William Fitzsimmons is set to play DC this Sunday (4/20 at the Howard Theatre), so because I could hardly contain my excitement (fangirlin’ for real over here) I went ahead and caught up with him over the phone last week. We talked about how (if at all) fatherhood has affected his creative process, about the latest record’s rejection of variety for the sake of variety, and (at my insistence) Nick Drake (and Elliott Smith), of all things. SO, get ready to internet eavesdrop on all of that, and be sure to grab tickets to the shows! (Or just hole up in your apartment and listen to Lions forever.) HERE WE GO:
So how’s it been being on the road? You’ve got plenty of dates both ahead of you and behind you at this point…
It’s good! I’m home for what’s about to be the end of two and a half weeks, and I have an almost two year old daughter; my wife and I just adopted again (actually while I was in Europe my second daughter was born premature; I wasn’t trying to be away for her birth…I’m a douchebag, but I’m not THAT much of a douchebag), but it’s good, I’m trying to get in as much family time as possible. Stuff was a lot easier before I had kids. [Laughs] It’s great, though; I love it. No complaints.
Well, and so how has that affected your creative process, then? Because I’ve spoken with people like Beth Orton and Domino Kirke who’ve got kids, and they’ve said that parenthood has sort of forced them to be more focused and to use free time more wisely.
Yeah, I suppose that’s probably cliche to say, but it does increase your priorities. They did a study about teenagers’ productivity in high school, and what they found is that there was a perfect amount of time to have as far as a part time job; if you had one for ten to fourteen hours a week, those were the kids that got the best grades. (The kids who worked less or more than that tended to get worse grades, which I found really interesting.) And the conclusion they drew from that was simply that if you have a certain amount of responsibility, it’s actually helpful, because if forces you to choose what’s important and eliminate what’s not.
But no, it’s hard, and I’ll tell you what the hardest thing is: trying to avoid turning into a super lame songwriter, because parenting is not something that I feel needs to be discussed too much in an artistic way. There’s a time and a place, you know? If it’s something you feel and you’re doing it, that’s great, but you don’t want to think about it any more than you have to. And if you’re NOT, then you REALLY don’t want to hear about it. But fortunately I’ve been surrounded by a lot of interesting life experiences that provide inspiration.
That’s good! And Lions has been out for two-ish months now; has there been any sort of feedback that has really surprised you, or do you generally try to avoid reading too much into that sort of thing?
[Laughs] Yeah, I love when somebody says when they really like the record, and it hurts when someone doesn’t; I don’t think I’ll ever totally get over that. But I think I kind of knew what to expect with this one. I knew like a day into the record that it wasn’t going to be insanely different than anything I’d done before, and I decided then and there that I was totally cool with that. And the primary reason I decided that was that my favorite living singer-songwriter now is Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon); he’s made a dozen records that are easily within one standard deviation of each other as far as tempo and melody, and each one of them to me is important, relevant, timely, meaningful. So I think variety for its own sake is not really a great thing; I think Madonna is really varied in her career, but I’m not really inspired by a lot of it. Beck is really varied, and I AM inspired by a lot of it. So when it’s done for an artistic reason it’s great, but what I mean to say by all of this is that I will just write about and in the style of what comes out. I’m not interested in forcing it. I like challenging myself, but if it doesn’t need an extra guitar, don’t put an extra guitar on it. My job is communication.
Well, I applaud you for that, because you can tell immediately as a listener when it feels forced and they’re just doing it for the sake of change.
Oh, yeah. You can totally tell, you know, this is the one where the record label gave them some money. [Laughs] But it’s fine! It’s fine to want to have a big sound, too. You know, there’s bands that have done that really well; they’ve grown into arena bands. I mean, I like Coldplay…
I do too!
Well good! I’m talking to a friend! But I think their transition from the first record to the latest record…they know they’re going to be playing it to a stadium now, but they still find a way to make it really entertaining and cool. There’s ways to make it work whatever way you’re doing it.
So since many of your songs ARE fairly quiet and/or thematically heavy and not necessarily arena-friendly, do you ever feel any sort of difficulty or anxiety around performing those live in front of an audience?
