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LAist Interview: William Fitzsimmons

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William Fitzsimmons isn't your average singer-songwriter. A multi-instrumentalist who holds a Master's degree in mental health counseling, Fitzsimmons draws from his unique background to create music that reveals new, subtle facets with each subsequent listen. The songs on his latest album, Goodnight, have been likened to grown-up lullabies. His albums are instantly calming—the musical equivalent of curling up next to the fire with a good book in one hand and some hot cocoa in the other. He is a storyteller, and amidst the soft vocals and brilliant orchestrations you'll often find lyrics that delve deep—from songs that deal with his parents' blindness and their divorce, to tracks that tell the story of finding love then losing it.

LAist recently sat down with Fitzsimmons (who will be performing at the Hotel Cafe this Monday) during one of the last stops on the Hotel Cafe Tour. Among other things, he discussed the songwriting process, his favorite moments from the tour and, of course, beards.

LAist: Do you feel that your Master's degree in mental health counseling has complemented your songwriting?

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William Fitzsimmons: I’d like to think so. (laughs) I have to believe that I didn’t waste so many years getting that education. It was a lot of time and a lot of money and I’m still paying off the student loans!

I view what I do less as entertainment and more as, well, I like to stir people up a little bit. I like them to think about those things. It’s a little bit of a dangerous thing to do, but I think that the counseling opened me up to being more comfortable talking about things that people perhaps don’t always want to share.






William Fitzsimmons - "It's Not True"

As a multi-instrumentalist, is there one instrument that for you is the most fun to play?

I really love playing the banjo. But the most fun I have, honestly, is doing a lot of the music programming—working with the drum beats and making weird, ethereal sounds with the synthesizers. I enjoy it because it’s so far removed from what I usually do when I write. When I write, it’s just sitting on the floor with a guitar, just boring folk singer stuff. So it’s really neat to be able to color the music with these really disparate pieces that you normally wouldn’t hear.

Even though your songs often tackle difficult subjects, they are also very zen, very relaxing, and it’s a great pairing. How do you tackle the songwriting process—do you start with the melody or the lyrics?

I usually start with the music. I’ve only written one or two songs where I actually woke up with the words in my head—not the whole song though. That would’ve been amazing.

So most of the time it starts with the music, and like you said, there’s sort of a relaxing quality to it. I think it’s because I try to get the words from the chords and the melodies themselves. I don’t like to force something to mean something, if that makes sense.

It’s funny that you can listen to the music in a couple of different ways. I often get the response of, “Oh, it’s so hopeful and it makes me feel better” and I think, “What?!?” And that’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s hardcore stuff to talk about—divorce and broken families and things like that. But yeah, I like to let the music lead the way.

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Is it true that your dad made a pipe organ for you when you were young?

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He built it for himself, actually. He doesn’t do it as much anymore, but he was part of an organ restoration group. He always loved that stuff, working with his hands, and he built a fully functioning pipe organ. All the bellows and the bass pipes were in the basement.

My parents are blind, so my dad had some friends who helped, but he did most of it. We had a room just off the kitchen that had all the treble pipes…our neighbors really hated us, because he would get home real late from work and start playing.

Which multi-instrumentalists are your heroes?

I’m a huge Sufjan Stevens fan. Some of the stuff he does with his instruments is really mind-blowing, so I’m fine copying some of that mojo as best as I can. And I’m a big Aimee Mann fan.






William Fitzsimmons - "Everything Has Changed"

There seem to be a few running themes throughout your music. The first is that of guides, such as in “Candy” and “Everything Has Changed.” Am I reading into the songs too much?

Yeah, part of it is the literal thing relating to both of my parents being blind and actually having guide dogs. And I think there was a song on my first album [Until When We Are Ghosts] about my mom being sort of a guide.

Then there were a lot of those classic, maybe cliché themes about feeling a bit directionless at that time in my life. It’s when you switch to that point when your parents become more friends than peers and you have no idea what the hell you’re supposed to do. It’s like that Ben Folds song, “Still Fighting It.” There are some harsh realizations. So yeah, it’s definitely a theme. Probably more of an undercurrent one, but it’s there.

Another theme seems to be that of numbers. “When You Were Young” begins with “15 months” and “You Broke My Heart” begins with “14 years,” plus “Hold on With My Open Hands” includes that number as well. Do you make a conscious effort to include these figures, or is it just a random coincidence?

