I’m sure we’ve done enough jerky things to deserve a little rancor.

San Jose – Joe Purdy
I never knew this song when I lived in San Jose (my address was always a San Jose one except for when I was in college, when it moved over a few zip codes) but it sounds like a warm, Ray LaMontagne-style blues & organ song that I’ve just always known.

Roots Radical – Rancid
Took the 60 bus out of downtown Campbell, Ben Zanotto he was on there, he was waiting for me.” Campbell’s border is about a mile from the edge of my high school, and Rancid had origins at the neighboring high school. I totally took the 60 bus to Great America amusement park, and I also wonder if Ben Zanotto’s dad was the same guy who started the neat Zanotto’s grocery markets in town, like a prototype Trader Joe’s.

(Wake Me Up) In San Francisco – The Welcome Matt
I fittingly first heard this on a sampler from the epic KFOG radio station, and it always makes me smile, especially if I can listen to it as the song suggests, while driving in over the Bay Bridge, or landing in SFO on a big jet plane. This song namechecks so many great places, as it talks about how going home never gets old.

San Francisco – Brett Dennen
Brett is from the Central California town of Oakdale, between Escalon and Jamestown on 108, a route I have driven often enough to see why he pictures himself buying a navy peacoat and moving to SF. This is such a charming love letter to the city, we’ll allow him to be on this mix even though he is an Oakland A’s fan: “Over in the Mission it’s always a sunny day / there’s a real good baseball town but my team is across the Bay.”

Hail Mary – Pomplamoose
Not only is this husband-wife duo from Corte Madera (north of SF), but this catchy pop tune sings of driving down to San Jose at ninety miles per hour, has clattery, stick-in-your-head percussion, and their band name is modeled after the French word for grapefruit. What’s not to like?

Santa Clara – The National
Santa Clara is where I went to college and then worked for five years, and where my grandma still lives in the same house on Brannan Place that she’s been in for 50 years — so I was pretty excited to find this National b-side. It is gorgeous by any standards, even aside from how it hits the home parts of my heart.

Snow In San Anselmo – Van Morrison
Van gets a bit meandering here on this seven+ minute tune, but it feels appropriate for the kind of cold night he describes in this small town in Marin County, across the Golden Gate from SF. “The classic music station plays soft and low . . . and the pancake house is always open 24 hours a day / my waitress said it was coming down, said it hadn’t happened in over thirty years.” I remember snow maybe once in all my years in the Bay Area, and this song is mighty evocative.

San Geronimo – Red House Painters
Then just along the boulevard from San Anselmo is the town of San Geronimo, where Kozelak sings of “somewhere up fifteen miles sifting through crackling vinyl / lost memories of my youth are coming into view… weekend in San Geronimo, love how the starlit skies show.” Red House Painters were from San Francisco, so they get double point placement on this mix for that. They know the landscape well, and I could have picked any number of their tunes but this one is special.

California, Pt. 2 – Mason Jennings
Possibly my favorite of all Mason Jennings songs, about packing a box of books and a guitar into the back of a pickup and moving to CA — not Los Angeles (“I’m staying far away from there”) but moving “north of San Francisco into the cleaner air / I’m gonna get a little land with the money I’ve saved, buy a little house that I can work on / where the next nearest neighbor lives miles away, I’ll never have to mow the lawn. Right on.” Sounds absolutely perfect to me.

El Caminos In The West – Grandaddy
Jason Lytle is from Modesto, California, and so even though I realize this song may well be about the stylin’ car the El Camino, I prefer to imagine it as singing about the El Camino Real, the King’s Highway that stretches the length of the state and used to bind together all the mission churches in the state’s earliest days.

Palo Alto – Radiohead
With bleeps and bloops fitting the technological mecca this “city of the future” has become (from Hewlett Packard to Facebook) Radiohead sings an ode to Palo Alto with a pervasive feeling of alienation. But I mean, seriously, Radiohead wrote a song about them. They can’t complain.

Oakland on a Rainy Day – Jake Troth
This Bay Area songwriter writes great, humble, satisfying songs and this is no exception. There’s nearly nothing I love more than Oakland (or San Francisco, or San Jose, or Santa Cruz) on a rainy day. When I was in SF over the holidays, it poured on Tuesday night and I just opened the windows and sat in the dark and listened and smelled that rain smell. We don’t get that in Colorado much.

27th Ave Shuffle – Foxboro Hot Tubs
A 2008 side project of seminal Berkeley band Green Day, this song rocks us down 27th Avenue (which bisects Golden Gate Park and runs on up through the Richmond) and I think references jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge which of course is something we do not recommend. But this song, yes.

