The term “singer-songwriter” often brings to mind a lonely troubadour couching dour introspection in plaintive balladry. In the case of Denison Witmer, however, a pervasive optimism shines through, musically and lyrically, in even his quietest songs. Are You A Dreamer?, released in late July on Militia Group, denotes that overarching spirit of transcendence in its very title.
“I do live in that place of being very hopeful, with regard to what’s next,” Witmer says. “You look back on things that looked hopeless in your life, and you think, ‘Oh, isn’t it funny how that worked out?’ In my life, at least, things have always worked out, even when I was convinced that they wouldn’t. There are things you carry with you — mistakes you make — that shape what you do next, but there’s that thread of hope in everything.”
Born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Witmer got his first guitar when he was 16 and began writing songs almost immediately. “I always kept a journal in high school, and I think that just kind of transformed into songwriting,” he says. “Instead of writing on paper, it became writing over the top of music.”
A year or two later he hooked up with the Innocence Mission’s Don Peris, also a Lancaster resident. In addition to giving Witmer guitar lessons, Peris encouraged the young songwriter to record his music and share it with other people. After a brief period in Japan (he was dating a Japanese woman and actually started a vintage-clothing export business), Witmer returned home and re-teamed with Peris at the tail end of the ’90s to record his first album, Safe Away.
In an effort to sell the self-released disc, he began playing shows, and, to his surprise, the 1,000 CDs he had manufactured soon sold out. Not long after that, the indie label Burnt Toast Vinyl approached him and asked to re-release the album. “It was all very incremental, and somewhat accidental, I think,” says Witmer, who’s since released five full-length CDs, two EPs, and one band-oriented album.
Although Peris has worked, in some capacity, on nearly all Witmer’s CDs, Are You A Dreamer? marks the first instance since that debut in which the Innocence Mission co-leader has had a full-fledged production role. Peris’ preferred methodology — minimalist arrangements, ethereal ambiance, and an emphasis on vocals — fits Witmer’s songwriting like the proverbial hand-in-glove.
“I knew he was the right guy for these songs,” Witmer agrees. “For instance, I didn’t use a single guitar pick on this record, which is something new for me. It’s all fingerstyle guitar playing, and I knew he could capture that really well. At first we talked about [having] absolutely no drums, but then we ended up being of the mind that some songs could use some drums. We definitely went for the sparse approach.”
High points include the vintage James Taylor-like “Little Flowers” (which features some fine banjo work from Sufjan Stevens); the gorgeous, bare-bones ballad “Castle And Cathedral”; and a prayerful rumination titled “Finding Your Feet Again” that’s powered, in a stirring coda, by a guest vocal from the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris (Don’s wife).
As the album’s title implies, the lyrical emphasis throughout is on dreams and the mysteries contained therein.
“I like to make ‘theme’ records,” Witmer says, “but I don’t really approach it like, ‘Pick a theme, make an album.’ Instead I usually approach it from the standpoint where I take a collection of songs that I’ve written over the last year or two, look at them, discover what theme is there, and then fill in the spaces. In this instance I was using the word ‘dreaming’ so many times, in various lyrics, it was like, ‘What am I getting at?’”
In the end, Witmer undertook something of a research project, reading books on the subject and exploring the connection between dreams and creativity. “They’re very similar,” he says, “in that creativity transcends this level where things have to make sense. There’s this aura of mystery that’s involved with being creative, sometimes.”
Of course, the word “dreams” can also refer to aspirations, and in this regard Witmer says he’s content to maintain the small but devoted following he’s accrued in recent years. In fact, he still sometimes wavers in the conviction that music is his foremost calling.
“I’m at a point where I could go either way, sometimes, as far as the vocation of being a musician goes,” he allows. “But there is that desire to make creativity public, instead of just putting it in a shoebox and shoving it under your bed. It’s something I don’t take for granted. I just want to share my art with other people, and have an audience who knows I’m being honest with them.”