Exclusive: William Fitzsimmons and The Universal Language of Music
William Fitzsimmons was born with music already inside of him, inching its way up out of him with quick stops in the heart and the mind, planting kernels that would become his musical prowess built out of feeling too hard, too much, too frequently.
Years later, Fitzsimmons would work daily to wrangle and untangle emotions as a licensed psychotherapist. Not long after that, he would do the same thing as a musician. The last decade has afforded Fitzsimmons a prolific discography of several EPs and a smattering of well-loved full-lengths, the most recent of which, Mission Bell, was released yesterday. A tender exploration of love lost, the album boasts ten dazzling ballads led by Fitzsimmons’ soft ache of a voice. With his background in mental health and his background as a human being working to sift through the darkness that shrouds us all, he crafts a stunning record that is both the darkness and the light.
Mission Bell opens with “Second Hand Smoke,” the album’s lead single that premiered with Atwood Magazine back in June. The track wastes no time, bursting into the sonic space with steady percussive pulses and the resounding buzz of acoustic strums beneath Fitzsimmons’ vocals — so gentle, just a wisp that never falters. Soon, he is joined by breathy, impassioned harmony that pops in and out for the rest of the piece as the arrangement grows in urgency with layers of light folk rhythms and jangling percussion before ending with the bittersweet twang of that final acoustic strum. It’s a dynamic opener, suggesting soft rock multi-instrumentation and more breathless vocals to follow.
Next comes “Distant Lovers,” a gorgeous if not slightly devastating track led by a simple guitar line. When Fitzsimmons comes in, he comes in with the gut-punch: “You can take the kids on Tuesdays / And every other weekend,” narrating a stream-of-consciousness reflection on relationships that maybe weren’t meant to last. The arrangement here is bare-bones at times — just that soft strum — but blooms with the thump of percussion and warbling distortion far in the background, creating a subtle soundscape for Fitzsimmons’ songwriting to stand out with more tough lines to endure like when he confesses, “I was scared you’d break my heart / Or never really love me in the end.”
On “17+ Forever,” Fitzsimmons delivers a heartbreaking take on being young and overwhelmed. In under four minutes, his vocals — weighed down by resigned emotion — are backed by a devastatingly gorgeous wail of strings, insistent acoustic strums, and moments of haunting harmony. “Angela” is next, breaking from Fitzsimmons’ usual acoustic treatment to instead experiment with more robust slaps of percussion and resounding electric swells. His voice is at its strongest here, a notch up in volume and moving from a cool croon to an expertly articulated mere breath. The arrangement bubbles with dark energy, brewing new and complex elements beneath more harmony.
We get “In The Light” next, an eerie ballad moving at a slow crawl. Built on a steady base of percussion flavored by hidden keys, the song creeps along before gaining more evocative elements like the buzzing decrescendo of bass, the fleeting swell of strings, and that gorgeous lilt and break in Fitzsimmons’ harmonic accompaniment, so many lush little details backing a single track. The halfway point of Mission Bell finds “Lovely,” aptly named as its sparse folk arrangement creates an enchanting sonic experience. Nearly six minutes long, the track allows Fitzsimmons’ soothing vocals to deliver an aching beauty, but the most remarkable moments here are sans vocal accompaniment. The two minute instrumental at the end hosts a stunning soundscape of searing strings, an unrelenting acoustic riff, and the jangle and sparkle of orchestration, an escape into tender folk composition.
“Never Really Mine” is yet another heartbreaker with a heartbeat. The arrangement pulses with a steady tempo and swirls with an otherworldly hum beneath Fitzsimmons’ calm voice admitting defeat, singing “I’m not coming back for you / You were never really mine,” a matter-of-fact statement gently delivered into the drone of the song’s electronic instrumentation, soft harmony floating among the shimmer of endlessly looping percussion. On “Leave Her,” Fitzsimmons delivers a bittersweet love song. It’s another one off the record that collects sonic details, twangy acoustic strums and a vibrating string section coming together to build a classic arrangement for those breathy harmonies to drift on.
The second to last song on the record is “Wait For Me,” a lyrically minimal track that finds its instrumentation picking up significantly before softening back into the quiet folk we know so well. In stripped-down verses, Fitzsimmons resides in the limbo between love and loss, an excruciating place to be despite the uptempo boom and buzz of the instrumental accompaniment, offering an intriguing duality that goes deeper than just words on the lips or music in the ears. Mission Bell ends, ten tracks later, with “Afterlife,” a decadent conclusion to a record jampacked with emotion. For his final act, Fitzsimmons poetically reflects on the end of a close relationship. To do so, he builds a haunting orchestral composition featuring the eerie twinkle of keys, screeching strings, and layered acoustic chords before the track adds punches of percussion and wails of distortion floating in the distance like ghostly entrails. And the song is, really, a ghost. It’s spellbinding.
