An intimate, stirring journey seven long years in the making, Denison Witmer’s new album ‘American Foursquare’ is a breathtaking, humble outpouring of reflection capturing growth, change, longing, and contentment: In other words, it’s the soundtrack to a life lived.
for fans of Henry Jamison, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver
Stream: “Catalina Love” – Denison Witmer
I’ve never been great at telling anyone’s experience other than my own. This album is the story of me and my family relocating back to my hometown, expanding space wise and family size (two kids now), and the daily epiphanies or thought processes I experienced in the 4-5 years after the move.
A classic American songwriter if ever there were one, Denison Witmer’s music comes from the heart and speaks to the soul. His lyrics evoke his present world, with scenes from the past and hopes for the future sprinkled into an indulgence of not just any day, but today: Life as it stands right here and right now. His world is one of lush, haunting folk where the guitars and piano serve to support one story, while telling another that is all their own and equally special. Forever thinking, learning from himself and others, it should come as no surprise that Witmer’s eleventh studio album feels like his best record yet: An intimate, stirring journey seven long years in the making, American Foursquare is a breathtaking, humble outpouring of reflection capturing growth and change, loss and longing, desire and contentment: In other words, it’s the soundtrack to a life lived.
You left here two months ago
I saw the hand of God swing low
And the garden I had planted
Was covered in the snow
How am I going to let you know
that I need your love?
How am I going to let you go
Everything around went black
I sat up in the flash
Was it just me who heard it?
Is it just me who knows?
There are things I’ll never say
It will always be that way
Forever in your memory
Forever on your face
Released May 8, 2020 via Asthmatic Kitty Records, Denison Witmer’s eleventh album American Foursquare captures our everyday experience with soul-stirring folk finesse. That the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based singer/songwriter is into the double-digits of album release is itself a noteworthy feat, but it’s the amount of care, love, and energy that clearly went into this ten-song collection that help make it a meaningful respite in 2020’s turbulent story.
Subtle, sweet, and completely unassuming, American Foursquare came to life in the midst of a global pandemic, at a time where we needed (and continue to need) songs to soothe our daily stress and bring meaning to our troubled lives. It is the anchor we need now, more than ever – something to hold onto in the dark and the light, through heavy days and restless nights, and those deep strings of sadness that refuse to let up. Though he claims to be telling his story, and we have no reason to not believe him, Denison Witmer seems to be mirroring parts of our stories, too.
It all began nearly seven years ago with a move from Witmer’s longtime haven in Philadelphia, back to his rural hometown of Lancaster. Capturing that transition and its many emotions, the title track “American Foursquare” opens the record and helps set the scene.
“It still resonates with me, though mostly in the sense that it’s a clear moment/feeling I tapped into that feels honest to where I was at the time,” Witmer tells Atwood Magazine. “I think it serves its purpose as the opening track to an album that has an arc of a story to it. It asks the questions I spend the rest of the album trying to answer. The style of house we moved into is called an American foursquare, which is a type of architecture that is prevalent on the East Coast and Midwest. Being in my 40s now, having two kids, living in a house on the edge of my hometown city … all of these things feel like a stereotypical existence in some ways. I wanted to write about my own stereotypical existence and hopefully find a way to give meaning to the moments in life that may otherwise feel too small or mundane to consider. I also like that part of the architecture style “foursquare” hints at the ball game I played so much as a kid on the playground at school. At times my life feels like this game … trying to stay, alert, afloat, and on my toes as I navigate all of my responsibilities and interests.”
“What am I going to do now?” Witmer sings in the very first verse, only to quickly follow that up with a second, perhaps even more cerebral question: “What else can I say to you?“
An American Foursquare
On a tree-lined avenue
What am I going to do now?
I sold a house in the city
Moving back to the place I grew
What else can I say to you?
Now my new neighbors
Say the flowers on my south side
Are beautiful in the springtime
My brother and his family
Live three blocks toward the park
I see them every day
A little slow so I’m taking my time
A little slow but I’ll be alright
A little slow so I’m taking my time
A little slow, but it’s what I like
It’s what I need and like
So begins Witmer’s adventure through “real life” – the ups and downs of weekdays and weekends that mark time’s passing. American Foursquare touches on milestones big and small; out of the gate, he follows the title track with “Catalina Love,” a heartwrenching reflection on a loved one’s passing that makes the unbearable weight of grief a little easier to bear. “I don’t have another choice; I’m living in the void,” Witmer utters sweetly, soft piano notes lapping at his soaring vocals. “How am I going to let you know that I need your love… My namesake’s ash and bones are buried in the waves.”
American Foursquare is full of this heightened emotional and lyrical depth at every turn.
It is colored as much by loss as it is birth and creation. The lilting “Robin” opens Witmer’s youngest son counting up (“one, two, fwee, five!”) and laughing as he preludes the song his father wrote for him – a track whose direct, semi-biographical lyrics and shimmering strings stir with the kind of deep, binding love shared between parents and their children.
