Analogue Music | William Fitzsimmons

William Fitzsimmons

By Matt Conner

William Fitzsimmons is determined to get the story right this time.

Of course, as the only songwriter and performer, Fitzsimmons has always been in charge of how his musical stories are told—loaded with his preferred details, leaning into his preferred perspective. But at this stage in his life and career, he's now aware that the songs haven't always been as true as they could have been—melodies serving up one-sided testimonials of love and loss.

On his latest album Mission Bell, Fitzsimmons has crafted a beautiful set of three-dimensional songs that truly honors the complexity of his broken experiences. He's thoughtful, now, of how his songs will reflect on others. Deceptive instrumentation buoys even the darkest sentiments, while the lyrical depths can be mined for those who want more than just another beautiful earworm. Mission Bell is a lovely casual spin, yet it will also entangle the listener willing to dive deep—a lyrical web of flaws and scars, of hope and hopelessness.

We recently sat down with Fitzsimmons to hear more about his recent separation and why, together, they chose to be so open about it with his listeners.

Analogue: You’ve added some new interesting layers to the mix on these new songs. How much fun are you having in the live setting?

William Fitzsimmons: Oh, man, I got a drum pad now. I’m using AutoTune on a couple songs as an effect—kind of the James Blake, Kanye, Bon Iver thing. It just works. There’s a part of me that’s a little bit scared. I might lose fans over that. There will be people in the audience that are like, 'Ugh, that was terrible. Why didn’t you just sing?' Everybody wants something different. I show up with a full band and people come up to me after the show and tell me it was too loud. They couldn’t hear me. And then I’ll show up just with my acoustic guitar and then somebody will write me a message after the show and be like, 'That was so depressing. I had to leave early.' So it’s hard to find some mix that works.

Adam Landry (Deer Tick, Vanessa Carlton) produced the record, and this was the second time I did this record. I did it the first time, and we can get into that if you want, but it was a nightmare on so many personal and professional levels. I went in and was so messed up and distraught about all of it that I pretty much just said, 'Dude, whatever you want to do, let’s just do it.' He was like, 'Okay, let’s have fun. Let’s have a fun time.'

Credit: Shervin Lainez
Credit: Shervin Lainez

Adam liked the songs, so we said, 'Fuck it. I’m going to have a drum machine, because it feels really fun to create a drum loop live in front of a festival. That’s going to be really fun, man.' I always wanted to do that stuff. I don’t always want to be James Taylor. I love playing electric guitar. I don’t always want to be stuck with a big hunk of wood. It’s a healthy thing to stretch out. Like I said, I’m sure there’ll be some hardcore fans that are like, 'This is bullshit. His first record was real and this is, I don’t know.'

I feel like I should just do whatever feels right. If the song feels good to me and the band, and people seem to be having a good time, then that’s pretty good. That’s a good place to be.

Analogue: I would have assumed you'd already learned that lesson given how many records you've put out. That feels like an early battle for artists.

William: No. [Laughs] I don’t think I have. I don’t learn lessons. I don’t learn lessons very well at all, Matt. Look, how many fucking records have I written about breakups? This is ridiculous. This guy should have learned his lesson by now. But I honestly haven’t.

I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of personal work, too. I’ve been in therapy for a little while. I’m separated from my wife right now. The record didn’t start out being about that, but the songs really were about that even before I knew it—at the risk of sounding sort of magical. The stuff I was writing was about how bad everything was in my marriage. I hadn’t acknowledged it yet, but music is funny that way. I couldn’t really tell you why, but sometimes it goes right to your heart.

I think my brain was trying to tell me some things, and it took me a little while to listen to it. I just accepted it, man. If I have to write 10 more records about divorce and all that bullshit, I’ll do it if I have to. It’s probably not a good idea. I’m sure that my wonderful record label will drop me long before then, and I wouldn’t really blame them. You know, I want to feed my kids, of course, but also you have to do what you feel is right. Peace of mind is way better than a great paycheck. A great paycheck is not too far behind, but peace of mind is great.

Analogue: You mentioned the separation. That story is front and center from your own team about the album. Your press releases are saying, "This is the thing." That’s surprising, because it sounds like something that would be vulnerable, and it's even vulnerable about someone who’s not able to do interviews on this kind of stuff. It’s not just your story—

William: You are so wise. My wife would be very appreciative of you recognizing that. I didn’t mean to cut you off. I just wanted to give you respect for realizing that.

Analogue: I guess I wondered about that tension. How hard was it to make the decision to put this out there? Not only the story in the music, but the story itself.

William: She actually helped me write the press release.

Analogue: [Laughs] I didn't expect that.

William: She’s a big Joan Didion fan.

We love clean cut divisions, and this is not that. It’s just not. I wish it was. I’m hurting terribly right now, because it’s not. But I hope that I’m able to be honest and therefore find healing in being able to represent the story right for the first time.

Analogue: She's great. I loved The Year of Magical Thinking.

William: She’s amazing. What a great author. She was asked a similar question one time, 'How does your husband feel about your memoir writing that’s basically talking about all this awful shit?' And she said, 'Well, he’s the editor.'

Don’t get me wrong, man. It hurts. There are things that still hurt her. She asked me to unfollow her on Instagram for a little while. Whenever the song that we posted that has her name in it came up, she was getting people that were following her, and she was just getting worried. She didn’t want to have to open up a message and somebody say something like, 'You’re a piece of shit.' I don’t blame her.