On Mission Bell, William Fitzsimmons pulls us into the soul-sucking truth of love’s unraveling. There are ten devastating songs here — or poems and love letters and reminders — but he makes heartbreak sound so damn good. Tender arrangements led by Fitzsimmons’ trusty acoustic and the trill of lush string sections devise an unwavering base for those delicate vocals to deliver gut-punch after gut-punch. The album hurts, sure, but it heals too. Less about the darkness and more about fumbling for the lightswitch, Mission Bell is a dazzling and revelatory record that bleeds hope.
Listen to Mission Bell below and connect with William Fitzsimmons on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and his website. William was kind enough to chat with us a bit about the album, music as catharsis, his musical evolution, and so much more. Read on for our exclusive interview with the eloquent and thoughtful mastermind below.
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourself and your music?
William Fitzsimmons: I’m a very scared, confused, selfish child living in the body of a bald 40 year old man. As far as the music goes, I guess most people would say it’s definitely in the “sad bastard” genre, if there is such a thing. I use songwriting in a similar way that a lot of people would approach journaling or meditation perhaps, so the songs tend to be very self-reflective, personal, and often contain conflicting emotions.
TMM: You grew up in Pittsburgh in a house brimming with music. In what ways has your childhood, and your hometown, influenced your work?
WF: I’ve honestly never met a family, save the Von Trapp’s in The Sound of Music, who cared about music as much as mine did. None of us were on the same page either; dad was all classical, mom was folk and praise music, my brother was into jam band stuff, and I liked classic rock and folk-rock, but we are all able to speak the universal language of music and music appreciation and it ended up being this thing we could all connect with each other through.
I have no doubt Pittsburgh itself partly made me who I am, but to be frank I’m still not sure what my environment is and isn’t responsible for. There is a history of struggle and sadness in that place and maybe that is one reason I’ve always felt more interested in writing songs about those things.
We are all able to speak the universal language of music.
TMM: You relocated to Nashville recently to work on Mission Bell, right? Seems like you’re loving it. What opportunities and inspirations does Music City afford you?
WF: Nashville is a pretty wonderful place. I think it fits the bill in a ton of ways. I’m very lucky that I get to choose to live somewhere with the option of having this bustling, large, urban environment, but with nature and respite literally right around the bend.
The thing to me about Nashville that makes it such a gem is that you’ve got some of the best musicians and writers you’ve ever known as practically your neighbors. There’s a wonderful infrastructure there as well, in terms of the music making and recording process. Creativity to me is such an uncontrollable force so you need to put yourself in the best possible situation to be ready for it when it arrives. For me, Nashville, and more specifically, the unreal level of talent residing there, accomplishes exactly that.
TMM: You released your debut album, Until When We Are Ghosts, back in 2005. It was a dazzling record, moody and urgent, but your discography has gone through many twists and turns. Frankly, your songs are gut-punches. They’re soft and stripped-down, they hurt, but there’s a lot of hope there too. You manage to craft these very real, very tough narratives and treat them with thoughtful production. It’s a gift. How do you think your work has evolved over the years since you first started releasing music?
WF: That’s very kind, thank you so much. I like to joke a lot about not having grown as an artist one iota since I first began writing, but the truth is I think artistic growth mirrors personal growth in a lot of ways. It’s not a linear process with clean positive movement. It’s a three dimensional maze that goes forward, backward, and sometimes even upside down. To me, that means there will be moments when you’re firing on all cylinders and you’re in a magical place of depth and inspiration, but it also means you’re going to stumble sometimes.
My two goals as a writer currently are thus: one, go deeper, and two, make it simpler. Life is fucking brutal so often, but I think if we keep digging we can find meaning. In the same way, life — and people — are often terribly confusing and if I can make songs that help people put some sense into that confusion, I think I’ve done what I’m meant to do.
TMM: What was the production process like behind your new full-length, Mission Bell? It feels quiet but with moments of sprawling sparkle, a careful duality. Were there any epiphanous instances in the studio that gave new life to your plans for the record or did it come out exactly as you’d envisioned?
WF: Well the version of the record that now exists is the second time the album was created. In 2017, I co-produced a version of the record with a former friend and bandmate that was actually completed. For some terrible personal reasons, that record had to be destroyed. I loved the songs so much that I had written, though, that I knew I had to record them again or else I don’t think I ever could have let go of the pain that happened the first time around.
I was connected with a wonderful producer from Nashville named Adam Landry and we spent time over a couple months rewriting my songs and started recording them completely from scratch. It was a very emotional process, given what was and is going on in my life and marriage, but it was a very healing time that I think I needed. And we ended up making the best record I’ve ever made.
TMM: What’s the songwriting process typically like for you?