The numbers I put in there—and you hit one of the more covert ones—those were meant to reference the ages my brother and I were when my folks got divorced. And so I don’t remember if I used them literally every single time, but the numbers themselves were the ages we were when the divorce was finalized. It was a pretty big turning point.

Your myspace blogs and lists are hilarious, and you’re really engaging and funny when you perform. Does that ever surprise people given the more serious tone of your music?

People are usually very surprised when they see me play and when they interact with me after shows and stuff. They hear the music and they expect that I’m going to be some aloof, serious, melancholic artist. But I let all that stuff get out in the music.

I don’t think I’m a particularly sad person or anything, because there’s no need to be overly heavy about anything. If people listen to the music, they’ll get the meaning. You don’t need to drill it in, like, “You should be sad.” They’ll feel whatever they need to feel with it.

For a while I thought to myself, “Maybe I need to act sadder at shows,” because I like to joke around with people. But again, there’s no need. We’re all dichotomous individuals, so you just be who you are. It’s going to come out anyway.

The poem you recently published on your myspace page, “Dearest Winter” was a riot. Have you ever thought about publishing a book of poetry?

I love writing. I actually miss that from graduate school. I was such a dork that I would write papers longer than I needed to, just because I really did enjoy it. I like researching things and putting words together.

But yeah, I’ve thought about possibly putting out some sort of a companion to the next record—especially because it’s getting even more personal, if that’s even possible.

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Your beard has quite a following. Which beards do you dig?

(laughs) Sam Beam from Iron & Wine is a big inspiration. His is amazing. But it’s not always about it being huge. Zach Galifianakis has an amazing beard and it just complements his face so well. Ray LaMontagne has a great one, too.

My dad actually has a pretty kick-ass beard. That won’t be relevant to anyone, but his has got the gray in it and it’s just very erudite. All the men in my family have beards, and so to me it was always a rite of passage kind of thing. That’s part of what makes me a man…not shaving.

You’ve said before that you looked up to many of the other artists who are on the Hotel Cafe Tour. What’s the best advice you’ve received?

I’ve gotten a lot of great advice. Cary Brothers was kind enough to take me out on his headlining tour for a number of weeks last summer, and I just felt like a kid in a candy store just being able to learn from these guys.

The thing I’ve held onto most closely came from Joshua Radin who told me something someone said to Bob Dylan back in the early 60s or so in reference to the music business in general. It’s “no fear, no envy, no meanness.” You can go at the music thing very competitively and aggressively or you can say, “I’m going to do the best I can and I’m going to let people help me when they’re willing to help me.”

I’ve had so many people help me, and I’m going to try to help other people. If I get to a point of success, I’m going to try to send the elevator back down to someone else and keep that circle going.

But that quote that Josh told me just blew back the curtains. I thought, “OK, I don’t have to have this jealousy or this envy or a feeling of competitiveness.” And the Hotel Cafe community is really rare from what I’ve found. People leave that stuff at the door. I mean, we’re all still trying to make it, but everyone gets along. It’s almost ridiculous and I don’t think that’s the status quo. I have been reached out to by people who literally have nothing to gain from helping me. I don’t know if I believe in karma per se, but I do believe that if we put positive things out there, they’re going to come back to us.

What is your least favorite aspect of touring?

That’s easy. It’s probably being away from loved ones—friends and family back home. I mean, I wouldn’t trade this. It has been a really, really amazing experience, but it’s hard missing people.

What’s been one of your favorite memories from the road?

We had a karaoke night and Cary Brothers and Ingrid Michaelson did a cover of “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing. They did this amazing duet that was quite funny.

The video is on YouTube and it’s great because the digital camera pans over and the light from the TV is backlighting them and it looks majestic. There have been many things like that where people have their guard down and they’re just being friendly and goofy.

Are you working on a new album now?

Yeah, I don’t know exactly when it will come out, but I’m hoping to release something later in the summer. I don’t know if it’ll happen like that because I just started recording, but all the songs are written and I’m just getting ready to track them.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with LAist, William!

William Fitzsimmons will perform at the Hotel Cafe Monday night, May 12, at 8 p.m. (tickets available at the door). For more information about his music, please visit www.myspace.com/williamfitzsimmons.

Photos 1 and 3 by Caleb Kuhl, photo 2 by Koga.