by Malcolm Petch
If the music fitz, wear it.
Few artists get to experience the relatively swift rise to acceptance that has marked the career of William Fitzsimmons. This insightful singer/songwriter is currently on a major-label tour in support of his latest album, Gold In The Shadow, and only a few years ago he was merely recording songs at home during breaks from graduate school.
Just before Christmas last year, Nettwerk Records announced the signing of Fitzsimmons to their label, referring to him as an “indie troubadour” in their press releases. Getting signed – the somewhat mythical and increasingly rare career marker that virtually every aspiring artist hopes for (at least in the early days of their musical vocation) – was no accident for Fitzsimmons: two home-recorded releases and one studio album had propelled him to the top of the indie folk scene, and Nettwerk, by signing him, was simply bringing an accomplished and proven artist into the fold.
There is more to the story than that, of course.
William Fitzsimmons grew up in a home where a multitude of instruments, sing-alongs, and even music-theory instruction were part of the fabric of life. More than a hobby, music was interwoven into the Fitzsimmons family foundation at a core level because William’s parents were both blind. For parents of a little boy growing up and experiencing the world in an entirely different fashion than they were, music was an integral key to building and maintaining a relational bridge that would hold steady over the years. It’s very clear that foundation has been permanently ingrained into William.
Fitzsimmons didn’t plan on being a touring musician, though. He headed off to college and graduate school, earning a Masters Degree in counseling on his way to becoming a mental health therapist, an area in which he had long wanted to be involved. Fitzsimmons went on to serve for many years as a therapist with the severely mentally ill.
During grad school Fitzsimmons picked up music again, writing songs both as a help in preparing himself for work in the psychiatric field and as a means of working through his own psychological questions and issues. During breaks from grad school William started recording these songs, just by himself at his home in Pittsburgh, and in 2005 he released his first compilation as the album Until When We Are Ghosts. The next year he released Goodnight. These albums were in-depth descriptions of both Fitzsimmons’ upbringing and his family’s eventual disintegration during his youth, but rather than being dismissed as being ‘non-commercial’ or ‘depressing’, his personal musical catharsis resonated strongly with listeners and met with wide acceptance. Even while he was still working in the psychological field, Fitzsimmons’ songs were spreading broadly and even being featured on TV shows including One Tree Hill, Life of Ryan, 16 and Pregnant, Army Wives, Brothers & Sisters, and others.
But even while he was working on album number two, Goodnight, the deep places he was going in his writing were extracting a costly levy in Fitzsimmons’ personal life, and virtually every part of his day-to-day existence began to fall apart.
In 2008 Fitzsimmons used the springboard of his music’s wider acceptance as a channel to head into the studio for his third album, The Sparrow and the Crow, which ended up being a kind of personal apology to his now ex-wife, describing in detail the happenings surrounding their divorce after nearly ten years of married life. And while the album itself is an account of the darkest period in William’s life, the connection with it felt by listeners everywhere propelled it to the number one spot in the Folk genre on iTunes, and later that year the album was named iTunes Best Folk Album of the year in both the US and Australia.
Musical success and personal adversity were occurring at the same time. Once Sparrow was released, William took a moratorium from songwriting for two years.
In December 2010 Fitzsimmons stepped out of the shadows with his signing to Nettwerk Records. His new album, Gold In the Shadow, was released on March 22 of this year, and the songs on it trace a clean horizon across the troubled landscape painted by his previous three recordings.
“I had reached the point where I was either going to yield to my sicknesses or engage them headlong,” Fitzsimmons says. “In either case, I could no longer continue the way I was.”
Gold In the Shadow is described by Nettwerk as being a musical reflection of the personal resuscitation and psychological renovation which took place for Fitzsimmons in the years following his divorce. The songs are based on a specific set of psycho-pathological disorders from the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV”, a text-book Fitzsimmons studied in grad school. Clinical as that may sound, the songs themselves are light and natural, full of hope and healing. Fitzsimmons himself describes the songs as “…a real and long-coming confrontation with personal demons, past mistakes, and the specter of mental illness that has hovered over me for the great majority of my life.” And while his previous three albums have focused on the bareness of relational and personal breakdown, Gold focuses on restoration and change. It’s the type of album that gently sits down beside you and reveals itself as a friend.
William Fitzsimmons is currently on a two-month tour of North America in support of Gold In the Shadow. Most of his tour dates feature the support of his friends, the band Slow Runner, but his appearance at Streaming Café on May 14 will be with the intimacy of a solo performance. The Café should be the perfect setting for this artist: the backdrop of the wood wall, the relaxed natural setting, and the listening-room environment will make for a wonderful evening of reflection and discovery. Tickets are sold-out for the performance, but there is still room online to catch the show. This, truly, is one evening you won’t want to miss. May 14th, 7PM show start time, www.streamingcafe.net