Witmer further highlights the songs “Birds of Virginia” and “San Francisco” as personal standouts for him, calling the latter a cathartic piece of his own continuing personal development.
“The sentiment of this song had been turning in my brain for years and years,” he explains. “When I finally wrote it, it just poured out of me, and I felt the relief of finally putting words to my feelings. It feels conversational, which is comforting to me in because I often process my thoughts with my friends. I love the sea change in the middle of the song where everything shifts and the counter melody repeats under the lyrical refrain. That idea was part of the song from the first day it was written, but it took years before I could get to the studio and record it. When we complemented the recording, I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing that what I heard in my head years before had become a fully realized piece of music.”
Maybe I should book a flight to San Francisco
Rent a car and drive up through the redwood trees
Where they stand in silence high above my sorrow
There’s a message there for you and one for me
I see the child in myself as I get older
Still feeling every age that I have ever been
And I have joy when the light breaks through the shoulders
Of the Pacific giants swaying in the wind
I have a lifetime swaying in my mind again
I think I’m grieving the death of part of me
I think I’m leaving, won’t you come with me
I think I’m grieving the death of part of me
I think I’m leaving, won’t you come with me
It’s everything I’ve got
It’s not everything I need
I made my bed here, baby
This is where I stay
It’s everything I know
It’s not all that I believe
I made my bed here, baby
This is where I lay
Witmer packed a lot into American Foursquare‘s 43 minutes: From birth to death and so much of the in-between, his record truly does speak to life’s natural ebb and flow.
And to think, it may not have happened.
“When I made my previous album in 2013, I honestly thought it was my last. I self-titled it, feeling like it was a bookend,” Witmer confesses.
Balancing a growing family and his burgeoning carpentry business, it’s a wonder that Witmer found the time to craft such a seamless work of art. He is now confident that his creative spark is back – stronger than ever, and (hopefully) for good.
“Now with this album seven years later, I feel more creative than ever and like I’m doing the work I’ve always meant to do. I’m really proud of this album and I do feel like it represents me as my best foot forward. As for releasing more music more frequently, the answer is a strong YES. I started a side project this year as well called Uncle Denny. I released my first album under that name in February of this year. The album is called “January 2020” and it’s kind of an experimental self-release project where I wrote/recorded a song into a single mic every day for the month of January. I put it out exclusively on Bandcamp without overthinking or editing it. I see myself doing a lot more Uncle Denny albums, and some of those songs will likely be demos for albums I release under my name later.”
It’s quite an exciting time for Denison Witmer, who has spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic finding new ways to connect his music with fans new and old – that is, whenever he’s not with the wife and kids. Perhaps these days of close proximity and togetherness will lay the foundation for American Foursquare‘s successor – or maybe Witmer will turn off the creative itch and simply live in the moment, unencumbered by the desire to render it in song.
Either way, this artist’s gift to 2020 is a beautiful monument to life in motion.
And if you don’t take our word for it, take it from fellow singer/songwriter William Fitzsimmons, who called American Foursquare a masterpiece. Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Denison Witmer’s American Foursquare with Atwood Magazine as the singer/songwriter goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his latest album!
“The one thing I should forward this entire song breakdown piece with is this,” Witmer says. “I’m not the cleverest writer and I don’t aspire to be. I’ve found that when I have tried to be clever in the past, it’s always fallen flat or felt dishonest. Songwriting has always been a journaling process for me, and I usually just write about what’s directly in front of me.” Dive into American Foursquare below!
Stream: ‘American Foursquare’ – Denison Witmer
:: Inside American Foursquare ::
This song sums up the theme of the album perfectly to me. It’s about the decisions we all make that are weighted with so many confusing layers … The ones that feel right and wrong and freeing and caging and cliché yet personal. My wife and I moved from Philadelphia to my hometown of Lancaster, PA. We weren’t quite on the same page about it, but we each made compromises and jumped into the decision to move. The type of house we bought is an American foursquare. It’s a relatively ubiquitous type of architecture … four rooms over four rooms. You see them a lot in the East and Midwest. I was really happy in Philly and worried that I would become boring and out of touch in a small down. I was also struck with the stigma of coming back home after 20 years away. What signal did that send to my friends? Did I give up? That feels silly to me (and also quite condescending) now that I’m six years on the other side of it all. Lancaster suits me very well. I love it here. I see now that I needed this transition to help me refine myself. Smaller town life mixed with all the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood have forced me to value my time in ways I never did before. I don’t have the same access to large city life, art, and culture, so I have to deep dive internally and find what truly inspires me within rather than reacting to what’s in front of my face. A lot of the lyrics in this song appear as statements, like “I’ve got to live in the moment / I have to move to the slightest touch,” though I think they can also be heard as questions I was asking myself, like “Can I live in the moment? Can I move to the slightest touch?”
