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"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 is enamored with words and songs. Though countless singer-songwriter boast the same simple claim, few have been lifted up by their passion the way Caroline has. Her passion led the Virginia native on a pilgrimage to Nashville, where the 26-year old has honed her writing and her coy, dusky soprano across folk, Americana and alt-country genres. Step-by-step, that same passion helped her win major songwriting competitions, successfully funded a crowd-sourced IndieGoGo campaign for a new album, and continues to open the hearts of new fans every time she plays. It resonates throughout every track on her first full-length solo debut, the magical and meditative Somehow, set for release on March 3rd 2015.
With songs that wrap the truths of life up into personal vignettes of clever wordplay and catchy hooks, it’s no wonder that in 2013 Caroline won American Songwriter Magazine’s June/July lyric contest as well as the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest songwriter competition later that year. But when American Songwriter named her the grand prize winner out of all song submissions for all of 2013, she began to feel her passions validated. “They were very legitimizing, like these bigger institutions that have authority on the subject were giving me the go. It wasn’t strategic – it was what I was doing because I wasn’t going to do anything else. I kept making songs,” says Spence.
The songs were piling up and the encouraging momentum pushed Spence to crowd-source funding for a full-length album – her first major solo project. It was a high goal - $15,000 in 30 days – but one that her fans and friends exceeded on April 6th, 2014, 24 hours before she was to start working on the album. “I still can’t believe that happened. That was just such a crazy feeling. People came out of the woodwork,” reflects Spence. “I was obviously confidant enough to say this is the right route to raise the money for the album, but I had rationalized it with myself ‘If I only get 10k, this is what we can do.’ I had kind of planned on not reaching my goal and the fact that I did allowed for so much more freedom. The day after I met the goal, we went into the studio”
So, with help from producer Michael Rinne, Spence selected 13 original songs out of about 30 to record at Farmland Studios with some of her favorite musicians, including Danny Mitchell (Kim Richey) on keys, Kris Donegan (Matthew Perryman Jones, Amy Speace) on electric guitar, Daniel Parks (Kelsey Waldon, Lucy Hale) on acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo, Michael Rinne (Rodney Crowell, Andrew Combs, Steelism) on bass, Christian Sedelmeyer (Jerry Douglass, 10 String Symphony) on fiddle, Justin Schipper (Josh Turner) on pedal steel, Evan Hutchings (Escondido, Rayland Baxter) on drums and Andrew Combs, Erin Rae and Anderson East all providing additional vocals.
The album opening “Trains Cry” sets the tone with something between a far-off train whistle and the hum of monks in prayer until Spence joins in a moment later. She hides a
life lesson in the chorus, singing, “I can hear the trains cry/Now I finally know why/ it’s the most lonesome sound/I know why the trains cry/ they’re leaving with a goodbye/they
can’t just turn around.“
The inevitable forward march of time and all the joy and sadness that brings is a theme woven throughout the album and speaks of Spence’s deep maturity and sense of humanity – an honest approach she shares with the songwriters she looks up to. “I think about the women who’s careers I admire – Lori Mckenna and Patty Griffin #1,” says Spence, “and these are just women that I feel like have always been themselves and haven’t put anything on and I’m thankful for role models like them.”
Being unabashedly herself also means acknowledging her tough side, with songs like Don’t Call” and “Kissing Ain’t The Same As Talking,” two songs that will not tolerate superficial relationships. “I think most 20-something-year-old girls need those songs,” adds Spence. She also acknowledges the need for bold female singer-songwriters in a genre dominated by men. “A man writing a love song is novel, but a woman writing a love song is dismissed. It’s something that we’re expected to do and we’re expected to write emotional music, but when a man writes emotional music, its profound and its praised. I just feel like that’s bullshit and I think that the only music that should be made is emotional music.”
Meanwhile the band lives and breathes with Spence’s guitar and vocals, masterfully navigating a breadth of genres with a perfect sense of intimacy and style, at times with the rock of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, the twang of Lower Broadway, or the sensitivity of swelling pedal steel and simple percussion. Spence describes the experience as magical. “It was just really amazing to be in the vocal booth and just to hear this production that I had imagined for a year happening around me.”
Spence showcases her own versatility, with the crooked country rock of “Kissing Ain’t The Same As Talking,” and the hymn-like, Buddy Miller-inspired “Bless Your Heart,” but it is her obsession with her lyrics and themes that allows her to be at home in any genre. “I’m just so uncomfortable with being in a box,” says Spence, “Whatever I write is because that’s the song that happened. It’s not like ‘I want to be a country star so let me write a country song,’ it really all comes down to the songs. The reason I write in those genres is because that’s what I listen to, and that’s by osmosis what I make. It’s also not something I ‘put on’ it’s just something that happens. If I could pick one word – I just want to be a songwriter.”
Once the album was finished, Spence hit the road, where she won the Kerrville Folk Fest songwriting contest and, since she won the contest in 2013, was one of the headlining acts at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest alongside The Stray Birds, Hooray for the Riff Raff, John Fulbright, Josh Ritter, and Brandi Carlisle. She also visited the acclaimed Daytrotter studios in September to record an exclusive acoustic set.
With all the courage, grit and passion that pervade her 13 new tracks, Spence is more than ready to share Somehow and take her place in the world of professional songwriters. Still, she does so without losing touch with her reality: “It just feels like all of this happened somehow, making these songs, this record, just somehow happened, kind of magically. And I know what I want and I just know that somehow I am going to make it happen.”
The Evening Muse
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