One of my favorite things to ask musicians is who they enjoy listening to. When I asked Cary Brothers this, he said "William Fitzsimmons is a friend, yet beyond that he's making some beautiful timeless stuff for those who are into Bon Iver and the like." Being both a big fan of Carey and Bon Iver, I decided to give William Fitzsimmons a try. For the next three weeks I went on a Fitzsimmons binge, purchasing more and more of his music. His soft, melodious-folk sound mixed accompanied by very personal lyrics were a perfect match for me. Soon after, I began reading about his interesting background and childhood. The son of blind parents, Fitzsimmons learned to appreciate the beauty of music at a young age(as he will discuss in the interview below). Before becoming a full-time musician, Fitzsimmons was a practicing therapist. I had the privilege of meeting this amazing musician before his acoustic performance in Atlanta back in July. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Fitzsimmons, and look forward to possibly meeting with him again...
How has the tour been going so far?
Fitzsimmons: It’s been great! It’s been really good. Well they usually go okay, but this one has had pleasant surprises along the way. The crowds have just been great and very receptive and we are only a third of the way through. We are driving through the Southwest in August, which might be a little uncomfortable(laughs).
Can you tell me a little about how you came up with the idea of your latest release "Derivatives"?
Fitzsimmons: I actually didn't have the idea(laughs). It was really a wonderful kind of kismet thing where I was over in Europe, and I was getting ready for a tour, with a German friend of mine who is in the business. Just for fun, some of his friends did some re-mixes of the songs that they thought would be different and kind of ironic. The songs aren't the anti-thesis of re-mixed house music, but they are about as close as you can get to the opposite. So he played me a couple, and honestly I was kind of blown away. Not to sound corny, but it was almost emotional. The songs are very personal to me and I don't want to say that I got use to them, but I had been playing them for two years. I had removed myself from some of the affectivity of it. When I heard them, it was kind of being hit in the face by those original guilts and things. So it grew from there and I felt that if this moves me, maybe other people might like to hear it. It was the first record that we didn't really want to force on anybody. It was one of those things that we thought would be nice if people found it and they liked it, but didn't want to shove it down people's throat. I think people seem to connect with it pretty well.
With such powerful and personal lyrics, is it difficult for you to sometimes relive those songs when performing?
Fitzsimmons: Yeah, it’s a funny balance because I want to be very authentic when I perform, because I feel like I owe that to people listening. You can't go through the motions on music like this. You are making people feel a certain way, that you are not feeling yourself. It’s like saying "I want you guys to cry, but I don't really care," which isn't right. The flipside of the coin is that I have moments where I get so deep into the songs, that it is very draining, very exhausting and the show has become a grown man sort of breaking down on-stage(laughs). That's not quite as entertaining as a good show. Well, maybe it would be. At least for ten minutes that would be amazing(laughs). So, I have to find a balance, which means that sometimes I have to stop playing a certain song or substitute it. Or, depending where I am at, I will kind of go deeper and sort of pull myself out of it.
Concerning your writing process, how do your songs normally take shape?
Fitzsimmons: That's a good question. Up until this point, everything I have written has been from personal lived experience. I have actually compelled that it is something that I need to get out. Not necessarily to release, because that is sort of a weird thing to say. "Well I had to say it, but I needed a hundred-thousand people to listen to it." That's stupid, and doesn't make sense. Yeah, but I felt that it would be healthy to purge some of these notions for myself. In the past there was no motivation or inspiration necessary, everything was just right inside. It was only a matter of picking up a guitar and really words were just falling out. If you take my meaning I didn't really put a lot effort into writing before it, it was just sort of saying what happened. With the songs that I am writing right, it’s different, but it is so much more enjoyable because I get to look around a little bit. There are still personal songs, but I want to take a break from the autobiographical writing. So yeah, usually it’s just playing music, engaging myself with family, friends, books and all of those things. Just saying what comes out, because I'm really not a methodical writer. I'm not a good building writer, where you are like "well, I going to make a song today, and I think it will be a pop song." Some people are great at it and it’s beautiful. If I am feeling musical and I pick up the guitar, usually something will eventually come out and I'll see where it goes. It’s a really vague answer(laughs).