My best friend and his partner had a son and named him after me. He was born with a genetic disorder and only lived for four months. I wrote this song as a tribute to baby Denison and to his parents. The title of the song comes from Catalina Island, where is ashes are laid to rest. The gravity of his passing is just too overwhelming for me to wrap my head around. I think we all have personal ways of grieving, and I was trying to express this in the lyrics. When I am at a loss for words, I usually retreat into a mental space where I have more questions than answers. It’s a type of grief that leaves me wondering things like, “Am I the only one who feels this way?”
Confident and Sensitive Child
I have two children now. They’re 4 and 8. I always tell people that I thought I knew what creativity was until I had kids. Parenting is a collaboration like none other. Guiding kids through life as responsible, caring, confident, and decent people widened the pendulum swing of my heart and mind. It sounds so cheesy … but it’s true. When you have tiny mirrors reflecting back your every move, you really have to consider the type of person you are as well. Kids don’t mince words either … they lay their feelings out in the most simple and sometimes brutal ways. I’m a better person because of them.
Save Me From Myself
I wrote this in a moment of feeling overwhelmed by how to balance my responsibilities and life goals. I realized I just needed to ask for help, and this seemed like a simple and direct way to do it. I was also in a phase where I wasn’t using my limited free time very well. I was deep in Instagram and social media stuff and it was all leaving me with an empty feeling. I was longing for substance and to feel grounded.
River of Music
About midway through making this record, I lost sight of the project somehow. I didn’t know how to find my way back into writing more songs and finishing things, so I figured why not write a love song to music to remind myself why I have been doing this for the last 20 years. This song is a combination of several songs I had started but never finished. I somehow edited them together in a dream – I slept terribly one nigMht and I kept hearing elements of these songs in my head. I woke up at 6 am, grabbed a guitar, sat in my kitchen, and played the song as I heard it in my dream. I booked a studio session the following day and recorded the basic tracks. I wanted to capture it before it morphed into something else or just left my head entirely.
Birds of Virginia
My wife, Jennie, and I were at her parents’ house in Virginia over Christmas break about five years ago. They had recently finished building a small sunroom on the back of their home. They added some bird feeders along the tree line just outside of the back windows. We had a morning ritual of having our coffee watching all the different birds (Virginia has amazing birdwatching) scatter seeds all over the snow. Jennie and our then 2-year-old son were playing on the floor, the birds were not more than 10ft away behind them, and this song kind of came to me. I was thinking a lot about our daily rituals and how, in long term partnerships, sometimes each partner assumes unspoken roles. We don’t always acknowledge the things the other is doing because those actions get lost in everyday life. This is a love song of appreciation. It’s a reminder that our lives are just one step after another and built in increments. It’s also an acknowledgement that each of us has an inner world – everyone is a universe.
Simple and True
This is kind of a continuation on the “daily rituals and unspoken roles in relationships” theme of “Birds of Virginia.” For the last two years, my wife has gone on a week-long trip to Paris with her mom. When she is away, the balance of the house shifts and brings her absence into stark perspective. When the home responsibilities and parenting fall on squarely on me, I am reminded of the things I take for granted. Also – when Jennie isn’t around for me to process my thoughts with, I sometimes think back over decisions we’ve made together and have a tendency to hyper focus on the moments that didn’t pan out as planned. Then worry or anxiety kicks in, and I can convince myself that I somehow messed things up. I long for the reminder that I am loved and all is well and that things work out the way they do and that’s ok.
I wrote this for my dear friend Rosie Thomas. We’ve shaped our lives together in parallel. In our 20 years as close friends, we have done multiple US and European tours, made records together, played music in each other’s weddings, had children around the same time, and navigated moments where our own parents have needed us to be close. I have been working on this song for five years and I just never quite got it right until now. The bonus is that she was in the studio around the time I was working on this and I sent her the tracks to sing on. Having her voice here made this song extra special for me.
This song is for my youngest son. I have a song for his older brother (Asa) on my previous album and I wanted him to have a song to listen back to as well. I wanted to celebrate his unique personality and acknowledge what makes him him… Seeing how he is the combination of the rest of us (Me, My wife Jennie, and other son Asa) while watching him carve his own path is a beautiful thing to witness.
This is my favorite song on the album. It’s important to me to close each album with a benediction of some kind. This song is about coming to terms with my past and my decisions and allowing myself to live in a state of questions rather than answers. This is a common theme in my songs, I know. I live pretty comfortably in the gray areas of life. That doesn’t mean I am not curious or lack a desire for knowledge and answers; it just means I’m ok not having it all figured out. My favorite place in the United States is the redwood forests in northern California. I feel a sense of peace there that I don’t feel anywhere else. To quote myself in the press release for the song: “The Redwoods are my water level. The scale and timelessness of them helps me better understand my own life’s scale and timeline. I feel simultaneously young and old, naive and full of understanding.”
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📸 © 2020
:: Stream Denison Witmer ::