WF: It comes in waves. I’ll go through these really fun, intense periods where, for whatever reason, my heart and mind and hands are all working together and there’s good stuff coming out. Whenever I’m in those periods I usually just spend hours and hours with my instruments trying to make sounds that feel like whatever is in my head or heart at the moment — doesn’t matter if it’s a guitar or drum machine or synthesizer. It’s about finding melodies and chords that say what I’m feeling.
The lyrics always come last. For me, lyrics are a way of telling the rest of the story that the music already started. It fills in the blanks and says the specifics that the music doesn’t. There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about it in that sense. My job is just to remain open to feeling what I need to feel, pleasant or otherwise, until the story is finished.
TMM: Your records are often, in a way, concept albums, or they at least zero in on a certain feeling or subject. Describe Mission Bell in just three words.
WF: Marriage. Is. Hard.
If we keep digging, we can find meaning…
TMM: Because of the nature of your songwriting being so confessional and soul-stripping, your lyrics often bridge a gap between storytelling and poetry. Are there any literary influences you tend to draw from, either directly or subconsciously, when penning your songs?
WF: I love reading. In a way I think it’s necessary for my survival. When I was young I avoided reading like the plague but at some point I realized there were these little worlds in books I could escape into and get away from the pain and confusion I didn’t know what to do with. I don’t really ever try to be too clever with dropping any references or Easter eggs or something into my songs, but I think a love of reading, specifically the nature of the books I gravitate towards (sci-fi/fantasy, self-help, spirituality), seeps into my work through general themes and overall emotionality.
TMM: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you worked as a psychotherapist and that you share that title when you perform. Because your work is so sincere and stirring, it’s a cathartic experience for listeners. You’re giving us these beautiful sonic representations of the things that we’ve loved and lost… but we’re not the ones on stage. Do you feel that same catharsis when you perform or is it hard sometimes to bare it all?
WF: Catharsis is such a fascinating concept! The line between real catharsis and self-indulgence is so blurry sometimes and honestly I rarely know where that line is for me. There are moments when playing the songs live helps me release things I need to let go of, but it’s really the writing of the songs that offers me the most psychological help. It’s the work I put into trying to understand these murky relationship and family things that I think helps me to grow, or at least become aware of the areas I need to grow in. I love playing live more than almost anything in the world. But I think for me that is about connecting with people and not really working through my own shit. Different times for different things I guess.
TMM: Collaborations seem like a huge component of your work. You’ve worked with Michael Flynn, who we absolutely love here on TMM, quite a bit, and one of the very first songs I ever reviewed (on a Wix website I designed at age 15 that featured purple Comic Sans font and housed 3-sentence reviews of my favorite songs that nobody ever read, thank god) was “Hazy” by you and Rosi Golan. It’s been so moving to watch these collabs unfold over the years, to watch your talent contribute to others and vice versa. Can you talk a little about working with fellow musicians?
WF: I’ve always had this romantic idea of the isolated writer, toiling away in some remote mountain cabin, making beautiful things without the help of anyone else, and I carried that idea into my career. And to be sure there has been a great deal of beauty that has come from those situations, but the older I get and the longer I do this work the more I see the necessity of allowing other people into your creative world. There are some things I am good at. But there are loads of things I’m not! Why wouldn’t you want to make your work the absolute best that It can possibly be? I have several people I collaborate with regularly; Michael Flynn, Abby Gundersen, Erin Brown, Adam Landry. They each have areas of mastery that are so beautiful I’d be a fool to not ask them to make my songs as good as they possibly can be.
Why wouldn’t you want to make your work the absolute best that It can possibly be?
TMM: You’re a father to two beautiful girls. What do they bring to your music that would be missing without them?
WF: Thank you! I am a very lucky person indeed! Becoming a father essentially forced me to rearrange every single priority I had set in my life, including the role of being a songwriter. The best impact is that it took away a lot of the anxiety and self-censorship I used to have. With kids you just don’t have the time or energy to worry about shit that doesn’t matter. Their presence actually helped me to be more straightforward and courageous as a writer and to not be so obsessive and precious about everything.
TMM: We know this is absolutely a wildly unfair question, but forgive us. Which song over the course of your musical career do you feel closest to and why?
WF: It honestly changes all the time. When you first write a song, the story and emotions are so close to you it’s nearly overwhelming. Over time you change or heal (or don’t!) and you find yourself in a different place so the song doesn’t mean the same thing to you. Not that it loses meaning — it’s just the nature of life to continue moving. Right now it’s probably “Never Really Mine” from the new record. It hits me pretty hard still.
TMM: What has been your most memorable musical moment so far?
WF: Making this new record was like nothing else I’ve ever done. It was a recording session, a therapy appointment, a great night out with a friend, all rolled into one. There’s too many to count, though, really. So many shows that I was so happy afterwards I can’t even explain it.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for William Fitzsimmons?
William Fitzsimmons: More therapy. Lots more therapy.
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Featured photo of William Fitzsimmons by Shervin Lainez.