Interview with William Fitzsimmons

Over the past ten years, Illinois-based singer-songwriter, William Fitzsimmons, has touched the hearts of many with his delicate and reflective music. His most recent and personal album, Pittsburgh, was released earlier this year. Next year in February, Fitzsimmons will be visiting Australia for the first time, performing intimate solo shows in Sydney and Melbourne. Just like his lyrics, Fitzsimmons’ responses below about his youth, daily life and approach to creating meaning music are insightful and down to earth.

Having been raised in a musical household, did you receive encouragement from your parents to pursue a musical lifestyle, or was it a natural progression?

Being musical wasn’t really much of a choice in my home. It was kind of all there was. If my mom wasn’t playing piano, or my father wasn’t playing the organ, then the record player was on. So not embracing that would have just been a nightmare. But the idea of becoming a working musician was never discussed at all. It certainly was not discouraged, but I think if I had announced at 16 that I was going to quit school and join a rock band my dad would have beat the shit out of me.

Can you remember the first time you performed in front of a crowd? Which instrument were you playing and was it a positive experience?

It would have been playing trombone in the elementary school orchestra and I was scared out of my mind. I had no idea what I was doing and I remember thinking right before we started that I really wish I would have spent a couple minutes practicing instead of reading so many comic books the weeks leading up to the performance. I would not call it a negative experience, though. Even at that very young age I can remember the intoxicating feeling of creating something, albeit not very beautiful, and sharing an emotional experience with other people. I still chase that same feeling every time I step onto a stage.

How valuable was the support you received from your family and friends while learning to play music in school?

It was certainly important, and I probably would have walked away from it at some point were it not for the wonderful bonds I made with some friends and my parents through music when I was young. But the truth is the isolating quality of creativity is what really made me want to make new things on my own. To go into a room, close the door, and come out a few hours later with a melody or words that no one has ever made. That was the real bug that kept me going.

Previously you’ve collaborated with other singers, musicians and producers however your latest album, Pittsburgh, is almost solely produced, performed and mixed by yourself; you haven’t taken that approach since your 2006 album, Goodnight. How important is that element of control and isolation, especially with the nature of the album being a memorial to your late grandmother and an honorarium to your hometown?

Sometimes it has to be you doing everything. Making all the arrangement decisions, creating the structure of the whole piece and, to whatever degree it’s possible, affecting how someone will react to the work. Working in isolation, however, remains a double-edged sword. For all the freedom and control it affords you, it also opens up the door to getting lost in the rabbit hole of unimportant choices, self-centeredness, and even loneliness.  It’s why I don’t do it all the time. But for the Pittsburgh record and the new material I’m working on now, it’s the right call.

People often associate the distinctive sound of the melodica with cheesy cover versions of pop songs or something French. How do you go about smoothly blending the sound of this harmonica/accordion-crossbred instrument with the tones of calming guitar, piano, ukulele, mandolin and banjo?

Haha, the melodica is such a bastard of an instrument! Next to the kick drum, it’s probably one of the hardest instruments to make fit into a mix. I think that’s why I’m drawn to it, and to those left-of-center kind of instruments, because you really have to work so hard to make it fit, but when you do, there is nothing else that could take it’s place.  And I like the idea of someone being thrown off when they listen to my music. It’s sort of like this way of bypassing that part of the brain that tries to self-censor and keep those dark, heavy emotions at bay. And that’s the place I want people to get to! If you make something that’s perfectly pleasant and straightforward, it’s too easy for the mind to just file it away as something “nice.” But nice doesn’t have any real power to change anything or anyone.

You’ve been able to offer help to others not only through your work as a mental health therapist but also through your music. How has writing music helped you process your thoughts and experiences?

It’s really become my go-to process for figuring out anything that I’m struggling with. After having been a writer for 10 years now, I’ve learned how to put myself in the right head space where I can start letting all those ugly emotions and thoughts out in a way where I can look at them, think about them, and hopefully put them in some kind of order, which allows me the chance for insight. It’s become a kind of self-therapy, and if I’m honest I think that’s the one special thing that people who like my songs can relate to. It’s an opportunity to go to a place that few other things really let you do.

How has your approach to creating music matured over the past decade?

I have become more and more focused on reductionism and simplicity. When I started I figured that if 10 tracks on one song was good, then 20 is better. If a 3 minute song is good, then why not do a 7 minute one! But that was actually really stupid. I don’t blame myself for it, and I had to go through it to see that it doesn’t quite work that way. And the same goes for volume and power in music. I can’t even begin to tell you how many sound engineers have said “Hey man, why don’t you just sing louder?” To which I can only respond that I can only sing with the voice that I was given. To me the best song is the one that makes you feel the most while saying the least.

Five fast questions for five fast responses:

  • What’s your favourite Star Wars quote? “I know.” Han Solo in response to Leia when she told him she loves him. SO BADASS!! (My favourite coffee mug at home has the quote on it).
  • Have you ever written a letter in Braille to either of your parents? Sure! It was something fun my brother and I would do on special occasions, birthdays, Christmas, etc… It took us so damn long to do, though. Braille writers and keyboards are insane!
  • What was the first concert/gig you attended and where was it held? Ugh, I’m embarrassed to say it was Lynyrd Skynyrd in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Sweet Home Alabama is a great song, but man there where so many racist idiots there. I couldn’t wait to leave.
  • Which do you prefer – sand or snow? Snow.  Snow.  Snow.
  • What was the title of the last book you read? Where Men Win Glory’ by Jon Krakauer. I’ve read just about all of his books (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven, etc…). I’m kind of obsessed with his writing. 

Listening to your lyrics is like hearing you whisper secrets from your personal diary, except you’re making those secrets public for the world to hear. How do you decide which secrets and experiences to share?

I share the ones that break my heart.  

Does it become difficult to relive those moments over and over while performing on tour?

Yes! Some nights are worse than others in terms of getting too deep into it. But no one ever said opening up yourself feels good. But it’s why I was put on the earth and given these opportunities. I believe in doing what you’re meant to do.   

When you’re on tour, do you ever keep a diary or take photos/videos to help process or reflect on your time spent away from home?

Not really. Not to sound like a douchebag, but I’m not really into cataloging experiences that way. There’s something about it, which feels too past or future oriented. Like you’re always looking back or thinking ahead. And I can get very bad about both of those things. So for me I wake up and I live the fuck out of today. I talk with and connect with my family, I fellowship with my tour family, and I open myself as much as I possibly can at each and every show. Tomorrow’s going to come no matter what. Might as well embrace whatever is right in front of me.

Next year in February you’ll be visiting Australia for the first time to play in Sydney and Melbourne. What are you most looking forward to while touring this great southern land?

The people. Simple as that. I’ve dreamed about coming to Australia for 10 years. And knowing that I can finally get to be in the same rooms with those that have carried my music with them for that long is actually very overwhelming for me. It’s going to be wonderful.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to your twelve-year-old self?

Two things actually: 1) Don’t get married when you’re 19. You’re REALLY going to regret that one. And 2) Don’t let grammy throw away your Star Wars figures, you’re going to miss them so much!!

Thank-you for taking the time to answer these questions!

My pleasure! Thanks for taking the time to write.

This interview was first published on 29 October 2015 for Amnplify.

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