Rendezvous Potrero Hill – Architecture in Helsinki
Let’s pause for a little autumnal instrumental interlude dedicated to this San Francisco neighborhood, home to both Anchor Steam Brewery and the Mythbusters folks, so you know it has to be good.

Grace Cathedral Hill – The Decemberists
A new year’s day spent in this, one of SF’s most gorgeous cathedrals, lighting little white candles and then heading north to the Hyde Street Pier — “And the world may be long for you, but it’ll never belong to you / but on a motorbike when all the city lights blind your eyes tonight, are you feeling better now?” Yup.

Highway 101 – Social Distortion
One of our most maddening or beautiful highways, depending on which stretch of it you find yourself on, and what time to day. I picked this song over Albert Hammond Jr’s “Back To The 101″ because everyone knows that only Southern Californians add the “the.”

Moon Over Marin – Dead Kennedys
One of San Francisco’s most famous punk bands sing about pollution in the North Bay, decades before the Cosco Busan spill. The band was formed after guitarist East Bay Ray saw a punk/ska show at San Francisco’s legendary Mabuhay Gardens, met Jello Biafra and the rest of the band, and yelled their way into our city’s history.

Got To Have It – Soul President
From the Numero Group’s marvelous Eccentric Soul re-release series, this steel drum-peppered track was originally put out on a tiny San Francisco imprint Uptight Records in the ’60s. There’s all kind of painfully funky shoutouts here to the Haight Ashbury, laced liberally with “unh!”s. Being this cool hurts.

The Chapter of Your Life Entitled San Francisco – The Lucksmiths
This Australian band laments a friend who has moved off to our temperate Bay Area climes, and won’t even write postcards home during the long summer, so taken is she with the charms of the city by the Bay. It happens.

Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far) – The Thrills
One thing I probably miss the most here in the landlocked square I now call home is the inability to pack up the car with a few essentials and drive south over Highway 17 to Santa Cruz, the beachtown that was once so close and so appreciated. The Thrills are from nowhere near California (Dublin, actually) but the first two songs on their 2002 album So Much For The City talk about California coastal towns so convincingly, you’d think they were from here too.

Big Dipper – Cracker
David Lowery’s earlier band Camper Van Beethoven was centered in Santa Cruz, and this melancholy song compares life to entering the long tunnel and the curve leading into the iconic Big Dipper, the wooden rollercoaster at the Beach Boardwalk (from the top you can “see Monterey, or think about San Jose”). I know it well. Lowery also sings of sitting on the Cafe Zinho steps, an ’80s landmark which was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and watching all the world go by.

San Andreas Fault – Natalie Merchant
Speaking of destruction caused by the ’89 quake, this fault is the meeting of the plates that caused it. I was ten and I was begrudgingly cleaning my room so that I could join the rest of my family in watching the World Series Game 3 that was starting, Giants vs A’s in a cross-the-Bay pairing. This video of the baseball coverage that night makes me smile to see old Candlestick full, but remembering how sunny that day was makes my stomach hurt.

San Francisco Blues – Stephen Fretwell
I’ve loved Fretwell since I first heard the devastatingly perfect “Emily,” and even moreso when he put this song on his 2007 album Man On The Roof. Originally from Manchester, England, he joins a long line of Brits who have fallen in love with the city.

California Brown and Blue – Denison Witmer
Everything about this song cuts me, we’ll just leave it at that. “Weightless in the arms of the Golden Gate… I leave before we find out what it means.”

Sausalito - Conor Oberst
Conor pens a rollicking number with deceptively wrenching lyrics set in the gorgeous seaside town of Sausalito, which I remember a specific gorgeous March day spent walking around in after taking the ferry up from SF. “Hair blowing in the hot wind, time hanging from a clothespin…” He thinks we should move to a houseboat and let the ocean rock us back and forth to sleep. Yes.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay (ripped from vinyl) – Otis Redding
Perhaps one of the most famous songs written in and about our Bay (other than, you know, Journey), Otis penned this one night on a houseboat docked in that same Sausalito, while he was in town to play San Francisco’s famous Fillmore. Everything about that sentence, I love.


I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry or smile widely (sometimes at the same time) while making this mix.

[help on this mix from several friends from the Bay Area, including pal/SF resident/musician Matt Nathanson, Ken Shipley of Numero Group and my high school, Rand Foster of Long Beach’s epic Fingerprints Record Store and neighboring rival high school,and fellow SF blogger Adrian who also rocked some of the best suggestions on the Stomp/Clap Mix. Y’all do your city proud.]

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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