There’s another quote that me and her talked about a lot which is by someone who writes about writing memoirs. She said, 'If you didn’t want people to write it, you should have behaved better in the first place.' So here’s the deal, man. She can’t do the interviews now. She’s going to write a memoir at some point. She’s a writer, and she’s a very creative person. And I’m going to have to be okay with the stuff that she says in there too, because I did some fucked up shit.

So there’s no intent to hurt. To me, it’s like, it happened, we might as well be honest about it. I never intend to intentionally embarrass her and she deserves just as much if not more sympathy than I do. There’s no black or white in this story.

Analogue: You’ve been down this road before. How does writing this feel in comparison? How much more vulnerable? It’s familiar territory, but you’re writing from such a raw place that that never gets old.

William: It feels worse. This one feels a lot worse, but I like the record so much better. I like how it sounds. It’s not just mopey. I’m not saying the other ones were misproduced, but I like the arrangements on this one a lot. Adam brought a lot more melody to it, a lot more energy to it. You can get different things out of it. It doesn’t have to be like sitting through Passion of the Christ or something like that.

Sometimes we want those experiences of being just totally ripped apart, but for some reason it feels worse. I think it’s because I’m taking responsibility for things that I never did before, and part of that’s all the work in therapy. I’m just taking shit a little more seriously. I’m 40 now. I see the damage that I’ve done to other people more than I did before.

Before, a lot of it was 'woe is me.' Even though, in my first marriage, the Sparrow and the Crow record, I cheated, and I was “the bad guy,” I still wanted to be a victim at the same time. I was still kind of pushing that narrative a little bit, and that’s not reality. That’s not living in the real world. So this one hurts more, but it’s okay. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself, either. It should hurt.

Analogue: I love the juxtaposition that you mention. The work that you and Adam did to create some melodies that may bely some of the lyrics or at least complement them in this way.

William: I think bely might be a good word, man. Absolutely. I think they do sometimes in a really interesting way.

Analogue: I think it allows for both surface and depth. The people who are willing to dig can find some things out that they may not fully understand otherwise. So what are the hopes here? I’m fascinated by the fact that you said, “My wife helped write this press release.”

William: And some of the songs. Uncredited, but she’s the one that wrote “You were never really mine.” She wrote that line, the chorus line in the song “Never Really Mine.” That was her line.

Analogue: Sometimes if you put something out there, there’s some hope that goes with it. If these songs and this story is shared in that way, what hope does she have, or that the two of you together have, for these songs?

William: I think, by and large, our healing at this point is mostly individual. That’s kind of the place that we’re at, just speaking on a personal level. That’s the place we got to when we realized, 'Okay, the relationship isn’t... not that it’s great, but the real issue here is that neither one of us has had healing from a lot of stuff that we need to have healing from, period.' And there’s no point even trying. There’s just no point. It wouldn’t be ready.

When I get up there, I have a tendency to play the poor puppy dog, the little sad, bearded singer-songwriter guy. And I want to find a way to share the story that’s actually representative of the truth

I think the thing that’s going to be interesting is when I talk about the songs on stage. I haven’t planned out what I’m going to say. I don’t know where it’s going to go, and I have to be careful. I’m a very entitled, selfish person by my nature. It’s something I’m trying to work on. But when I get up there, I have a tendency to play the poor puppy dog, the little sad, bearded singer-songwriter guy. And I want to find a way to share the story that’s actually representative of the truth, which is that this is about two people that both fucked up, that both were unfaithful in different ways. That’s what the story is.

It’s complicated in that way, but people don’t like that. We like clear-cut things. When you start throwing stuff together, it gets confusing. If you find a bush that has berries on it, you don’t know if it’s poisonous or not. You don’t want a bush that is really hard to tell. You want something that has a big red sign that says, “Don’t eat this.” We love clean cut divisions, and this is not that. It’s just not. I wish it was. I’m hurting terribly right now, because it’s not. But I hope that I’m able to be honest and therefore find healing in being able to represent the story right for the first time.

Analogue: I’m assuming that despite the popularity of the cut-and-dry, what really matters to you at a deeper level is a willingness to admit that things are more complicated than that and to connect with those people who are open to that.

William: Yes, absolutely, but that’s scary, because I know myself. I’m 40 years old. I have a Master’s degree in mental health counseling. I’ve been in therapy myself for over a year, and yet I still have trouble with the gray parts of life. So I’ll be honest, I’m not incredibly hopeful... I don’t want to be insulting to people. It’s just hard.

There’s some guy coming to the show, hypothetically, and his wife just cheated on him or something. He’s not going to be in a place to be like, 'Yeah I totally see her point.' But maybe it’ll plant a seed where he eventually can go deeper, as you said, which I love that phrase. Yeah, that’s the hope.

But it’s so far out of my control. Somebody might just come and not want to sit at home that night. They might not care what I’m saying or singing, and somebody else will be profoundly moved. So whatever happens, it’ll be okay. I think what you said is the way to look at it. That people who are supposed to get that message, I think they’ll get it.

Analogue: Maybe Adam’s instrumentation and production can help expand that pool and bring some people into it that maybe wouldn’t have got it otherwise.

William: Absolutely. And that’s a good thing. Because it doesn’t have to feel painful. Maybe I could write a few songs that aren’t in minor keys, for example. I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m told it’s pretty fun.