I don’t ever really think too much about the record at the live shows; I think that in any situation you make it as good as you possibly can with whatever you have. So if I’m playing solo, I won’t shy away from any of the songs, and that’s the fun challenge, is trying to communicate with the audience. You don’t have all the studio tools and you can’t edit the tracks or anything, but there’s very few live situations that I’ve not enjoyed. I like playing festivals because they’re challenging to me, and I feel my character growing as a result, but it is sort of like…you get these crowds of 5000 people, 7000 people, and you definitely can’t hear me in the back no matter what. But I always try to make it work as best as I possibly can.
Well that’s fantastic that you’re pretty undaunted by live performances; I think people generally assume that everyone’s cool with performing live if they’re a musician, because it’s kind of in the job description, but I’m meeting more and more people who have a difficult time with it. And I just finished a Nick Drake biography where the whole performance anxiety thing is a big topic for discussion, so it’s on my brain I guess.
Oh, I’ve read both! What did you think?
I mean, it was super interesting; my dad was a big fan of Nick Drake, so it was nice to kind of have some context to the records. Just the way he compartmentalized all these different aspects of his life, and then the technical aspects of his playing, too…the complexity of the finger pickings…super interesting.
Well he was mentally ill…I’m still in the middle of the Elliott Smith biography that came out last year, and that one’s phenomenal. (It seems super unbiased because he’s talking to a lot of people on both sides, people who are supportive of his legacy, and people who think he was very involved in his own myth-making.) But I love Nick Drake; I think Pink Moon is my desert island record, the one I’m taking with me most days. BUT while I believe that part of his condition was insecurity, part of it was arrogance, too. I mean, he knew what he was doing, but I think he was frustrated by the fact that a lot of it didn’t come very easily for him. Why were Jim Croce and James Taylor playing to theaters of twelve thousand people, and he was playing music in shitty little folk rooms? I don’t know, I like reading about those guys. It doesn’t make me like them any less (in fact I love them even more because it humanizes them); they were both mentally ill, but they still found a way to make this sad, angry, pretty music.
Yeah, and it’s crazy that we’ll never know the full story.
Yeah with both of them, and with Kurt, too…Nick’s sister Gabrielle didn’t like the idea of it being accidental (that would be almost too tragic) but rather than it having been a suicide, she felt it was more that he needed a rest, needed a break. I think she said something of that measure, that he just kind of wanted to get away from how he was feeling. I don’t know, as someone from the mental health field who knows about that class of anti-depressants, it’s a really complicated issue. And Elliott was murdered, I think that’s clear. (I mean, you can’t stab yourself in the chest twice. Come on. [Laughs])
(Photo by Erin Brown)
Exactly! (Not that I’ve tried it to know for sure.)
Yeah, come on, Megan! How do you know?! No, no, I like those guys. I’ll tell you what I don’t like, though, and that’s the celebration of their depression and of their death.
Right, exactly. There’s definitely an obsession with the darker aspects that accounts for a lot of people’s fascination with the music. But even with some of your songs, you know, I think people can relate to the sadness and the melancholy, which on the one hand is great, but you don’t want it to become an all-consuming thing. You know, everything is healthy to a point.
Right. And I think life has more suffering in it than it does joy.
And that’s what makes the highs so high! And I think that when you ARE going through a rough time, you know, it’s important to be able to find those little silver linings. I think that for as heavy as some of your songs are, there is this weird uplifting quality that shines through…a lot of the time it’s not a thing I can put my finger on, but they do feel very well-balanced to me in that way, like a reflection of the real life joy to sorrow ratio.
Thank you, that means a lot. I think there is, too, and that’s the difference between people who buy the ticket and people who say, “I would never go to that guy’s show, it’s so depressing and boring.” It’s that one type of person that hears the hopefulness in it. And it’s totally there! Even in the really early uber dramatic teenage angsty stuff, there’s still hope there. I just choose to be honest about this stuff. There’s a lot of really difficult things that people go through, and I’ve had it relatively easy, but I still think it’s healthy to talk about these things and to try and work through it.