Interview with William Fitzsimmons
William Fitzsimmons is not your standard musician and his path to success has been particularly unusual. He was born to two blind parents and grew up in Pennsylvania surrounded by music and musical instruments - sounds and music were another method of communication. He initially worked as a counsellor for the mentally ill, keeping his music as a hobby, before pursuing it as a career. He's well known for his honest and often dark material. His new album, The Sparrow And The Crow details the emotions he felt during his relationship break-up and divorce
Contactmusic.com caught up with him after his London show, midway through his European tour. We chatted about his new album and the difficulty he experienced recording such personal songs as well as a possible new direction in the future. As ever, his honesty was refreshing. He told us about his musical upbringing, who inspires him and how his career as a counsellor has influenced his music.
Hi William, thanks for chatting to us! How did England treat you? How were the live shows?
My pleasure. England was great, I've sadly not had that many chances yet to visit, but every time I get to, it makes me want to spend an increasing amount of time there. And I was very pleased with how the shows went. I'm a very lucky guy, because the type of people that generally connect with my music tend to be very sincere, kind, and generous people. So the shows always seem to have such a wonderful and giving atmosphere and energy to them. The trip was way too short, but I'm sure we'll find ourselves back there again soon.
Congratulations on your new album The Sparrow And The Crow, we're really taken by it here at Contactmusic.com. It was the first of your albums to be recorded in a studio, how was that?
It was actually a rather trying process, both professionally, and moreover, emotionally. I don't want to sound too weepy, because at the end of the day, I'm really incredibly fortunate to be able to call this my job. But as far as my own personal life goes, it was difficult to hand over these ideas and very dark things I went through to someone else and to the often frustrating process of creating music. From the production standpoint, it was harder than I originally suspected to work with others, because as a previously only home-recording musician, I was granted the luxury of my own opinion always winning out. But the truth is the input of people who are masterful at what they do can only make a project better. I believe the record came out far better than what I could have done on my own.
You have had a very musical upbringing and play an impressive array of instruments. What do you play on the album and who else was involved?
For the first two albums I made I played a great majority of the instruments, engineered and mixed everything, and basically made all the decisions about how the records would end up sounding. Part of me enjoyed the responsibility of being involved and in control of every element. But it was also very taxing and incredibly time intensive; the "Goodnight" record took about a year to make, and I don't remember too many full nights of sleep in there. For that reason, I specifically went into the "Sparrow" record only wanting to play guitars and sing. If I spread myself too thin on anything else, I wouldn't be able to do justice to what the songs called for. I had several fantastic musicians come in and play various things, and a bulk of the work was done by the producer, Marshall Altman, and the engineer/mixer, Eric Robinson, both great friends of mine and very talented guys.
The content of the The Sparrow And The Crow is very personal and I imagine very emotional. Did you find it difficult to record with other musicians?
I knew it was going to be a rough time getting these songs down, and some days it took everything out of me. You have to understand I wasn't singing about some girl's ass or partying. This was the worst sh*t I've ever been through. It was losing my wife, losing friends, being homeless and broke and lost. Everyone that was involved in the project knew that coming into it, so we all had an unwritten agreement to keep it as peaceful and warm as possible. The subject matter had enough darkness in it on its own; we made sure the circumstances surrounding the making of the music was as light as possible.
It obviously has a melancholy tone and some of the tracks have been described as 'unsettling'; what affect do you hope your music has on your audience?
I had only a few points of hope for what I wanted from the record. The first was to be able to communicate a few last things to my ex-wife that I never got the chance to say. The second was to scare the sh*t out of people that might not be taking love and relationships and people with the absolute care, respect, and concern they need. The third and final was to offer some hope to people that have been crushed by the weight of these things already; that while it hurts worse than just about anything, it can and will get better in time.
You start the new album with the final song from your previous album, why did you decide to link them in this way?
I subscribe to the notion that history will always revisit those who elect to forget it. I made that mistake and it cost me everything I had. Reprising that song was a way to admit I was wrong and I was a fool. That if I had paid better attention to the weaknesses I had because of things that happened to my family many years ago, I might have been able to avoid the temptations and pitfalls I was drawn towards. I was finally acknowledging the historical link I should have made years ago.
For those readers who may not have heard it yet, what can they expect from it? Does it differ from Goodnight?
From a sonic perspective I think "Sparrow" is a much cleaner and far more organic record. Because of the raw quality of the writing, I didn't want to rely on electronic elements to carry the weight of the songs. I know a lot of fans of the first records wanted me to do that for this one, but the songs really did call for and deserved 'real' instruments and natural sounds. From the writing side, I wanted to be as clear and succinct as possible and not get lost in metaphor or cleverness just to make a 'smart' album. The record and this music isn't about looking cool, it's about communicating real shit to people that want and need to hear it. I'm very lucky and it makes me incredibly hopeful that there are so many wonderful people out there who still care about that.
How has your previous career in counselling influenced your music?
I really figured that psychotherapy was going to be the way I would spend the rest of my life when I made the decision many years ago to pursue it. And I spent nearly every day since that point working towards that goal. For that reason I wasn't able to fully leave it behind even when I took on music full-time. I like to think that the songs are a form of therapy to people that need some measure of healing. They serve that purpose for me, as music always has. Music and counselling are two separate things, but they can often arrive at similar points along the way.
A number of your songs have been played on high profile TV shows, how has this affected your career?
I have been very fortunate to have these wonderful opportunities to have the music played before millions of people that might otherwise never have cause to hear them. It might sound obvious or strange to say, but I believe in the things that I say in the songs and, because of that, I am fine with more people hearing the music. If I was being dishonest or disingenuous in the music, hopefully I would feel guilty about having such great occurrences. So basically I just look at it with huge gratitude and responsibility to make sure I uphold the commitments I've made to myself to always say what I think needs to be said through the words and records. As far as the specific effect, I would only be speculating were I to venture a guess. But I think it's undeniably that having one's music in these big shows is a great vehicle for finding new and open listeners.
You've been compared to some really great artists in the past; Elliott Smith and Bon Iver to name a couple, how do you feel about that?
Being compared to people you have the highest respect for is a brilliant compliment and simultaneously a terrifying occurrence. A part of me can't help but to be very humbled when people say those things, because Elliott, Justin, Sufjan, guys such as that, have made and are making some of the best music out there. But on the other hand, once we start making comparisons, our brains immediately begin to compartmentalise and self-limit. I have some pretty obscure stuff in my music library, but I also have some Lady Gaga, because some of her songs are f*cking brilliantly done and masterfully produced. Anytime we think we must limit ourselves in terms of what we should or shouldn't listen to, we're making a mistake. If you like something, have the courage to like it, even if the artist doesn't have a beard, or wears skinny jeans, or somebody tells you not to. 'Cause the only thing that should matter is if it moves you.
Who really inspires you musically?
I never have really been able to get enough of the old folk records that my mother raised me on. James Taylor, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell. That music just gets right into my blood. There's a good deal of contemporary music that I really adore as well of course. The artists I previously referenced all included, also guys like Jose Gonzalez, David Wilcox, Aimee Mann, etc... I have a very strong penchant for music that is sometimes uncomfortably honest and substantive. That's what inspires me to keep writing.
What's next for you?
Honestly I've been lucky enough to be touring so much over the past year I really haven't had much of a chance to figure that out yet. In the short spells I have been home I have begun writing again. I'm in a different place than I was a couple years ago and it's very fulfilling to not write about such depressing sh*t! I'd like to have some good time at home to process this last year and begin working again on new things.
Thank you, I really appreciate it.
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