Words by Crystal Culler
Photos by Victoria Jacob
“Some people make candlesticks, I make people sad as hell,” William Fitzsimmons joked with the audience at his show in Louisville, Ky. He didn’t lie — though his soothing voice will hush a noisy crowd, his dark folk songs are post-divorce and desperate for lost love. Between songs, however, Fitzsimmons is gifted at dry wit and deadpan delivery, a master at using humor to soften the edge of his self-deprecating pleading.
A licensed counselor who recorded his first album in grad school, Fitzsimmons knows how to turn his focus inward — his cathartic third album The Sparrow And The Crow says everything a dump-ee thinks and feels after a rocky breakup. Going through the stages of grief, there’s pleading, anger, regret, and a little bit of moving on — mostly on her part.
He wants to help people with his music as he did with his counseling. “I pour myself into this (music) for the sake of maybe bringing a little bit of therapy into that realm,” he said. “I like that the songs can help people a little bit. Music is music and it’s not supposed to be a panacea for people’s wounds, but I think it can help.”
With his first album behind him, he worked as a therapist only for a few months before his music career took off, but long enough to know he loved it. “Just sitting with somebody in their darkest moments and them leaning on you for help was a pretty heavy thing,” he said. “But I miss it because it was rewarding like nothing else was … When you’re actually able to help somebody, or you see them get to a different, better place — that’s a pretty powerful thing.”
“We’re all on borrowed – at least artists are – on borrowed time,” He says of going back to his work in counseling. “I kind of have it in the back of my mind that I’ll return at some point.”
As much as music might have the power to help people, it’s not the same as helping someone one-on-one. “Music is a limited endeavor in terms of what it can do,” Fitzsimmons said. “A lot of people I come across … it seems like they look to me for an all-encompassing heal or something like that, and I don’t think (music is) ever supposed to be that. I worry a little bit about myself and other people if we put too much pressure on it, to try to make it do everything. It’s a really beautiful thing and I’m happy that it’s part of my life and so many other people’s lives, but you know it’s only supposed to be what it is. It’s not supposed to be a medicine or a relationship.”
Remarried now, he says he’s ready to turn his songwriting to happier things, but is unsure that his fans would welcome it. Mentioning the music of Mark Kozelek, he explains, “He’s a really incredible songwriter and singer … no matter what he does it has this kind of inherent sadness to it. But it’s what he does and it’s what he does well and he doesn’t really try to be anything different. I am always going to sound like myself, but I would certainly love to have optimism and tip the scales a little bit.”
In addition to Kozelek, Fitzsimmons is a bona-fide Bon Iver fan, calling For Emma Forever Ago “unbelievable.” His list of favorites include Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Bob Dylan, though he still listens to the music his mother loved when he was growing up. Artists like Linda Ronstadt and Peter, Paul and Mary, he says, gives him “that Christmas morning feeling.”
Fitzsimmons says his fans can expect more songs, but he’s scrapping everything he’s written on tour. “Everything I write ends up being kind of a glorified b-side of the last record, whether that’s the style or the content, so I end up throwing out probably half an album’s worth of songs just because I think they end up sounding similar to what I was working on before. So I don’t know if these ones will ever see the light of day.“
Fitzsimmons said his ex-wife and Sparrow muse, who is expecting her second child with her new husband, had the opportunity to listen to the album soon after it was recorded, but she “couldn’t get the whole way through it.”
Does she mind that he sings about her every night? “I think the only thing she worried (about was) that it was maybe a bit of a bad choice (for me) to stay in all that indefinitely — singing about it and traveling with these songs in my head. But I think she understands it.”
His voice drops and he adds, “I think one of the more ironic but touching things that she said was when she told me she was bouncing her daughter on her knee to one of the songs on the record and she was kind of humming along with it. It was a … strange, sort of beautiful element. It’s dark in a way but I also thought it said … maybe things are getting better or (that) it’s some sort of a weird reconciliation.”