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring artists in terms of connecting to an audience? How do you find yourself connecting with listeners?
Fitzsimmons: That's such a good question John. It's a little hard for me to answer that question, because I was trained professionally to connect with people as a therapist. That's job number one, having a empathetic regard towards someone who is sitting right across from you. Being able to pull whatever their needs are, their desires and the things that are troubling them and being able to address that in some way. Therapy really did prepare me to become an empathic songwriter. As far as advice goes, it’s a matter of self understanding first. It's kind of funny, you can start writing songs now when you are really young and I think that is kind of dumb. It works sometimes, like Connor Oberst was like two when he started writing songs and it’s brilliant, it’s fantastic. Of course I'm not saying that it is impossible, but in general it is. I spent years trying to figure it out myself, educating myself on music, educating myself on people and problems. Then, it comes naturally, it doesn't have to be forced. So the advice is, go slow and take your time with it. That works to my benefit, that means they won't beat me and I'll stay ahead of them(laughs). Yeah, don't write songs ever(laughs).
When I was looking into your background, I discovered that you have a wide spectrum of listeners. For example, I was speaking with my friends' father today and found out that he is a fan of your music. He said that he finds it very interesting that you were influenced by some of the same musicians that he listened to when he was a kid. So where did those musical influences come from exactly?
Fitzsimmons: It was all my mother. My mother is a wonderful musician herself, and has always been a big music fan. Music is generally important to blind people, and most of the blind people that I have come into contact, through my parents, music is very special to them. Obviously, because it is more salient, you know? We might like going to the movies, and of course we like music too, but when the eyes don't work then the ears pick up slack. Music is all the sweeter at that point. So my mother's taste in music was always brilliant, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and she had a little bit of corn ball in there like Peter, Paul and Mary (laughs). Its funny too, because even if she listened to crap, I think that I would still like whatever it was because it was nostalgic. She happened to be really ahead of her time in her taste in music.
How important do you think social networking is for an artist?
Fitzsimmons: Unless you are one of the two or three people that go from the bottom, to the top because of any combination of talent or luck, then it is absolutely vital. You can do things without it, but it is too easy to connect with people now, that you would be a fool not to make efforts to use it. Someone like Ray Lamontange, for example. Ray doesn't have to do Twitter, because Ray is one of the best singers ever. He does his thing, and people will buy his records forever. They will, but he is a rarity. I venture to think, without knowing him personally, that he doesn't really have too much interest in making personal connections with his fans. I don't necessarily mean that as a cut either(well maybe a little), but his music doesn't lend itself to that either. Not that his music isn't powerful, because it is. Because of what I'm doing too, its very evocative and it affects people in a certain way. I can't tell you how many really deep, wonderful messages people send me every single day about struggles that they are going through, or about anything. Sometimes they go a little bit too far, but that's OK. I think that it is the responsibility of someone that is making music that affects someone in that type of way, to be at least moderately available, as best as they can. I try not to think of it as trying to get huge and gain fans, but I am proud of the music and I do feel that it really can help people. I am totally reconciled that it is an OK thing to use that stuff for personal connecting reasons, and for also helping to spread the music.
I recently got a chance to watch the short video you put out, highlighting your tour in Europe. How did the short documentary come about?
Fitzsimmons: A friend of mine, Josh Franer, is a really brilliant director and he came over with us because he thought it would be cool to film some stuff. We had a blast. I have been so lucky, and have gotten to go over there several times the last couple of years. I was please with that piece, and it gave people a little taste of what we are doing.
Was that you longest tour in Europe thus far? Didn't you go to fifteen some odd countries?
Fitzsimmons: Yeah, fifteen. That was the longest, and I think it was six or seven weeks. It was pretty healthy.
Did you ever find it difficult to connect with audiences, where there were language barriers?
