Illinois based singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons is an extraordinary musician with a compelling story.
TGW: Have you been to Australia before? What are you most looking forward to when you come here in February?
WF: This will be my first time coming down, but it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. When I was just burning CDs and selling them out of my house 10 years ago, some of the first I ever sold were to folks living in Australia. Truth is, as lame as it might sound, I’m most excited about getting to finally meet some of the first people to believe in what I do.
“When I was just burning CDs and selling them out of my house 10 years ago, some of the first I ever sold were to folks living in Australia.”
TGW: Do you proudly consider yourself to be part of this Revisionist Folk wave with peers like Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Damien Rice?
WF: Categories are super great and helpful for like 5% of the time. The other 95% they just make people confused and argumentative and focus on the wrong things. I love Sufjan, Justin, and Damien. And I greatly respect what they do. Are there similarities with some of the things we’re doing? Sure! Are there massive differences? Sure! I guess the older I get, I just think that you should like what you like and not give two shits about anything else. If talking about similarities gets you to something you enjoy, awesome.
TGW: After learning to play the piano, trombone, guitar, banjo, melodica, ukulele and mandolin – did you ever try to go back and learn musical theory the conventional way? How did you find it? (I have found that sometimes natural talent can be stumped when you attempt to do things back to front).
WF: Technically speaking I actually did have a foundation, albeit limited, in theory before I really got serious about playing. But I was never patient enough for it. At the end of the day I just wanted to make things that sounded good to me, and knowing why mathematically or theoretically why that was happening just never appealed that much. Some of the guys in my band are very well schooled in music theory so I usually leave the musical heavy lifting to them.
TGW: What’s your favourite type of collaborative process – how do you choose who you work with, how you write together, the setting etc?
WF: I’m pretty atrocious at co-writing, at least in the typical way. The only way I’ve ever found it to work for me is by doing it hundreds of miles away from who I’m writing with. To me self-awareness is very inhibiting to successful writing, and when you’re trying to do it in front of someone else, you’re too worried about appearing smart, or deep, or cool. But the best writing is willing to express shame, fear, and anger. The exact things you’re trying to hide from other people. On occasion I’ll bounce song ideas back and forth with someone and that can actually work really well.
“To me self-awareness is very inhibiting to successful writing, and when you’re trying to do it in front of someone else, you’re too worried about appearing smart, or deep, or cool… the best writing is willing to express shame, fear, and anger.”
TGW: I read that your parents were living-room musicians – did they instil in you that great habit of just picking up whatever was in front of you to be creative and try lots of things freely?
My parents are both very good musicians, though they’ve never done it for more than just personal enjoyment. I wouldn’t say there was a big emphasis on creativity, though. It was more about respecting how powerful music is as a communicative tool and learning how to dedicate yourself to something with the utmost determination. Practice and mastery were honored about creativity. I think they knew that once you had the fundamentals you were actually more free to be creative later on.
Now probably more than I ever have. Nowadays it’s more about parenting advice than anything else, but they’re encouragement to stick with what I believe in has always been a great asset. I don’t think they would have cared if I had been a musician, a lawyer, or a garbage man. They found that difficult balance between not caring and investing too much in what I did with my life. I’m trying to do the same for my kids.
TGW: After you perform, do you linger on for the after party or disappear quietly to your lodgings?
WF: It really depends on the night! I’ve never been much of a partier, even when I wasn’t such an old bastard. But I do love getting to talk with people after the show. And nothing beats a cold beer and conversation with the band at the end of a night. That’s about as crazy as I get.
TGW: Do you partake in any strange rituals before going on stage?
WF: I actually make a specific point to not do anything special, or ritualistic before any show. That’s actually my ritual. I have this thing about never making the show an “act.” I mean of course it’s a performance and I work very hard to move people. But for my show it’s all about being absolutely present and authentic and spontaneous. I want to react directly to whatever energy people bring in the show with them. I’ve been to lots of shows where it seemed like the band gave roughly zero fucks about where they were and who they were playing for. Everybody has an off night, but you have to put yourself out there completely if you really want to affect people.
TGW: Do you have a favourite emerging Australian band/artist?
QF: I’m pretty terrible at new music, honestly. I wish I was as on it as I was back in college, but now I’m lucky if I remember to put my pants on before I leave the house.
TGW: Elvis or The Beatles?
The Beatles, no question. I’m pretty obsessed with the field of music production and the Beatles are a masters course in and of themselves. Most of the first songs I ever learned on the guitar were Beatles songs. There’s just not a better total catalog in the world.
“I’m pretty obsessed with the field of music production and the Beatles are a masters course in and of themselves.”
TGW: Some people believe that happiness can stifle creativity, what’s your view?
My goodness I’ve spent more time thinking about that question than I could even tell you. I used to think misery was the only way to great art, and to be sure there’s a myriad of evidence for that argument (e.g. Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, etc.). But I think at the end of the day people are much more beautifully complicated than we ever give them credit for. When I worked as therapist I saw people in the grips of depression who had moments of happiness; schizophrenics with periods of lucidity. If people are honest with themselves and actually experiencing the life around them, there will always be periods of joy, sadness, excitement, and everything else. Often even at the same time. Happiness doesn’t stifle creativity anymore than misery creates it on its own. Creativity comes from a desire to understand yourself and the world in an honest way. Nothing more, nothing less.
“If people are honest with themselves and actually experiencing the life around them, there will always be periods of joy, sadness, excitement, and everything else. Often even at the same time.”