Former psychotherapist William Fitzsimmons is known for creating musical lightness out of darkness. His soft and delicate songs are full of deep, personal moments that expose an introspective young musician genuinely in search of a meaningful life. There are no topics of conversation that Fitzsimmons ignores in his songs; each personal moment is taken apart and examined in full. Fitzsimmons’ latest album, Gold in the Shadow, is just as deep as his previous records, but the stories are more optimistic, more hopeful. THE BOMBER JACKET spoke with Fitzsimmons about his new music and what it’s like to be a international musician whose music people turn to when they’re down.
THE BOMBER JACKET: I watched the short film on your website about your touring in Europe. You just got back from a tour in Europe–how did this one go? How many tours have you done in Europe so far?
William Fitzsimmons: This past tour was probably my favorite that we’ve yet done. Truth is I might actually say that after just about every one, but it really was a special trip. I’m not exactly sure of the total number, but we’ve probably done about one large tour in Europe over the past 3 years, along with a few other shorter trips. It only gets better each time we get over there and I tend to miss being over there even when returning home.
In that same video, you talked about how, because of the language barrier, most of your European audience might not be responding to your lyrics as much as your entire sound, or the emotion you exude. I think most Europeans can speak English pretty well–have you really found that the European audience does not connect with your lyrics?
I think I was a bit uninformed when I said that, it’s probably been over two years since then. I learned very quickly that most Europeans speak better English than I do. What I’ve learned over time, however, is that there is a quality to a great deal of music that is communicated regardless of the lyrical content. Meaning, there’s something qualitative about some of the music we listen to that goes beyond just the words of the melodies.
It’s so nice that Europe feels like a second home to you! Where in Europe do you feel most at home?
Being able to visit another continent is a brilliant experience and I really haven’t yet visited any place that I didn’t feel fortunate to see. Germany is a special place for me, one reason being it’s the first place in Europe I ever got to visit. I have gained a lot of close friends in Germany over the last few years as well.
When I saw you play in Dresden, you were making some great jokes in between some pretty dark songs. From what I gather, this is a regular thing at your live performances. Does humor also generally line darker moments in your life?
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice, other times it’s just a natural reaction to a difficult situation. Getting through most things usually best involves finding some degree of balance. I’m all for digging very deep into your darkness, but if you live there too long you’re never going to find your way back out.
It must have been overwhelming at first to see the success of your first two albums (both homemade, self-produced) grow on such a large scale, considering how incredibly personal they were. Following that success, was it difficult to look at writing the same way? Did you feel pressure to produce something even more profound?
For any writer there’s always a pressure to do something deeper, more personal, more impactful, etc… than anything before. It doesn’t matter at what level you’re working at, that’s always the drive (or at least it should be). The degree to which I get satisfaction out of what I do and make is based on how well I think I’ve communicated what’s trying to get out of me and how well people respond to that on the personal and emotional level. But if you get caught up into doing it for the wrong reasons, you won’t be able to access the stuff that makes for great art.
You’ve had five releases since 2005. Has your outlook on music changed and/or grown since then? Do you look at “sad songs” differently than you did when you first started?
I don’t think my outlook on music has really changed; my parents raised me to treat music as a rare and valuable thing and it’s never not been an important part of my life. If anything, I’ve only come to respect it and treasure it more.
I gave up looking at music in terms of “happy” or “sad” a long time ago. Life isn’t made up of such simple categories and music isn’t either. I make music that is honest and if the songs are ever coming off as so ‘mono-affective’ that only a single emotion is being communicated, then I’m doing something wrong. The best songs are filled with ambivalence; filled with the conflicting impulses that make up every thought and every choice we make.
Your latest collection of songs, Gold In The Shadow, is about the healing part of everything–something fairly new on your radar. Was this album therefore much more difficult for you to write and play?
The writing process was natural, it wasn’t any more difficult than anything else I’ve written. Which isn’t to say it’s every “easy,” because it’s not. The difficult part was making the choice that I didn’t want to stay in that awful, despondent place that I was in for so long. Depression is awful and it’s something that I’m probably going to have to wrestle with every day the sun rises. You’d think the choice to deal with that would be a simple one, but it’s not. The disease, as awful as it is, makes you believe that you’re better off staying in it and giving up.
Did Gold In The Shadow teach you anything new about yourself as a person and/or as a musician?
It confirmed to me something that I hoped but never knew for certain: that the quality of my songs that people connect with isn’t some overly simplified “sad” quality, rather, it’s making something honest, even if it’s difficult and uncomfortable to deal with.
Do you find it coincidental that your music helps people in a deeper, psychological way, when your original profession was a therapist? Do you think you could ever make music without attaining this kind of deeper outcome?
You can never say for certain what things will inspire you in the future. But for me, music has always had a therapeutic quality, even when I was young. I think that part of the process will always remain important.
Also with that question, what is it like to make music that people respond to so emotionally? In your opinion, is there a great responsibility attached?
Yes! And I treat that responsibility with the utmost respect and concern. When you create something that will effect someone at that level, you have to remain aware of it. And that thought gives you a steady motivation to never take the easy way out with songwriting. It’s a heaviness, but a good heaviness.
You’re often compared to Elliott Smith. Are you a fan of Elliott Smith? If so, do you have a favorite album or song of his?
Yeah, Elliott is definitely a musical hero. It’s pretty difficult to pick a “favorite,” but I think “Between the Bars” is the one that always hits me the hardest.
Your songs have been featured on handfuls of national television shows. Has this had an overall positive effect on your fanbase? Were there any unexpected problems that arose with opening up such an intimate sound to such a wide audience (a lot of people in the indie scene speak against featuring music on such public programming)?
The first time I ever heard Nick Drake was in a car commercial. And there’s no artist who means more to me personally than Nick. So certainly it’s not a bad thing that more people are hearing his wonderful music, right? Can we really say that it’s an awful thing that a few cars are sold when millions of people are hearing his songs who might never otherwise hear them? Look, I totally respect somebody who doesn’t want their art used with film or TV. But I believe as long as things aren’t being used in an inappropriate manner, then it’s not a negative thing to have new people hear your music who might be able to find great meaning in it.
You’re touring the US with Denison Witmer into the spring…what’s coming up after that?
I’ve been spending more and more time getting back into music production/producing other people’s songs. It’s something which exercises completely different creative muscles and it keeps me hungry and passionate about writing my own music. Lately I’ve been working with a band called “Lonesome Animals” who I’ll probably make some more music with later this year as well. Past that, I never try to force anything.
If the desire for writing comes right away, I’ll get down to that. Likewise with playing shows/touring. So much of my music is based off of feeling. I suppose it only makes sense to make most of my decisions the exact same way.