INTERVIEW: William Fitzsimmons chats “Mission Bell”, songwriting and what matters to him most
Just about two weeks ago, I headed out to City Winery to chat with longtime singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons before he took the stage for a beautifully intimate show. With his performance partner being the producer of his latest record, “Mission Bell”, Adam Landry, the crowd was treated to 75 minutes of true magic and banter from Fitzsimmons.
The banter was straight on, and Fitzsimmons’ pre-show banter spoke through in our interview. Nothing was off the table when it came to the incredibly personal new record, which was the second making of this record for him. Fitzsimmons goes in depth into his writing process, career longevity and his loyalty to both his fans and family! As well as much more, it made for a truly human look into the balance of music, family and mental health.
This is the first date of this US run, not being too long, I know it’s only seven or eight shows.
Yeah it’s the tail end basically for this album. Because I have kids I don’t like to be out too long. We used to do like two months, just totally gone, but now we try to limit it to a month. So this is kind of finishing the last leg of the thing that we were doing.
How have you been going about the plan for these shows? Is it focusing on this new record, “Mission Bell”. I know it’s from a very personal place so maybe it’s too hard to make it all that album.
That’s always a little bit of a dance because for us when we’re on stage, it’s a little more interesting when you do the new stuff sometimes because it’s just fresh. You haven’t played it 400 times yet. So it’s easier to be excited about the songs and get into them. But it’s also, you’re literally getting paid to play music so if I go up there and just do whatever I want to do, not really respecting the audience. I think the way that you can circumvent this from becoming stale is that you try to look back at the stuff that you’ve done, if it’s something you really feel that you should play, you try to approach it in a different way.
I learned a lot by watching the way that Sam Beam, the Iron & Wine singer, used to approach his older catalogue. Where if you see him tour to tour, he might play the same song most nights but maybe he’ll do it wildly differently. He’ll do a swing arrangement or a reggae arrangement on a song that was straight 4,4, finger picking kind of thing. So I think it helps to look at them in different ways. Sort of interject a little bit of freshness into them if you can but I still think it’s important to focus on the new record because that’s where my heart tends to be. And I think that’s what’s going to give the best performance.
So it is something where you are going to be doing a lot of songs off the new record?
I mean it’s pretty balanced overall but we’re probably playing at least half the new record. You have to keep moving forward otherwise it gets really boring for everybody.
But then considering you’ve been releasing music since I believe 2005, so obviously you have a lot of music out there.
Right, that’s where it gets a little tricky too. I’ve never done this before but before we did the last US leg, I actually posted something where I asked people (what they wanted to hear). And I had never done that before. I was always a little bit precious about it, like ‘no I should play what I want to play’. But then it was like, if there are songs that I’m missing that people have really wanted to hear, I want to play those. Why not? So I’ve tried to add a lot of those songs into it as well. And that’s been neat too because it’s not always the ones you think. It’s funny, my favorite songs are not necessarily the songs that people that come to shows would like. They might find them boring. Anyways it’s a bit of a mix now. Half is what people ask for and half the new record.
And lately bands have been announcing that they no longer will be playing certain songs. Are there certain songs that you stay away from at this point?
No, that’s the neat thing. I don’t have any “hits”.
But you have like a die hard fan base, I can see it.
Yes, and there are certainly songs that connect. You can see it, you can go on iTunes and you can see the bars are all the way on some and not on others. So yeah, there are some songs that are definitely favorited by maybe a majority of my fans. But again, for me, it’s not really for me when I’m playing live.
What we do on stage, I talked about this with Adam Landry, who’s my producer. He’s my band member as well now, is that our job is to create an atmosphere that people can have an experience in. So in that sense, we’re vessels. I mean it feels really great when people will clap for you, be like ‘William, you’re great.’ That’s awesome! That feels really good but we’re up there to do a specific job. The only reason I don’t play a song is if I can’t remember it. I’m old enough now where there’s a lot of records, that there’s some that I just don’t remember anymore. If I remember it, hell yeah I’m going to play it. Because somebody literally took the time to come, pay for a relatively expensive ticket, find parking downtown, all that stuff. I love being of service to people that are supporting what I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of dignity about it. If someone was insisting I play a cover I’ve never played before, that might put me off a little bit. But overall, I’m here for them. I’m not here for myself.
It’s also, I don’t want to say it, but you are raising two children.
No that’s the thing!
You don’t want to be away, you’re a father.
Literally that furthers my point when you said that. The people that are paying for tickets, they’re quite literally putting food in my kids mouths. It just so happens that I have a job that I love so desperately. I’m really lucky in that way but that’s not lost on me either. It’s a dance, like most of life is anyways. It’s a balance. You find a way to be an artist but you also find a way to serve the people that are supporting what you’re doing. I think you can do both. There’s some artists that have a bit of a halo that can sort of do whatever they want and their fans are so invested in it that they’re just going to follow it no matter what. Sufjan (Stevens) might be someone like that. Funny I might have said Ryan Adams a couple months ago but man he lost that. But I like being forced to find the balance of being an entertainer but also being an artist. You make better art when you have to engage that battle then if you were able to just do whatever you want and it doesn’t matter. I mean The Beatles found a way to do that and they did it well. They stopped playing live in ‘66, that was the last year they toured, and they made some of the best music anyone’s ever made in the years when they were just going into the studio and they didn’t have to play it live. So it’s not that it’s impossible but I like being forced to do that. I think it’s healthy for me it makes better art.
