It’s an often used cliché by music journalists to call music “authentic.” This phrase is generally used wrong since music is – in some way – always authentic. “Honesty” might be a more fitting term. You can sense it within the songs of an artist and within his presence as well. At least, when you get the chance to meet him for a talk. And believe us, there are only a few people around who dedicated themselves and their music to the credo of honesty as Mr. WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS does.
Since the American songwriter and passionate beard lover is about to release his new album Lions next Month (on February 17 to be exactly) NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION took the time to talk with him before his beautiful solo show in Berlin. And from the moment he starts talking to you his presence fills the room. WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS truly wears his heart on a sleeve, he’s far from faking anything. He’s a patiently listener and generally interested in your perspective. Pretty quick you can get the impression to just talking to an old friend instead of a critically acclaimed songwriter. But we did. And of course we talked about pain as well as about happiness, his love for THE NATIONAL and Mark Kozelek and way more.
Usually the question about ‘hope and passion’ marks the closing point of our interviews. But I think this time it’s good to start the talk with this one. These are obvious important parts of your music. I wanna know what helps you to keep the hope alive?
Sometimes it’s a really small spark. Especially on the older records. You have to dig through a lot of stuff to find it there. (laughs) I’m able to keep it in there ’cause I’m always feeling it. Even if it’s just a little bit. Maybe I was raised that way because my mother has always been that way. The way she and my dad approached things was always quite honest and hopeful. They never denied the difficult stuff either but in the end you just have to go through it. And in terms of music I think it’s because I’m always feeling the music. Even at my lowest points.
So, you’re an optimist by nature.
I really am. And it’s awesome. (laughs) I really think things will gonna be okay. Not in a ‘movie/ end of a TV show’-way… more like: Wait patiently and peace will find its way. You’ll get there someday.
WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS: “Happiness is great but it’s so far away”
Would you say the performing of your songs also got a therapeutic way? Does it become easier to deal with these memories as you sing about them over and over again?
Yeah, but then it gets even harder. The Sparrow And The Crow record is a really good example. A lot of people started to connect with that record over the time. And first this was a great feeling. I almost thought I was starting some sort of movement. But when you continue this over the months you get a bit more introspective and start thinking more about yourself. And that’s when the sadness kicks in.
Any specific songs from that record that you can’t really play anymore?
The hard one was I Don’t Feel It Anymore. The problem was that this was the one everyone was waiting for to get played. I tried to sneak around it until the end of the show. But the people were like “Play that song, dude.” And I was like: “Okay, I guess. Since you have paid for it…” (laughs) But now I really love that song because it really means something to a lot of people out there.
You’re just not playing it for yourself anymore.
That’s it, yes. But I still feel it. I was going through some healing and I was able to let go of a few things from my past. And now when I play it I remember the people and the feelings. She’s still there, you know. But I don’t have to go inside the house anymore. I can just drive by. Does that make sense?
It does. Did the relationship between you and your Ex-wife got better?
No. But there was forgiveness. So, it’s not a happy emotion but it’s a peaceful emotion. And that’s what I’m aiming for. I don’t go for happiness. Happiness is great but it’s so far away.
So, “Sparrow And The Crow” was very morbid and dark, 2011’s “Gold In The Shadow” was way more optimistic. I wonder what kind of WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS can we expect on “Lions?”
The best description I heard from somebody close to me was that it shows the ‘happy/sad”-emotion. Whatever this could mean. I kind of don’t think in this oversimplified terms anymore. There is no singular emotion. You never feel pure… anything. So, when I go through the emotion of love in a relationship. There’s always something, even in the happiest moments there might be a slice of bitterness. Same goes for the other side. You’ll always find people who go through the hardest times of their life and still find the time to laugh. The universe is fucked up and funny at the same time.
This could be also the motto of your stage performance. You’re always quite entertaining, doing jokes and even providing some cheesy cover songs.
Exactly. But if you look back on some of the greatest comedians. They’ve all been very funny but also quite sad at the same time. But that’s what I want and that’s what Lions is to me. It’s about me trying to figure out how these two things work together.
