Stan DeWitt: A Level Of Fearlessness

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Stan DeWitt is best known as the creative force behind all the musical goings on at Grace First Presbyterian Church, located on the triangular corner of Studebaker and Los Coyotes Diagonal. He’s brought performances by David Wilcox, Dewey Erney, Laurence Juber, Peppino D’Agostino and Julie Christensen to the community, and established a successful relationship with the Long Beach Chorale.

Still, DeWitt is a creative spirit in his own right. He’s an accomplished choral composer, singer and songwriter, has worked as a solo artist, and in various parings over the years. Currently, he’s part of Moonshine, a group of like minded local musicians. They’ll be doing their first show of the year at Viento y Agua this Saturday night, June 29, at 9PM.

“I started playing guitar when I was ten, and I was already singing in the elementary school choir at that point. By the time I was in high school I was singing in choir and in vocal jazz, playing guitar in the jazz band, and playing in a band. I don’t think there was ever a moment when I thought ‘I want to do this.’ I just did it.

“Anytime someone asks me when I decided to be a musician, my honest answer–and I don’t say this glibly–is that there was never a time when it occurred to me that maybe I wouldn’t be one. Just never thought of it.

“I have taught quite a bit over the years and, anytime a parent asks me if their kid should study music in college, I tell them no. And the reason is simple: if anyone can talk a child out of being a musician, they shouldn’t do it. If someone is meant to be a musician, they’re not going to listen when someone says they shouldn’t.”

DeWitt started writing music in college but it wasn’t until he graduated, and started playing in a folk band called The Woodbys, that he started writing songs.

“I probably didn’t write my first song until I was almost 30, so that process, for me, came late. [Song writing was] much harder than studying music, I think. The process of playing notes and arranging chords comes pretty easily to me, but the act of writing a lyric line that has power and import has been much trickier, at least for me.

“First, the ability to communicate well through language is a truly difficult thing to master. It requires a level of skill and ability that can take lifetimes to acquire. The second reason – at least for me – is that good songwriting requires a level of personal honesty and soul-baring that took me a long time to come to.  I don’t think I became a decent songwriter until I was able to really be honest with myself about who I was and what my strengths and shortcomings were. Good songwriting requires a level of fearlessness that took me a long time to develop.”

DeWitt does not find it difficult to revisit his early songs now.

“I recognize them as being simple, maybe even a bit naive. The ones that are hard to revisit are the first ones I wrote that were truly honest. [laughs] Those have the feeling of a dude rolling around on the floor when the light just went on, screaming, ‘Oh my God, the light! It’s so bright!!'”

His fearless perspective in songwriting has, naturally, helped him to realize some truths.

“[I’ve realized] that I’m OK, at least most days. That, sometimes, people don’t behave the way you would like them to, and that they have their own reasons for that, and that’s OK, too, at least most days. And there is nothing wrong, and everything right, with being honest about all of that.

“The years 2000-2005 were kind of when all of that happened for me, but when I got to the other side of it, I found that I had a great job at Grace First where I could bring all of my skills to bear, and I was in a relationship with my soul mate. All of that happened through the fearlessness.”

DeWitt’s solo coffeehouse balladeering and studio efforts created musical connections with other like-minded local artists, and Moonshine coalesced into a seven piece band with four contributing songwriters. This naturally required Stan to embrace a new collaborative mindset.

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“I think it was made easier by the fact that we all like each other. Truth be told, none of us are spring chickens, and none of us had illusions of grandeur with this project. Five of us have full time jobs, and the other two have full time careers.

“We met one day to talk about taking this to the next level, i.e. recording a CD, because we all knew that we enjoyed playing together. I think the implicit agreement was – and still is – that, if anyone starts to not have fun with it anymore, we’re done. So, we don’t play very often, and we try to only play rooms that are good for listening to music.

“The collaborative part for us is really pretty easy. That said, I’m still the defacto leader of the band, if only because I’m the one who does the booking, spearheaded the Kickstarter campaign, and runs the website.

“For the next few months the amazing Maggie Boles, lead singer for Squarefish, will be subbing for Shar Higa, who is pregnant and due any day now. We’re going to be incorporating some of Maggie’s songs into our set as we go along, too.”

DeWitt’s energy for making things happen extends to all aspects of his life. At his day job, for example, he’s always looking for new opportunities to connect with the community.

“Right now I’m working on getting ready for our summer camps. My big one is ‘School of Rock,’ which we offer for High School students. We have great teachers and bands performing, and we put the kids in combos and send them off to rooms to write songs together. Then they record what they’ve written and perform them in a big end-of-the-week concert, opening for a major band. This year the kids are opening for Bourbon Jones. But, of course, the main part of the job is preparing for worship. I direct the Sanctuary Choir and the hand bell group, and lead the band that leads our more contemporary service.”

In addition to Summer programs, the church is used as a performance space by several groups. The Long Beach Chorale has made Grace First its official performance home.

“They are very accommodating, and we try to be for them, too. They will do a Saturday concert with a 25-piece orchestra and tear down the risers and chairs and stands and take them away so our Sanctuary is ready for Sunday AM services, then come back after the service and put it all back. Then on Monday morning you walk in the Sanctuary and would have no idea that anything had happened in there.

“The Long Beach Chorale is the most important relationship we have. They are phenomenal, and Eliza [Rubenstein] is one of my favorite people. She is so incredibly talented. We also have other groups who rehearse at Grace First, like Women of Note, and there are a lot of organizations who use our facilities for their meetings.”

“There’s also the Concert Series. We were doing small concerts when I started working there, as early as 2004. My wife – then girlfriend – and I went down to San Diego to hear David Wilcox in this small church there. We started thinking, ‘Why couldn’t we do that at Grace First?’ But I wasn’t really thinking that we would get the type of names that we eventually ended getting: Wilcox, Dykes, Glen Phillips, Laurence Juber. It kind of blows my mind.

“The coolest thing about it is that we do it without taxing the church budget. The series began with a bequest from a family. We started with about $2000 seed money from that bequest. We have done ten years of concerts on a ‘money in money out’ basis, only relying on the generosity of the people that come to the concerts. We currently have about the same amount in the account as we started with ten years ago. Kind of makes you believe in God.”

Viento y Agua is located at 4007 East 4th Street. Moonshine takes the stage at 9PM. Admission is free. Discover more about Moonshine at MoonshineBand.us

To learn about Grace First Presbyterian Church, visit GraceFirst.org.

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