Interview: William Fitzsimmons

Nashville based William Fitzsimmons has had a pretty rough ride these last couple of years. A relationship breakdown in the middle of recording a new record paid more than a personal toll on the songwriter. Creatively, unable to live with the finished record for obvious reasons Fitzsimmons decided to leave it on the cutting room floor, team up with a new producer and set about recording a brand new record. The resulting work, ‘Mission Bell‘ is a startling, at times heartbreaking, yet ultimately cathartic piece of work that warrants serious investigation. Americana-UK delves a little deeper.

I think what is crystal clear throughout the album is the stark, brutal honesty of the songs. It lies somewhere between catharsis and some strange kind of voyeurism as a listener. How does it feel for you now the record is finally out? 
It certainly feels good to be able to share the work I’ve been sitting with for so long. Especially because I’m so damn proud of this record. But from an emotional standpoint, it’s been a brutal year and the songs being a retelling of the worst year of my life have made it difficult at times. It’s a weird kind of mixed feeling. Pride and sadness all wrapped up together.

The decision to abandon the first ‘take’ of the album and effectively rebuild a new one from the embers seems like a mammoth task. Where do all those words and ideas from the first now reside and how did it affect the making of this one? 
I didn’t even think for a second about keeping that first version. Because of how intertwined the awfulness of my life was with that album I knew I could never live with it. There was peace in letting it go. It might sound strange but starting from scratch was wonderful. It felt cleansing and it gave me the chance to prove to myself that I could finish the task even with all the obstacles. Being connected with Adam Landry, who produced the eventual record was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, personally and professionally. Many of the musical and lyrical ideas actually survived the process, but I did go back and rewrite quite a bit to be able to tell the story as it needed to be told.

Given this is such a deeply personal album, I expect finding the right producer was paramount, one that could not only ‘hear’ what you were trying to do but understand the huge emotional turmoil that sowed the seeds of its inception? Adam seems to have totally grasped both? How was it working with him?
Best experience I’ve ever had in my career. Period. Adam is the rarest breed of producer that exists, in my opinion. He’s talented and musical beyond explanation and yet his humility and utter dedication to letting the artist tell their own story is second to none. The funny thing is that we probably talked and shared way more than we made music. But I think that’s why the record is so damn communicative and intimate. It wasn’t about making something perfect. It was about making something that people would feel. Something that would penetrate bullshit and cut right to the heart of the matter. Adam is a beautiful artist and a beautiful person.

Sonically the album is beautiful, which i have felt about all your albums. Moving away from the content a second, tell me a little more about the recording process and how you have achieved the sound of this album? 
Thanks very much!  The recording of Mission Bell was completely different than anything I’d done before. It was faster, but without ever feeling rushed. It was fun, but never ignored the seriousness of the subjects. The approach was very simple: Adam and I would simply play the song together on two acoustic guitars and wait until the words and the melodies revealed where they wanted to go. And then we would stop and just talk. Perhaps about the song or perhaps about something entirely different. There was a freedom in being able to move in and out of the work as we saw fit.  We attempted to do as much “on the floor,” as they say, as was possible. No painstaking 10 hour sessions to get one keyboard or drum part. We would set up mics, tune up, start the tape machine, and play. No crazy editing or digital manipulation. The limits of the tape machine and what we could accomplish with our own hands was what we had.  Sonically we sought to have strong elements but never too many of them. If the synth was to be a main element, or Abby Gundersen’s brilliant violin playing, or Adam’s electric guitar we would spend a short amount of time dialing in a rich sound and then let the performer do what they do best. And that’s it. No “fixing it in post.”  No messing with it after the fact to make it “perfect.”

Do you think Mission Bell covers universal themes? Or is it hard, given these are your songs about something very real to you, letting go and sharing these emotions? 
I think the universality that exists in music happens whenever an artist leaves space for the listener to project their own experiences and emotions onto the piece. I’ve always looked at it as rather similar to psychoanalytic theory, particularly projective testing (think of the Rorschach test, for example) whereby the listener has a response to stimuli which reveals elements of their personality from the subconscious that are difficult to discover in more straightforward ways. In the case of my music it’s not ambiguous stimuli, but it leaves space. With Mission Bell it was a difficult negotiation lyrically, because I needed to tell this story, even just for me, but if I made it to specific And tied to my own experience it wouldn’t really be able to help anyone else. In that sense the record is absolutely about this one story of loss and betrayal and letting go, but the meaning also belongs to the listener and the direction they feel compelled to take the song in.

