Denison Witmer

It's a line from Denison Witmer's latest album, Denison Witmer, but it's also the lesson that the acoustic singer-songwriter has learned from his first fifteen years of underground success. The release of his self-titled disc—his tenth full-length—comes as an occasion to reflect on what he's learned from a career in music: to be patient, to trust in happy accidents, and to admit every once in a while that he isn't totally in control.

In a way, even the start of his musical career was an accident. Hoping to print a hundred or so copies of his first CD, Safe Away (1998), a teenaged Denison found himself stuck with ten times that many, and went on his first tour in an attempt to keep the extras from going to waste. He sold the whole thousand, including one copy that found its way into the hands of the Burnt Toast Vinyl label, and a recording project intended for a tiny audience turned into a full-fledged album release.

The title of his seventh album, Are You a Dreamer? (Militia, 2005), offers a clue to Denison's songwriting process.  According to Denison, music—or life—is sometimes like a dream, the connections between one idea and another, or one moment and the next, making sense on an intuitive level rather than a rational one.

But that's the beauty of a dream:  "I like it when things don't necessarily add up," says Denison, "and I'm okay with that, when things spin a little bit out of control."  And when his songwriting follows along with that intuitive logic, "instead of necessarily guiding it," he says, "for me, those have always been the most successful moments creatively."

But calamity struck while Denison was working on the follow-up to his eighth album, 2008's Carry the Weight (Militia). His father fell terminally ill, and Denison took a break from music-making in order to care for him.  He helped friend and producer Devin Greenwood build the Honey Jar, a recording studio in Brooklyn, and when he finally returned to finish the EP he had started recording, he instead found himself putting together enough material for a full-length—The Ones Who Wait (Asthmatic Kitty, 2012)—a whole album created, in a sense, by accident.

Co-owning a studio has made it possible for him to create a recording using the same intuitive processes that drive his songwriting, rather than showing up with a strict plan for his time in the studio, to bring in trusted collaborators like Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens, and Rosie Thomas, and give them free reign to realize his music.  It has given him the control he needs, in other words, to relinquish control.

For Denison Witmer, Denison takes the same spirit of quiet acceptance that he has brought to life's mysteries, happy accidents, and even calamities, and turns it towards—as the title might suggest—himself. Citing inspirations as different as Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and the life of knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey, he reflects on the life he's led, from his earliest days on the road.

"One day I put out an album, and then I was packing up my car and going on tour.  Then ten years in," he says, "I was still doing the same thing."  The song "Constant Muse" is about those first years:  "I think it's the most direct song on this album, about deciding to keep doing something that chose me, rather than I chose it—and now, choosing it."

Having lost a father, Denison is now father to a son of his own, named Asa, and the new album looks towards the future as much as it reflects upon the past. In another one of those happy accidents, a friend introduced him to a song called "Asa" that just happens to weave the name's different meanings ("healer" in Hebrew, "morning" in Japanese, and so on) into the album's themes of comfort and consolation.

In an age of flashy pop hits that give off more light than heat, Denison's music is, like his career, a slow burn, but it offers an enduring warmth. He makes "quiet music" (his words), intimate and introspective, that trusts his audience to bring something of themselves to it.

It's an open-ended, patient approach to songwriting. "You could be whatever you want," goes the first verse of Denison Witmer's "Made Out for This"—"but I know that you're feeling older." It could be addressed to the listener, or to a lover, or even to Denison himself. But the second verse sounds less like a love song than a hymn: "I follow the light as it moves," Denison sings, "And I'm still making my way back to the river." And while the verses offer reassurance, the refrain is nagged by doubt: "What if I'm just not made out for this?"

He doesn't offer easy answers.  "I guess what's encouraging to me," says Denison, "is that you hear sometimes people, who you never thought they had any doubts about what they're doing, have some doubts."

At the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, given a chance to survey the work of one of his artistic heroes, Denison experienced a small epiphany: no one ever thinks of the obscure, early paintings when they think of the name Van Gogh, but those famous, late masterpieces would have been impossible without them.  Even when he was making drawings for art school, Van Gogh was already Van Gogh.