Fitzsimmons: You know, its funny man. Some countries, yes, there is a little bit of difficulty. If you go to Czech republic maybe, but if you travel in Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Austria their English is better than ours in some places. It’s kind of ridiculous. The people that don't understand that well, seem to pick up on the affectivity of the music, even if not all the lyrics. I think you can get a vibe, I'm not Metallica, you can tell that I'm really not that angry in most of my songs. That old adage, that "music is a universal language", is really true. Even if all of the lyrics are understood, they seem to connect with it really well and in some ways, more so. Perhaps that's because they have to focus more on the language? They might not understand something, so they might even try to grasp it. While you might be singing a song on the radio, and not even hear or understand what you are singing.
I have enjoyed the songs you have chosen to cover,("Kissed A Girl", "Heartless" etc.) and I have wondered if you choose a song to intentionally flip it?
Fitzsimmons: Usually it’s just a bit of fun when I am at home, or on the road. Sometimes you just need a palette cleanser. You need to play something different so people aren't like "oh, there's another William Fitzsimmons folk song." Sometime I just want to play something that is fun or different. Like Go West's "King of Wishful thinking," which was a lot of fun. I liked how the Katy Perry one turned out, but it was kind of a record label decision, unfortunately. Which I was a little ashamed of, because I think I am normally the type of individual that wouldn't normally do those things, so I was kind of sad about it. It made sense though, and I understood the song differently and I tried to make it different enough that it would be worth my while. I'm getting on a tangent(laughs). We were up in Canada a while ago and I just started playing an Ashley Simpson song ("Pieces of Me") and a bunch of kids were singing along, which is so great! It’s fun doing covers and usually it just cleanses the palette a little bit. Be a little more invigorated.
Are you currently working on a new album?
Fitzsimmons: Yeah, I would say that we are definitely close to finishing at this point. It is mostly recorded, mostly mixed, but its still a little ways away. It probably won't be released until next year, maybe February or March? I have been busy lately, and busy is good for a musician because it means you get to eat food(laughs). I feel like I haven't really gotten a chance to be at home much. I will walk in the door and then in the back of my head I know that three weeks later I will be back on a plane for another month, which is great. I have been living out of a suitcase for the last couple of years. Anybody that I know would kill to be in that position, but a big part of me would like to be home for a bit.
Do you think you would ever find yourself going back to the therapy thing?
Fitzsimmons: Yes, I think that it is likely. I don't know when though. I do think about it sometimes, because I do miss it and I love this. This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing, so I thought that it would be foolish to not at least pursue it while it was working.
Because you could always pursue it later...
Fitzsimmons: Exactly. My degrees don't go away, they stay there. I would have to read a little bit to get caught up with the current trends. I suspect that at some point I will, and hopefully it will be on my terms, so that I can say the last thing that I have to say and then hang up the guitar. If you had asked me a while ago, whether or not I would be doing this I would have told you absolutely not, there is no way. So who knows, it could be in a year or it could be in thirty. It’s hard to say. It was a good feeling, and I slept better back then. This kind of feels like cheating sometimes, like this is work for me. I'm sitting here having a wonderful conversation with you and it’s work? That's dumb. It doesn't make sense! Not that is dumb what you are doing(laughs), but that this(interview) is a responsibility for me. Now I get to go out, have fun and play music for people. If there is one thing that I do miss about working in Psychology, was just knowing and being able to see the relationship between the work you do and the difference that you make. Here, sometimes it is a little more veiled, and that can be a little frustrating.
Signature question. You are driving down the road on a perfect day, with the windows down, what are you listening to?
Fitzsimmons: Man, I have got to be honest with you, it’s kind of ironic, but the Katy Perry song, "California Girls" is amazing. I am not a music snob. I went through a period where I was like "no one can know about it". For example, you like Nirvana, then they are on MTV and then you hate Nirvana. That's such a depressing, narrow way to live. If it is a good song, it is a good song. The Beatles were pop, the beach boys were pop and it’s the best music of all time. I am definitely not listening to anything remotely close to my music, at least not on a nice day(laughs). Rainy day, inside maybe. On a perfect day, I need something with a nice beat to it.