Denison Witmer and the music of driving

By Chris Seet

There’s place where we stand, a halfway point between pondering the past and pushing off into the present. Denison Witmer, a soft-spoken and largely unknown songwriter from Philadelphia, knows this spot — he charts its territory and walks its line with grace and an uncommon sense of balance.

Driving through Chicago, Witmer plays an early acoustic set at Schuba’s on the week of his album’s release. More a bar than a venue at this hour, the audience is talkative, people drift in and out with glasses of beer, and there’s a crazy beeping sound coming from some piece of equipment. A set-list is thrown together from occasional shouts from the floor and, coughing mid-song, Witmer apologizes for his cold. It’s a low-key and mild event for sure, reflective of Witmer’s relatively low profile, but even so, one gets the impression that this is the setting of choice for his songs; the capacity for honesty is enormous.

The honest approach, let’s face it, is not a very popular one in music these days. Those that attempt it do so in the face of either adversity or indifference, but those that attempt it and succeed win the loyalty of generations, championed as visionaries for doing nothing so difficult as seeing themselves. This being said, though, it’s harder than it looks. Witmer has anonymity on his side, the freedom and resolve to play the straight story, rather than shift styles with each season. His songs are simple, heartfelt, and each is a sketch of friendship, loyalty, devotion — all the day to day stuff that’s always there, but seldom spills over into words. It’s a deceptively straightforward approach, and one all-too-often overlooked — but, thinking about it, rarely does a singer get up and sing a song that reads like a letter. The music and words are reflective, but it’s not sad-bastard music either; there’s a dwelling on the past, but also a clear love for life and a sense of continuity with the present, of where to go from any point in time.

Witmer plays “Los Angeles,” a stirring and poetic two-minute number from last year’s Safe Away. This song, with its despondent urban confession “all of these homes are lined up so straight / but here on the inside it’s not that way,” bends warmly like long shadows in the afternoon. Widely available online, it is perhaps most indicative of Witmer’s prowess and sensibility as a songwriter.

Musically, Witmer’s sound is not surprisingly direct. Every instrument has its place, and there is no room for excess; the emphasis is on Witmer’s clear and disarming vocals, and the strumming of an acoustic guitar. This sound obviously brings to mind a slew of artists and lo-fi movements from across the board, but in Witmer’s case you get the impression that he is genuinely doing what comes most naturally to him rather than following some well-trodden path by default. If references need be made, acts such as Damien Jurado and Mark Kozelek come to mind, and Witmer stands up to the comparisons.

Witmer’s new album, Of Joy & Sorrow, released last week, is in many ways a polished album, a smooth and joyous ride through lush green fields after a day of rain. The album opens to the gentle tune, “Forgiven,” an apology for wronging a friend. It’s warm and pleasant, but as an apology, it is as sincere as they come, always drawing back to the bittersweet refrain, “Do you think I’ll be forgiven?” “Rock Run” is one of the road songs Witmer goes on to talk about, a cruising song thick with images of late summer and countryside streaking past open windows. Karen Peris of the Innocence Mission shares vocals, lending a wavering and transient feel to the chorus, “we are beautiful and unsure who we are.”

The production this time around, while still centered on the acoustic guitar, is fuller, more concerned with living life than reflecting on it. “I wanted to make my driving album,” says Witmer, hands placed vaguely on the 10 o’clock positions of an invisible wheel. He speaks enthusiastically of a return to a ‘70s pop sensibility and a desire not to be confined to the nighttime broodings of his earlier work, typified by home recordings and solo guitar accompaniment. “I wanted to make a happy album,” says Witmer. “I think a lot of people make it out like I’m this depressing guy, but, you know, I think I’m pretty happy.”

Happy or sad, as the Kahil Gibran-inspired title of his album implies, this is a dichotomy Witmer does not believe in. Like the pull of the past on the present, joy and sorrow are continuous, interrelated, and indeed the humanity of Witmer’s sad songs may only be the other side of a profound understanding of contentment, something more than a few indie bands would do well to discover.

Denison Witmer’s releases are available from