"Looking over the arc of a career, there are moments when you got it right and moments where you didn't," says Denison. "For me, music's always about the process.  It's not always about the final product; it's more about the journey.  You work song by song and album by album in pursuit of something—I really try to trust that approach."

Denison Witmer, the album, brings Denison Witmer, the artist, one step closer to that something.

What's the other side of love? There's the love you see in movies. The love you're taught as a child will be your due when you grow up. Fairytale love. Brotherly love. But there's another side to it.

"When you actually live through something real, you realize there are a lot of aspects of love," says singer-songwriter Amy Stroup. "There's a lot of pain. It takes courage. There's something you have to fight for. Actually living a life with someone gets ugly."

And in that, there is beauty: Amy has been named one of Prairie Home Companion's "Top 20 Songwriters Under 30" and won a national Peacemaker Award.

Her new CD — "The Other Side of Love Sessions," in stores on June 28 — compiles the best songs from her previous digital-only EPs and bathes them in a new light.

"All these songs," she says, "explore different types of love."

There is the sweeping and yearning love of "Hold on to Heart Love," so affecting it has been featured in the hit TV shows "Brothers & Sisters," "Private Practice," "One Tree Hill" and "Army Wives."

There is the lilting, aching love of "Quiet Hearts," featured in "Greek," "One Tree Hill" and "Pretty Little Liars."

There is the driving, determined love of "Backed into a Corner," which you may have heard in Grey's Anatomy.

The searching quality of Amy's music can be traced in part to her inveterate upbringing. Born the child of religious parents in Boston, she spent much of her girlhood traveling. "There's the military families that move around and the church families that move around," she jokes.

Under the tutelage of her grandmother's best friend, she started learning classical piano in second grade. "Every time I learned a new chord, I would write a song to it," she says. And when she wasn't writing songs on piano, she was learning to sing in the Church of Christ, a denomination that prefers their music a capella. ("That's where I learned my harmonies. It's real pure.")

Vacations consisted of piling the family into the VW van and traipsing around the country singing, with a young Amy taking the alto parts. When they stayed in town or visited New York, the family would check out the Boston Pops, see James Taylor in concert or take in a musical (Amy has a soft spot for Les Miserables and the Phantom of the Opera.)

When Amy was entering middle school, the family moved to Texas. In seventh grade, she decided to take up the guitar. "My grandmother told me it wasn't ladylike to play guitar," she recalls. "I didn't care." She sat out back on her six acres of family land, figuring out the chord progressions to Bob Dylan records. She also taught herself half of Jewel's oeuvre from watching her on MTV Live. Dixie Chicks, Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin "were my soundtrack growing up. I was organic and self-taught." This rich stew of influences can all be heard in the music she makes today.

At Lipscomb University in Nashville, she studied classical guitar and marketing, which may not have been such diametrically opposed pursuits as they appear. "I knew the music industry was changing. The record deal was disappearing," she says. "The next step would be independent and musician driven."

And so it was: Upon graduation in 2005 she recorded an EP and in 2006 a full-length record, but they didn't quite sound like music she heard in her head. That breakthrough came with the help of producer Thomas Doeve, who runs Paper Swan studio out of his basement. The first sessions resulted in "Hold on to Heart Love," a song that captured exactly how she wanted her music to be heard: "Super-honest, underproduced. Organic." She recorded six more songs, then another EP. Then a third. All in her own name.

As word got out about her music, it was placed as background music for pivotal scenes in popular TV shows, and the occasional national ad (Wal-Mart, eHarmony). "It was unique and cool to have my music used in certain scenes to capture the emotion of what was happening," she says. Over the past 18 months, her songs have been featured in more than 20 different shows.

Those songs — and more — are collected in the "Other Side of Love Sessions," and released on CD for the first time. "The traditional label model doesn't work any more," she says. "We're releasing music differently. We're making iPhone videos and putting them on YouTube. Everything has been organic, grass-roots and hands-on."

Down the road, she says her goal would be to score a movie. But as her career charges forward, she's happy to take a breath a remain still in Nashville — "a great community for songwriters" — for a while. "I moved around so much as a kid," she says, "I've found the spot I like and I'm going to stay here." Maybe that's what the other side of love looks like.

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Denison Witmer with Amy Stroup

Monday, September 23 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM at Doug Fir Lounge