Then you talked a little about it, about how this may be the end of the touring for this new record, but you’ve obviously been really open about the inspiration behind this record unfortunately. Because of that and because I’m sure fans feel connected to you due to that, I don’t want to dive into personal stuff, but when did this album really start to come together? When you were writing these songs, I’m sure it was more a therapy for you.
So I did two versions right. The first version was one that I did with my old bandmate that was the one that ended up having the relationship with my wife. Time has passed, things are okay now, they really are. Things are apart but you know it’s okay. To me it’s okay. I guess the record for me really started to manifest the first day that I went down to Nashville and I started working with Adam Landry and something about it just felt right. My personal life, it was an absolute mess. But being with him in the studio, it wasn’t even about just playing music, it was working through a lot of these issues with him. Emotionally, we probably talked just as much if not more then we played music to tell you the truth. Over the course of it, it probably ended up being about a month between a couple trips. That’s when it really became that record. And a lot of the songs in some form or another survived that thing. There were a lot of rewrites and things like that. The versions of them were entirely different and entirely better this second time around but that’s the funny thing about the subconscious.
I’ve heard a lot of artists talk about this and I think it’s true. You don’t always know what a song’s about until later. That experience has happened to me, it’s happened before and it happened again here. I was writing about things that were happening that I wasn’t even admitting to yet. So I think that’s why a lot of the songs ended up surviving those couple years. Becoming the “Mission Bell” record in the end. But I’m proud of it. I never would have chosen this path. It works out great. You go through suffering and you can write cool songs and people like them and that’s awesome. I have no problem writing, I don’t think I could write a happy record, but I just have to write what’s in front of me. Just so happens that I’ve made some pretty brutal choices. So it’s lead me to this point! But I can really say, I’m glad things happened the way they did because I actually feel like I’m in a better place now. Creatively and also personally then I was a few years ago.
And considering that, I’m sure it’s something you had been working on for a while, you’re constantly making new music. Just from looking at the discography, it’s EP’s, albums.
Yeah I usually take time off, especially after something like this, but I’m playing a brand new song tonight that I just wrote a week ago. And it’s a really fertile time. It feels really cool because it usually doesn’t happen like that. I’m not a great musician, I can finger pick pretty good, I can play four chords pretty nicely, but I usually have to take a lot of time off or it’s kind of shittier versions of the album I just did. I think it’s because I’m trying to engage life pretty honestly that things are coming really fast. You never know when it’s going to be wet or it’s going to be dry. So if it’s raining, you get the buckets out and you gather up all the water you can. I’ve been talking to Adam, we’re probably going to do something kind of different. We might go overseas, go over to Europe, record there. Just try to change the scenery a little bit. But I already have like three songs, not a lot, but I suspect in a few months I’ll probably have another record ready to go. I mean in another year I might not have any songs coming in so you take it when it comes. If it’s a good season, you harvest it. You don’t question it. And if it’s a dry season, you’re happy that you’ve stored up some stuff from before. Just take it, don’t question it, just sit down with a guitar, a piano, and just let it come. It’s fickle and it’s a little scary. Because when it’s not coming, you’re like ‘Holy shit.’
It’s a thing. Like, Nick Drake, his sister talked about that. About how he confided to her in the few months before he died, he said that he felt like he didn’t have any songs left. And it wasn’t true, it wasn’t, it was his depression that was talking. But that’s a really scary place to be as a writer. When you sit down and there’s nothing. It’s terrifying. You feel totally empty and vulnerable. If he would have lived longer, he would have realized that was just a season and it was gonna pass. I’ve lived long enough where I’ve learned that it’s going to happen. You’ll have dips and you just have to kind of sit them through.
And like I said before, this is the first date of this US run but then you’re going to Europe in May for quite a bit of a tour. You have these songs that you’ve been writing. We’re still pretty early in this year, we’re only in March, so maybe some focuses or goals for you over these next few months? Obviously you’re balancing touring with being with your family.
I’ve actually said no to some offers that we’ve had, some festivals and things like that. I just want to write and I need to be present with my family situation because a lot of stuff is changing. I read a thing, where Michael Buble, an interview that he had given semi recently about his son who had a bout of cancer. Really young, and he basically said ‘Dude, my career doesn’t matter for shit. That’s what matters!’ Fuck, I love that he said that. And that guy has so much to lose. He has an incredible career. Massive hits, international, and he is monumentally talented. And for him to say that, and he meant it, you could tell. He wasn’t bullshitting it. He was like no, I fucking figured something out that really matters, this is what matters. Fuck my career. Ah, I love that. And to me, that was inspiring to just have that reminder. Be like, you know what, this is awesome, I love this. I’m not taking this for granted when I say this but my kids, the effect that I have parenting my children will last longer than my songs. It will.
Aren’t they really young just from what I’ve seen?
They’re five and six right now. They will have interactions with other human beings, they might have children themselves, that’s going to carry on for generations. My songs will disappear, they will, and that’s fine. So that work is more valuable. Mathematically, it is. They will affect more people and for a longer amount of time. If presented with those options, I respect my career, I really do, but if you leave the camp too much on being a human anyways. I mean, again, you look at Ryan. He left the camp.