I came on the call still a bit mesmerized by Sufjan Stevens' performance of new album Carrie and Lowell, inspired and named for his mother who recently passed away a few days before. Luckily, folk singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons was on my level immediately, not only as a fellow Sufjan fan, but as an another artist with a new release concerning the death of a loved one.
Fitzsimmons' brief, pretty mini album Pittsburgh recalls the memory of his beloved (and recently passed) grandmother Virginia, an autoharp player with a lovely voice, Fitzsimmons told me. During the course of our conversation, he spoke about her, his own children, and how his new album will take shape in his live show. Fitzsimmons plays The Hi-Fi on Saturday.
NUVO: How will these tracks live in your setlist? How do you plan to integrate these tracks into your tour, because it is this cohesive, focused work?
William Fitzsimmons: That's such a good question. I actually saw Coldplay play several years ago – and I like Coldplay, and I'm not ashamed to say that ... and [Chris Martin] said something to the effect of, "Thank you for being so patient with all the new songs. You guys are going to be requesting these the next time we come back." It was very tongue-in-cheek, and he wasn't being an ass when he said it.
But it's true; everyone comes in the room wanting something different. Some people that come in that room have gotten dragged along, some people are coming only because they really love that one song off your first record that you don't even like anymore to be playing. So I look at it as a balance. I'm an artist, but I'm also, in the great history of traveling entertainers, Paid to entertain people and make them feel something. I look at it as a sort of yin and yang, and I have to find a way to balance it out. I don't think it's a sacrifice to interject the new material with some old stuff, as long as there's some sort of flow. For me, fortunately, since most of my music sounds really, really similar, it's not all that difficult. I joke, "This is a new song, but you guys probably won't be able to tell, because they all sound so damn close."
Usually, you can just do it with transitions. There's material that I've done historically and current stuff that definitely has a thread. The new record is all about death; it's not as morbid as that sounds when you listen to it. A lot of the other stuff I've written about, whether it's about divorce or just relationships in general, there's always that quality to a lot of it. The quality of a closing door, or something ending and something starting. For me, it's not terribly difficult. I would like to be able to play it front to back, but I don't think that would ever work as a performance.
NUVO: I know you're a dad. I like to ask musicians who are new fathers about how their approach to writing music has changed since having children.
Fitzsimmons: I like that you do that; it is an interesting subject that's obviously been on my mind for about three years. At the beginning, you're terrified, because you don't want to make dad rock. You think it's going to make you lame, less romantic, or less introspective, or something. But, like most other things in life – and I've only been doing [music] with a kid for like I said three years. This is only the second record that I've done since being a dad – you have to accept it. You can't try to fight against that. You're a different person. And that's good, that's not a bad thing. I can only write what comes out. I actually held off taking anti-depressants for several years because I was afraid it would affect my writing negatively. I thought it would neutralize all the sad feelings that I was able to access. I was talking to somebody about that, and just a little lightbulb went off that day that hadn't before that was like, "Dude, this is your life!" At that time I was married, but I didn't have any kids yet. I was a worse person because I wasn't taking the medication. Fuck if I can't write as sad of a song! Or even as good of a song. It's not fair to the people around me. I personally don't feel like it's suffered, but that's not necessarily for me to judge.
I just let it all come in, let it all be a part of it. If the kids are totally picking up 98 percent of brain space, which they usually do, then just let that flow through you. You can't put it off. My last record was all the relationship between my oldest daughter and her birth mother, her biological mom. If I hadn't accepted the position in life that I have right now, I never would have felt the inspiration to write like that. I just take it in. You can't fight against it. I have a little bit of jealousy of other friends that are totally unhitched to anything. But when I talk to them, and particularly about that, you get the sense that they would gladly trade. They would take the kid, they would take that sort of stability and give up some of the wild freedom.
NUVO: So much of this new work is based around memories of your grandmother and of home. I wondered if you could tell me about her and what kind of music she liked.
Fitzsimmons: Well, we had zero overlap taste-wise. [laughs] ... My aunt actually put one of her records in her casket with her. Forgive me, I can't remember the name. It was one of those stupid, silly 1960s singalong things. That's what we would [sing]. Somebody would get on the piano and they'd start singing these songs. When I was a kid, I hated it. I thought it was so stupid. I just wanted to go outside and play and I thought, "Why are we all doing this?" Grown people laughing and singing. Obviously, when I got older and we did that, I was like, "Holy shit, this is the greatest thing ever. Why did I spend time hating this?"
She was a really bright and super energetic person. She loved music, and it was a very important part of her life. That's why my mom loved music, and still does, so dearly. My grandmother was not a good musician. She had a lovely voice; it was beautiful, but you wouldn't say it was a "good" voice. Does that make sense? She played the autoharp.
She would sit there and strum it; she had a little five-watt practice amp in her living room. She was wonderful. Best woman I've ever known, and this is what I said: Best woman I've ever known, and I'll say it in front of my wife and my mother, and they would both agree.
This project is funny for me. It feels very good, and it felt very good doing it, because I felt connected to her. I felt it was important to spend time with her memory. But it's also [like] the lyrics from that Tim McGraw song, "My Old Friend." It was the one where he says, "My old friend / This song's for you / cause a few simple verses was the least that I could do / To tell the world that you were here." There's a sense of apology in that. I know this isn't enough. I feel a little bit hypocritical, too, because my kids still aren't going to know her. The important stuff that would really matter, it's not really in these songs. These songs are just a way for me to process the situation.
That being said, I still think there's value in doing it. Even if it doesn't bring her back, or really instruct my kids on the kind of person she was, there's still value in it. The Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead – one of my good friends is from Mexico City – I love that holiday, that they actually have the Day of the Dead. They celebrate the remembrance of ancestors. We should do that! There's such continuity between life and death. You live better when you think about it. Life becomes more valuable.