If a lifelong passion for pop music taught me one thing it’s that there’s a record for every situation in life whether you are aware of it or not. Some records might be just waiting to become your vacation road trip soundtrack but are just lacking of a fitting occasion. Others arrive by accident at the right time and the right place. And sometimes it can be a combination of both. I was aware of the existence of The Sparrow And The Crow by William Fitzsimmons back in 2011 but never really gave it a spin as I was already hooked on its then freshly released (and way more positive sounding) follow-up Gold In The Shadows. But then my long-time relationship ended in a quite painful way and there appeared to be not much left to turn to. For a brief moment all music felt wrong and out of place, whether it was the feel-good or the more melancholic one. But somehow I remembered that this 2008 record by the bearded folk guy was one about heartbreak and I decided to finally give it a spin. The rest was probably not history but it felt good anyway. The songs and lyrics on The Sparrow And The Crow spoke to me in a way no other music spoke to me at this devastating point. Fitzsimmons‘ reflection on his failed marriage became a companion during these bleak times. A few years later I managed to meet him and tell this story which resulted in an instant hug from the American songwriter. That was one of the more memorable moments of my career in music journalism.
When I meet William Fitzsimmons again on a cosy summer day in Berlin it’s been almost exactly ten years after the release of The Sparrow And The Crow and a few weeks before the release of Mission Bell, the latest album by the charismatic gentleman. ‘No, the pain doesn’t get easier with age. It actually gets harder,’ he explains right at the beginning. Mission Bell deals with the end of Fitzsimmons‘ second marriage. This time the story is more complex than just two lovers parting ways. The couple got children together, live in a shared house and after already finishing his latest album the artist found out that his wife had an affair with a befriended musician who worked with William on that album. You can’t make such stories up, right? Still, despite a similar topic these two albums couldn’t be further away from each other. ‘Mission Bell doesn’t have the same sense of absolute bleakness like The Sparrow The Crow had back then,’ Fitzsimmons explains: ‘It’s less about destruction and more about hope.’
I brought a vinyl copy of The Sparrow And The Crow with me and William takes a long look at his old 2008 persona before confessing: ‘There are songs on this album which I love to play live but I haven’t listened to it in its entirety in forever.’ Things were different then and they are different now and suddenly we are in a quite thoughtful discussion about love and long-time relationships in general.
‘When I made Sparrow I didn’t understand many things. My first marriage ended for many reasons with me cheating on my wife back then being one of the more obvious ones. Back then I somehow felt like the victim, even after doing what I did.’
Things are not black and white anymore
While the Sparrow record was a very bitter affair, one that thinks in black and white, Mission Bell is a grey record, one that appears to be more mature and reflective than his previous work. But it took him many years to reach that reflective position. ‘The truth is the same back then and now;’ he continues: ‘I’m not responsible for other people, I can’t control what other people do but I am responsible for my own behaviour. People tend to do the best they can and sometimes they hurt each other by doing so. Nobody does that on purpose.’ Speaking to William Fitzsimmons always feels a bit like talking to an old friend. It’s a conversation based upon mutual respect, openness and also that special slightly sarcastic humour he also uses on stage, probably to cope with all the despair his music is spreading. When I pull the Sparrow record out of my bag he immediately says: ‘I heard about that guy. Isn’t that miserable, depressing shit,’ before staring to laugh.
Mission Bell is easily Fitzsimmons‘ best record in years, delivering a rich and fascinating sound that feels quite warm and hopeful despite the circumstances that shaped the album. But maybe it needed to sound that way because it wouldn’t have worked otherwise. ‘Me and my wife couldn’t run away this time because of the kids,’ he confesses. Him and his former wife are currently separated but still live in the same house because of the kids. ‘We don’t know yet what’s going to happen – we’re working on ourselves right now. If it works then it works.’ But according to William things are indeed good right now in terms of personal relationship and honesty. Especially the last part is crucial for making a relationship work, even if it already ended the way it did in his case. ‘It’s not about money, the house and how good it might look from the outside – it’s the honesty that matters. That’s the foundation of everything.’
And honesty also includes a reflection on your own mistakes. William hasn’t always been the best husband; he is keen to make this clear. Because despite being such a gentle and loveable character when I meet him he confesses that he’s been an asshole for way too often. But he’s working on it. ‘This time I called a therapist literally five minutes after we broke up. And it really helped.’ His daughters are the reason to carry on, to become a better person and challenge himself.
‘My parents got divorced and it fucked me up a lot. And I don’t want to do this to my own kids. I need to be able to tell my kids later when they asked what I did to save the marriage that I did the best I could.’
A mature kind of love
William Fitzsimmons chose to be a father, he can’t be selfish anymore. Our discussion continues, I talk about my current love life, he talks about his, I tell stories about good friends whose long-time relationships fell apart, about others who find it difficult to settle down etc. He tells his anecdotes and I tell mine as time flies by. And then we question the necessity of relationships and marriage in general. ‘Love is great and so are relationships but that shouldn’t be the only fulfilling thing, right?’ William says to me and there’s bit truth in there. All in all long-term relationships are about compromises and communication. He then narrows down the entire concept of relationship in three phases:
‘There’s the honeymoon phase which everyone loves. The second one is the disillusional stage where you realize that this is not as perfect as you thought it was. The chemicals that are released in the early stages of a romance are biologically made to bind and connect you. But these chemicals and emotions go away. And we still don’t teach young people enough that it’s normal that these declining feelings are totally normal. Love is a lot of work but it’s worth it. That tricky stage is followed by the compromise stage where you are able to change your expectations. And when you manage to do these compromises you get to a place that’s even better: mature love. You chose that relationship! It’s not just about your dick wanting it, it’s about your brain, heart and … well, dick, all wanting it at the same time.’
William adds that he himself hasn’t gotten to that ‘final’ stage with anyone yet. ‘But I’m not ready to give up because why wouldn’t I at least try?’ Despite everything he’s been through, all the changes, all the pain, all those new beginnings and unplanned events hope still shines in the eyes of William Fitzsimmons. And Mission Bell is the musical manifestation of that hopeful element. ‘I so desperately want to be loved and want to love somebody; maybe a bit too desperate which is also bad. But I’m working on that. Working on questions like: Do I really need to be in a relationship to feel happy?’ He leaves that answer open just like many aspects of his current life. I guess you need to simply accept a decent amount of uncertainty in your life and work on your ability to face it. These things take time and a lot of work but in the end it’s worth it. As our time is running out I ask what he would tell the man from the Sparrow And The Crow cover if he could meet him right now. ‘Well, first of it: Shave your hair. This looks ridiculous’ He smiles and then simply adds: ‘I would tell young William: Dude, you need to deal with your own shit first.’ I’m somehow glad he didn’t back then because otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten such a fabulous and important record. But it also shows that life will indeed somehow go on and you simply have to face it. Sometimes time helps but humour can also be a strong ally. ‘Let’s arrange a date in our schedules,’ William says to me at the end: ‘Let’s meet in September 2028 right here to discuss the final part of my divorce trilogy.’ He laughs. And although both us wouldn’t bet on this we probably know by now that life got its own rules and you never know what waits around the next corner. And for all those unexpected twists it’s great to have an artist like William Fitzsimmons around who’s still not tired yet of providing the fitting soundtrack.
Mission Bell will be released on September 21 via Groenland Records.