Denison Witmer

"Let go a little."

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 ninth 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.

"I like it when things don't necessarily add up."
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 William Fitzsimmons, 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.

"For me, music's always about the process. It's not always about the final product; it's more about the journey."
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 that 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.

Caroline Spence

“We’re all these little heartbroken people but it doesn’t keep us from smiling,” says Nashville singer-songwriter Caroline Spence, “I think that there is something endearing about that.” The 24-year-old Virginia native shares a comforting narrative with her audiences; there’s a maturity and depth to her sweet dusky soprano as she relays the universal stories of love and self-discovery through detailed anecdote and careful verse. She is an Americana singer with a spry alt country vibe, a dash of bluegrass and a fine ear for a good hook, very much along the lines of female troubadours that she so admires: Brandi Carlile, Patti Griffin and Sheryl Crow.

However, it is in her songwriting that Caroline shines – In early 2013 she won the Eddie Owens Presents’ Songwriters Open Mic contest in Duluth, Georgia and her song “Mint Condition” just took first place in the American Songwriter July/August 2013 lyric contest. She now prepares her new EP You Know The Feeling, a collection of songs with something for everyone, while never finding themselves navel-gazing or overly maudlin. The EP’s track “Whiskey Watered Down,” earned Caroline a spot in the top ten of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival 2013 songwriting contest. Audiences also connect with the stories found in “Necklace” or “Shape In Your Bed” as Caroline moves from song to song with lighthearted stage banter.

Her performances have been described as “truly colorful, an emotional sound that needs little in the way of accompaniment. Hearing her sing is like getting a hug from someone you love” (Cville Weekly), and her fanbases have only been growing in the Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, and Carolina areas. In Nashville she has graced the stages of the legendary Bluebird Café and The Basement, where club owner Mike Grimes keeps Caroline on deck for any last minute openings after her memorable New Faces Night. This fall she will continue touring the Southeast, including a return to Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, Georgia to compete as a finalist in 39th Bi-Annual Songwriter’s Open Mic Contest.

There’s a lot of influences wrapped up in the cheerful brunette and her deeply emotive songwriting – the house she grew up in in Charlottesville, Virginia had Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris regularly playing in the living room and her mother’s family can be traced back to the Carter and Ralph Stanley bluegrass bloodline. In her family, everyone could play a little of something: her grandfather was a wonderful musician and her singer-songwriter aunt was the one that invited a young Caroline to open an album release show, a show that would be her very first performance of her original music in front of anyone. “I remember being so terrified. I was a sophomore in high school. But I did that and the club owners were there and I kept getting invited back to play and I was really shy about the whole thing,” she reflects, “My parents didn’t even know what I was up to until I played that night!”

Being invited back has been a theme for Caroline as she continues to expand her talents and circle of friends and fans outwards in all directions. Despite her continued successes, Caroline remains as humble and as hopeful as her songs reflect. “I didn’t even know when I moved here if I wanted to perform but it just kind of happened because I got good feedback and I had friends that wanted to play with me and I was like ‘lets just give it a shot.’ I don’t necessarily hope to be the next big thing, but I just hope that my skills or gifts can take care of my life. I’m at a point where I don’t know what direction I want to go in, but there’s a couple different paths that I can take that I might be qualified for,” she laughs, “I’m not sure yet, I’m going to keep doing this though. I’m going to keep writing, I’m going to keep singing, so I might as well keep trying to make a career out of it.”



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Denison Witmer with Caroline Spence

Thursday, October 17 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at The Evening Muse