Denison Witmer came up as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of legends like Jackson Browne and contemporaries like the late Elliott Smith. Over the course of 10 albums released on labels such as Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty, the Pennsylvania-based artist has crafted a signature sound and garnered a dedicated fanbase.
Speaking ahead of his June 9 show at Saturn, Witmer spoke about playing a surprise birthday party show, adjusting to family responsibilities as a creative professional and building a career under his own name.
Weld: It’s been a while since you’ve made a trip to Birmingham. Do you remember the last time you came here?
Denison Witmer: I think it was about five or six years ago. I was somewhere close to Birmingham, and I got an email from a woman about doing a surprise birthday party for her husband at this small café. It was a really cool space. I’m drawing a blank on the name, but it was a really fun show.
I just showed up, and it was [the husband] and a lot of his friends. A lot of them were familiar with my music. It was mostly a request set. We hung out a bit afterwards. It was really fun. There was a photographer there who took some pictures. But that was my last time in Birmingham. Before that, it might have been 2005.
Weld: When you say ‘café’, are you referring to the Bottletree?
DW: No, it wasn’t the Bottletree. I was reading an article about that place closing down, which is so tragic. I’m looking forward to coming back [to Birmingham]. When I was last there, admittedly, it was a different style of show that wasn’t open to the public. It was a bit curated, and the people who hired me obviously hired me because they were already fans of my music, but it was such a beautiful experience. Everyone was so nice. I just met some great people and had a great time. People have always been really kind to me each time I’ve been to Birmingham.
Weld: Are you working on anything new? I know you released your self-titled album a few years back.
DW: I’ve been writing a lot and making some demos at home. Just trying to figure out what my next step is when I actually start recording an album. I moved last August. My family moved out of Philadelphia to a town called Lancaster, Pa. It was right when I was supposed to go into the studio. We found this house and decided to move.
I put off recording to get my family situation settled in a new space, and that’s taken a lot more time to wrap my head around than actually moving and packing all my things and actually setting my space up. I’m one of those types of people that has to have everything in the right place before my brain can get creative again. I’ve shifted my creative focus to preparing my space, and I’ve finally started writing again.
I hope to get back in the studio. It’s an interesting time in the music industry, where even record labels who were doing quite well a couple of years ago are really suffering. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m going to go with a record label or if I want to fundraise my next album. I’ve just decided to take my time and not rush anything. The older I get, the more I accept that things just happen on a longer timeline than what I think they’re supposed to happen on.
Weld: You’re 10 albums into your career. You touched on this some, but how has the creative process changed since you first started?
DW: When I first started making music, I had a job working at a greenhouse. I would just water plants all day. I had no digital distraction whatsoever, just maybe a Walkman radio. I would record my songs on a cassette recorder and take them with me to work. I would listen on headphones and write lyrics all day as I was watering plants. I would carry a notebook around and when ideas would come, I’d jot down my lyrics. Then, when music became my full-time job, it changed because I was so busy, I had to write in chunks in between touring. When I got home from tour, I used that three or so months to plan a new album and make demos.
Now that I have a bunch of other responsibilities with my family, I’m moving back to that space where I make an iPhone recording here and there when I have some guitar parts. If I go for a run or walk in the neighborhood, I’ll take that with me and listen to it and write lyrics to the guitar parts. Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but I do like working that way. I’m really excited to come back to that style of writing.
Weld: What’s the Philadelphia “scene” like?
DW: Philly’s got an incredible music scene. People are very supportive of each other. I feel like more and more move to Philadelphia to pursue art in general because it’s a pretty reasonably priced city to live in. With its proximity to New York, Baltimore, DC, Boston and Pittsburgh, it’s a very centrally located city. It’s a fraction of the price of New York. It’s becoming increasingly creative just because a lot of people are getting priced out of New York City, and they’re realizing Philadelphia is very much the same vibe in some of the neighborhoods, so they’re flocking to Philadelphia where they can afford to be creative. Philadelphia’s got incredible music venues, incredible nightlife and a lot of great artists. It’s a great place to be.
Weld: Before you started in the early to mid-2000s, it was taboo in some indie circles to play under your own name. Did you ever consider having a band name or has it always been just Denison Witmer?
DW: When I first started, I didn’t consider having a band name because I didn’t realize I was pursuing a career in music. When I made my first album, it was just because my friend had some recording equipment to make a record. My plan was just to make something I could give to my friends and family. But at the time, the minimum amount of CDs you could manufacture was 1,000, so I made 1,000 CDs and gave away 100 of them to my friends and family. I then had 900 sitting in boxes in my parents’ basement. My parents asked what I was going to do with all these albums, and I had no real plan, so I went to Barnes & Noble and bought one of those magazines called Musician’s Guide to Touring and Promotion. I booked a regional tour for myself and did that over and over again until I got rid of the CDs. One of those ended up finding a record label, and they offered to pay for another album.
It’s kind of an accidental career in a lot of ways. Because of that, I felt that if they were willing to invest this money in me and I’m releasing things under my name, then I just need to keep doing that. Sometimes, I think it would be really cool to switch and free myself of my own parameters I’ve put on myself. As an artist, you can definitely circle around in that space, one that’s sometimes an uncomfortable space to be in. I have to constantly remind myself the best art is something that’s selfishly made and then selflessly given away. I think around my second or third album that I was thinking too much about what I thought my fans would be expecting to get from me. I just had to grow up and realize that the best thing to do is just grow up and be yourself.
Denison Witmer opens for William Fitzsimmons at Saturn on Tuesday, June 9. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 advance or $14 day of show. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.