|Not Minding the Dark: William Fitzsimmons, March 19 at RIBCO|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Thursday, 12 March 2009 09:54|
Most folks don't like to talk about painful personal stuff, such as a failed relationship.
"I wrote a record on divorce, so I opened the door," he said in an interview this week.
You'd never guess that The Sparrow & the Crow, Fitzsimmons' album from last year that the Boston Herald called a "near masterpiece," is about divorce on first blush. It's unfailingly delicate, intimate, and gentle musically, with folk-y lead piano and acoustic guitar lightly accented with other instruments. And it starts with the words "I still love you" and "I still need you" and what sounds like a reaffirmation of marriage vows. It absolutely does not sound like divorce.
But there are hints on that first track of what's to come -- if you pay attention to the words. Fitzsimmons sings, "Please don't keep me," and a woman's voice echoes, "Please don't leave me."
The pairing of male and female voices and perspectives is a motif that runs throughout the record, and it reflects an evenhanded approach. For a work that you might expect to be punctuated with anger and bitterness, it's almost shockingly calm and quiet.
"I didn't want to have just the ‘Here's my male break-up record,'" he said. "I thought it would only be fair to have both sides."
Whenever a woman sings on the album, he said, it's meant to represent the perspective of his ex-wife: "It's giving her a chance to say those things to me, I guess. It's kind of like a conversation being played out. ...
"The record's an apology," he added. "I'm pretty up-front ... on the record that I was the wrong one."
He said three-quarters of the words sung by women on the record were things his ex-wife said to him, and while he said he communicates with her sometimes, he hasn't gotten an indication whether she thinks he treated her fairly on the album. "I think she had moved on by the time that she had heard it and didn't want to get too deep back into it," he said.
(The divorce was finalized in 2007, and Fitzsimmons re-married last year, he said, although he sounded uncertain of the dates.)
Fitzsimmons acknowledges the tension in these songs between the deceptively comforting music and the cold reality of the lyrics. "To talk about an extramarital affair in kind of a nice, flowing, pretty folk song is a little bit strange," he said. But "non-protest folk music can only be so edgy.
"I don't want the songs just to sound good," he continued. "The aesthetic is only one part of it. ... I want people to be anywhere from moved to offended, and I've certainly done both of those."
With an impressive beard and breathy vocals, the comparison to Iron & Wine's Sam Beam is inevitable, and it's fair. Beyond the look, you'll also hear plenty of Sufjan Stevens.
Fitzsimmons, who now lives in Jacksonville, Illinois, spent most of his life in the Pittsburgh area. He is the son of two blind parents, and he said that there are few pictures of him and his brother when they were young, and there was no artwork on the walls at home.
"People always turn lights on after me," he said. "I kind of have a penchant for not minding the dark."
What the house did have was music. Fitzsimmons' parents required their sons to be involved in music -- "I somehow thought it was a good idea to get into trombone and some other brass instruments" -- and their father restored pipe organs and built one in their house.
"Visual stuff just didn't matter as much," he said. "Sound was our modus operandi. It's how we got along with each other."
But he didn't begin writing songs until grad school, he said. "I had so much fun playing other people's music," he said. "Why the hell am I going to write a song when he [James Taylor] already wrote ‘Fire & Rain'? It didn't seem like there was much of a point."
He began writing songs six years ago, when he was training to become a therapist, and the two vocations are undoubtedly intertwined.
"It was starting to appreciate the experiences I'd been through," such as his parents' divorce, he said. "It was respecting those things enough to need to find a way to express the stuff. ... The idea of expressing thoughts and emotions was right in my wheelhouse."
Being a therapist also contributed to his "being able to talk about things that people might find a little bit uncomfortable," he said, noting that he has "a comfortability with darker issues that wouldn't often find their way into most songs."
But the deeply personal nature of the album makes it difficult to perform some songs, Fitzsimmons said. "There's a couple that I usually try to stay away from if possible," he said. "They hit me a little too hard. ... There's still freshness on it to me. It's still difficult to get through them sometimes. I have to be careful when I'm on-stage that I don't get too wrapped up in it. It can be awkward to have a breakdown on stage."
William Fitzsimmons will perform an all-ages show on Thursday, March 19, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The show, which also features Michael Morris, starts at 7 p.m. Cover is $8.
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