Tell me a little bit more about how you became involved in music? Was there a ‘calling’ or did it just evolve out of circumstance? 
“Calling” is such a fascinating idea!  For me music was never not a part of my life. My parents were and are incredible lovers, appreciators, and practitioners of music. They feel, as I now do, that it is a language in itself and has a power to fill life with joy and sadness and grief and fun that nothing else can do in the same manner. I never “wanted” to be a musician in the sense that it was this external thing that had to be achieved somehow. It was just what everyone in our family was expected to do!  I only took it up “professionally” whenever it seemed that was the direction the universe was pointing me in, as dumb as that might sound. I had worked for over 10 years to become a mental health therapist but when I finally achieved that dream I figured out it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing at that moment. I was going through my first divorce and when the opportunity came I took my guitar and basically started my life over.

Back to the album, Leave Her and Wait For Me, are really emotional, and I would guess key tracks on the record. It’s a harrowing listen. How does it feel to you listening back to those tracks? 
I think those indeed are pivotal songs, at least in terms of content. I haven’t really listened to the album versions in a while, I find that if I do so during touring it’s hard to let the songs naturally evolve with my band. But to play them is certainly a very heavy experience. Some nights I’m able to get lost in the beautiful sounds my band is making and I am humbled and inspired to simply connect with them and the audience. Other nights the “self” and my self-pity and entitlement are very strong and I find myself drowning a bit in the gutting heartbreak of the words and the memories of the past year. The key is to find the balance where I can enter the emotional space enough to be vulnerable and entirely present with an audience but not to the point of selfish emotional indulgence. It’s a tricky proposition!

I really like the way this record – bleak, sad, heartbreaking at times – still offers some kind of hope. Was that something you chose or did the songs just evolve like that? 
I think I owe that part completely to Adam honestly. I wasn’t in a hopeful place in my life at all when we recorded. Had I been on my own I think the record would have been nightmarishly melodramatic. Adam used melody and rhythm and tempo and instrumentation to pull the hopefulness out and let it breathe and be felt. And that’s the difference between a good producer and a great one I think; is being able to retain the integrity of the artist’s work but even further reveal the truth in what they’re trying to say.

How’s Nashville treating you? Are you breathing in that amazing creative air of that city? Did you just stay in the city after recording the album?
I’m falling in love with my new city a little more everyday. I lived in the south for several years in my college years so it’s had a good place in my heart for some time. But even more so I feel at home here in a way I haven’t for quite a while. My children seem very happy, which is the most important thing. Creatively it’s almost silly what is available here. Whereas before if I wanted to rehearse or write my my band or other artists, it would mean plane tickets and hotels, time away, money, etc. Here some of the most talented people in the world are a phone call and a 15 minute drive away!  It might not seem like a big deal but creativity is a fickle mistress and those annoying logistical and time compromises can mean the difference of a song living or never being born.

You must be thrilled with the reaction the record, and your music in general has received?
It always feels good when people appreciate your work. Honestly. Truly the best part for me is when I hear that the songs offer some measure of comfort or healing. That’s really the point of them. This ain’t rock music and it sure doesn’t make you want to dance. But my goodness can it take you to a certain place if you’re willing to go there. Beyond that, though, I don’t spend any of my time worrying about whether or not anyone thinks it’s great or it’s shit. Critically or otherwise. My job is the same either way. To tell the truth as I see it in (hopefully) a beautiful way.

So, what next. This will be a hard record to follow. 
Haha!  Indeed!  Adam and I have been discussing some ideas and there have been some wonderful little musical things starting to peek their heads up through the day to day. My personal life is still in a pretty critical state so that needs to be addressed before anything. But when I’m a little more sorted I want to chase these little things we’ve been messing about with and seeing if they’d like to go anywhere with me.

‘Mission Bell’ is out now on Groenland Records

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