Keegan DeWitt draws on his background in theater and acting to convey moments of poignancy in his music. Rather than creating entire film stories, he constructs song scenes that look for the poetry of everyday life. DeWitt is probably best known at this point for scoring independent films or playing with local act Roman Candle, whose members include his sister and brother-in-law, Timshel and Skip Matheny.
DeWitt's now on his own, touring with what he considers his first real album, Islands. Driving through rural Virginia, DeWitt spoke with The Independent about poetry, past relationships and growing up. Click here to download "Telephone," from Islands.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How has your background in film influenced your songwriting?
KEEGAN DEWITT: It’s about moments rather than a story. It’s about concentrated, small moments and the emotion of those moments rather than, “So-and-so graduated college and now they’re doing this or whatever.” It’s an entire song that’s an abstraction of what it’s like to ride in the car next to somebody you’re in love with while they’re sleeping at the window, or something like that. Instead of gearing toward telling stories in one way, I tell them in a very different way that’s more about the things that people aren’t saying, and the smaller moments rather than the larger moments.
Is collecting those moments the inspiration for naming your album Islands?
The word, Islands, is pulled from a Richard Wilbur poem called, “A World without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness.”... For me, it was about understanding what things in your life are tangible and which things are not... You’re always pining for things and desiring things and then at the same time battling with the value of things that you already have. At the time, I had just lived in Brooklyn for three years. I wasn’t happy, and I gave up my job, and I gave up my house, sold all my stuff, and I went on this long trip to Hong Kong and Fiji and Australia and ended up back in L.A. It was this idea of me trying to figure out what satisfied me. You’re in your twenties in search of that thing. In that process, you always end up giving up a couple things you wish you never would’ve given up, in terms of people—whether it be people you’re in love with or places you’re in love with. And you also gain some things that you think, “Well, if I had never left, I would have never discovered this.” Islands, for me, is a general summary of the entire record. It’s this exploration of what it means to be young and in love and lost, and at the same time, trying to discover what things you’re bringing into your life.
In terms of giving things up, what have you lost?
A lot of the record is based around this relationship that I had when I initially got back from traveling, and I was in L.A. I met this girl who ended up being one of my really close friends. When I met her, I was like 25, and she was 19. It was this theoretically inappropriate relationship in my mind. I was like, “I can’t be in love with this person, so I’m just going to be best friends with this person.” We ended up spending the entire year that I was in L.A. just hanging out, and it was one of the strangest, greatest friendships that I’ve ever had. But in that, I felt listless, and I had to move back to New York, and I fell in love with somebody else. I moved back to New York, and, in this relationship with this other person, that’s right when I recorded Islands. And also right as I was realizing that I had left Los Angeles and left this person that I cared about deeply, all for all for these things. I thought I’d get back to New York, and I’d be busy, and I’d be productive, and I was with this person who was new and exciting and interesting. And I realized that person wasn’t that new or that exciting or that interesting, and being busy didn’t mean being happy.
What I had left in Los Angeles was something really valuable. There’s a lot of things on the record that talk about that. In “Walk Alone,” the line I’m saying, “I’m leaving here today/ so you won’t hear it when I say/ I love you.” Or all of “Stormy Weather” is about that. This girl’s favorite poet was W.H. Auden, and it was something we bonded over when we were spending so much time together. That entire song is constructed out of these different pieces of references to or lines from Auden poems that she shared with me during that time.
You’ve brought up Wilbur, and you've brought up Auden. What do you see as the similarities between poetry and music?
My Mom always says that I shouldn’t tell people this, but I think it says a lot about how I write, which is: I don’t know how to read or write music. For me, everything springs from this abstraction of feeling and a moment in life. The whole reason I write the stuff that I write is I’m trying to capture what Walter Percy called the “sad little happiness,” these moments that are asides. For me, cinema and poetry are an abstraction of things. Poetry, especially the poetry that I enjoy, is trying to make sense out of very specific moments by addressing the intangible things that aren’t said. That’s what I do when I sit down to write a string part or to write a piano part or to write words. For me, I’m beginning saying, “I want to write something that feels as overwhelmed as I did in this moment.” That’s, a lot of the time, what I feel a poem is or what the act of writing poetry is. I’m not a good storyteller in terms of a practical story. The one thing that I do enjoy telling, and can tell, is the idea of moments. Poetry for me, again, is an abstraction of a moment.
Islands is a solo album for you. Why did you choose Roman Candle as your backing band?
I have these two kind of records that existed before Islands, but in a lot of ways I don’t really look at them as actual, practical records. They’re more like these collections of demos as I was living in New York and not really pursuing music. Islands was the first time I really made a deliberate decision. When I left everything in New York and went to travel, I was trying to figure out, “Is this what I want to do? This is my choice. I’m going to choose to make art and music. I’m going to score films and write music for a living.” A large part of that was the encouragement of Skip and Timshel and Logan [Matheny], and them being such a supportive force in my life to do that. And also, we didn’t have any money, and there wasn’t any promise of a label. It was like, “We have these songs, and we feel like they need to be made. Let’s go to Wilkesboro for a week and record them all. Let’s stay up, literally, 20 hours a day, and record all the basic tracks to this record as fast as possible while everybody tries to figure out how to get out of work and make up for their wages.” And I came back to New York and would take my computer and recording equipment around to string players’ houses and saxophonists’ houses and trumpet players’ houses and get them to track on top of stuff.
It was kind of a bunch of things. Roman Candle’s the best musicians I know. Now I’ve moved to Nashville, and, theoretically, Nashville is filled with incredible musicians who are endlessly talented. But I haven’t been able to find people who have the ear for great music and for the kind of soul that’s behind really proficient playing that Roman Candle does. Logan’s one of the most talented, nuanced drummers. Skip has one of the finest voices and the greatest brain for constructing pop music that I know. Timshel is one of the more inventive keyboard players and pianists and creative people that I know. It’s this great thing where I’m blessed, not only with a cool family, but a family full of really talented people.
Creating Islands represents a moment in your own life. Are you still there, or do you think you've moved on?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s a record that has been a long time in the making. Now, thank goodness, it's coming out and ... giving us an excuse to go to the UK and Paris and everything. But Islands is an exploration of, sometimes you chase things and they’re worth it, and sometimes you chase things and you find yourself back where you started. Two years later from writing a lot of those lyrics, I feel a lot older and wiser in a good way. I turned 27 this year, and everyone kept being like, “Do you feel old? Do you wish that you could go back and relive stuff?” I’m like, “Absolutely not. I would pay $100 not to relive being 21 years old just because of all the things that you gain.” In a lot of ways I do feel a little bit older and more at peace.
And the nice thing about it now is, as I said, Islands is me running around apartments in Brooklyn to record these string parts. And this new record, I’m going to get to write it in Paris this November and record it in the UK. And this new film score for Aaron Katz’s new movie, which I just finished this summer, is the first movie where we had a real budget and a production office. We had to go and sit next to one another and compose the score and have real string players and all that good stuff. So in a way, it’s a little bit more of peaceful thing. I’m finally at a place where I can enjoy the process of the work a little bit more. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity for this next record, to have it be even more definitive and even more a work of real thought and substance. The last record, as much as I’m proud of a lot of the work and the arrangements and the music, I think the potential is really great for whatever comes next.
Keegan DeWitt plays Nightlight Wednesday, Sept. 16. The 9:30pm show starts off with Wakey!Wakey! and Parachute Musical for $5. DeWitt's film scores can be found as an intro on his Web site.