In a statement released prior to the album you talked about the importance of leaving the comfort zone to write properly. What was that comfort zone?
It’s basically just treading the same ground again and again. One thing that really helped motivating me… I don’t know which RADIOHEAD album it was but I remember Thom Yorke telling his bandmates: “We won’t record an album again until everybody has a new instrument he can play.” It’s awesome but still kind of unnecessary. They are all fine and these guys know what they’re doing. And I saw them playing and they are good but not to him. And for me it was the decision to not make The Sparrow And The Crow again, not saying “Okay, this is who I am and people are buying what I’m doing.”
It’s about avoiding clichés…
You’re right. Sam Beam of IRON AND WINE said: “No matter what you do just don’t do something that you’ve done before.” And this guy makes some weird but freakin’ cool records.
WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS: “Calm the fuck down!”
But isn’t that sort of hard? Because as plain and simple songwriter you’re musically limited.
But it’s not that much about genre as it is about effectivity. Just take Mark Kozelek from RED HOUSE PAINTERS and SUN KIL MOON. This guy is one of my favourite songwriters. When you listen to the last twenty records he made there is about nothing in terms of variety. And they are all fucking great records! And the last ones are even better than before. So, how is he doing it? It’s because he’s just being honest. He tells stories however he wants. Very naturally. It’s a weird balance between challenging yourself and also not being MADONNA and desperately reinvent yourself everytime. If I wanna pick up and electric guitar and wanna play it loud and fast, then I’m going with it. And Lions is not that new and different for me but I’m totally fine with this.
And there are artists who feel the same way and don’t have the need to chance.
Excatly. For example, THE NATIONAL have become quite an obsession for me in the past years…
Funny thing, mine too.
Cool. God, I love these guys so much. Although I didn’t like them when I first listened to them.
Which album was that?
Boxer from 2007.
The album that got me into them was “High Violet”…
(snaps with his fingers and point at me) Yes. Me too. I remember being at an HMV music store at the Heathrow airport in London. And I had a gift card or something So I decided to give it another try. Because everybody else seems to love them. I listened to it – boom! And I was done. And I listened to Boxer again after this and finally understood. I was like: “Dude, what was wrong with me?” (laughs) And now with the new one – Trouble Will Find Me – I honestly think they’re just getting better and better. And if you listen to the albums they didn’t make that much progress.
But a bit…
Yes, the songwriting and producing got better. But basically they stayed the same. It’s the same with Justin Vernon and BON IVER. There’s a difference between seeing him in front of 5000 people than in front of 500. It’s the question of intimacy that usually gets a bit lost when you get bigger. But that’s the way it goes. I even got these problems too, although in a much smaller capacity.
Is it easier for you to write painful songs in a harmonic environment? And the other way around? I know a lot of artists tend to work this way.
That’s an interesting question. A lot of inspiration for the record came from this experience I’ve had around the birth of my child. It was a precise moment with the biological mother of my daughter. Me and my wife, we adopted a baby, you have to know. It was a long journey over the years. It was quite intense, especially the three days leading up to the birth of the baby. But it’s totally normal, saying it from the perspective of a dad. But there’s another aspect. Watching this person I care so much about giving me this gift was wonderful. But still also quite painful, seeing her face in that moment, accepting that she has to give away this little baby.
Happiness and sadness going and in hand…
There, you said it. Both in the same moment. I never felt this before and I cried like a baby. As a friend I just felt pain for her and as a father… well, like you said. Experiencing this loss with her is unforgettable. And I really hope time will proof if their can be a relationship between my daughter and my friend.
One final question. Or more of a scenario. Imagine yourself talking to the WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS who just recorded his debut “Until When We Are Ghosts” back in 2005 in his bedroom. What advice would you give this young fella?
“Calm the fuck down!” (laughs) You know what I would say? “You’re not taking the serious stuff as serious as you need to and you’re taking the stuff that doesn’t matters too serious.” I would tell myself that my priorities are wrong. But you know what? He probably wouldn’t listen. But that’s okay.