Interview – William Fitzsimmons

21.07.2015

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Events and meetings I experienced at the Halfway Festival organized in the Polish city of Białystok have elicited many emotions, but the main feeling, which accompanied my stay at the capital of the Podlasie region was freedom. Firstly, the festival itself – so different, so magnetic. With no crowds, no noise, no queues, no hurry. Without any tension or mass factor about it. It took place in the city, but felt almost as if it were in a natural setting. Small, but so fulfilling. Toned-down, yet so intense. Its whole atmosphere was clearly telling you: be with us, be yourself, be free.

And one of its main acts – William Fitzsimmons. An artist known for his light sadness, heavy humor, melancholic beard and thick songs. Wait, wait, or was it the other way around? Although coming from the “City of Steel”, as they call Pittsburgh, this big man generates tones of nothing but pure friendliness. He’s honest, open and has a rare realness about him. A very far reaching realness. You sit to talk with him, but already after only a few minutes, the range of shared thoughts makes the whole “interview” thing actually disappear. You feel as if you were taking part in a conversation, where two persons are trying to share their thoughts on what’s heavy, light and most of all, important. Here’s the record of our meeting:

 

William Fitzsimmons_Interview

Tonight’s gig is your last concert on this tour. Do you actually like touring? Is it an adventure for you or a necessity, especially now, when you have a family?

I love it. I always have. Before I was married or before having kids, that was total freedom and as long as you made sure that all bills were paid at home before you left and there wouldn’t’ be lots of letters waiting for you when you come back, it was always great. And it’s still great, but I do hate leaving my family. My one-year-old daughter gets really upset when I leave now and that’s really hard, man. And it’ gets harder every time. You think it would get easier, but it doesn’t. I miss them a lot. Of course we Skype and do all that technology stuff, that’’s cool, but leaving family is the hard part about touring. Yet, I get to take care of them doing something I really care about, so you can’t complain about that.

I had a chance to be on tour once as part of a crew. It is very tiresome and challenging as you have to travel a lot, but there is also a big adventure in it and there are a lot of moments which are quite surreal. When you do that for many years, like you have, can you actually get used to that?

It can happen with anything. Two things can happen whenever a stimulus is introduced to an organism. First thing is that you can habituate, which means you get used to it. For example, until I mentioned it, you probably didn’t feel the wristband on your wrist. You do right now because I mentioned it, but before that, you got used to that fact that it’s there, just like the shirt on your back. You weren’t feeling it, it was just there. That’s habituation and the other thing is sensitization, which is, for example, when there is a really annoying sound that doesn’t stop for a long time, it only keeps intensifying and gets worse and worse. So when you tour for a while you do tend to start to habituate to it and suddenly it gets maybe not ordinary, because it’s still a crazy way to live, but you start to see it all like “Oh, I’m in a hotel again. This is the 60th hotel in 60 days” and everything starts to look the same to the point where sometimes you forget what country you are in. I usually have plenty of people around me that remind me how fortunate I’m to do it and when you play shows and actually talk to the people after shows you don’’t forget it. You realize what you are doing. Besides, I’m really lucky because I get to tour with people that are essentially my family at this point. That’s one of the best parts. I love playing music. It’s wonderful, but those special moments, for me a lot of them end up coming not just on stage, but when I’m travelling with my friends.

I think there is a lot of life happening in between the shows.

Most of it, that’s the thing. The show is only an hour and a half.

That’s also pretty interesting, because to people that’s all that there is. People are waiting for that hour and a half and I guess they are already waiting for you even now as we are talking, but again, there is a lot of time in between and that is very much life too.

That’s why you have to be careful. I do have bad moments or rough days. Even tonight, I had a pretty difficult time getting here, delayed flights, rebooking. I ended up having to go to a completely different country, I got here way late, none of my gear made it here.

You don’t have your guitars here?

No, I don’t know where they are. They are floating somewhere in the atmosphere. I don’t know if they are in North America or maybe Europe. But when a bad day like that comes what can you actually do? You just have to stand back, take a deep breath and tell yourself that you get to play music to people who actually want to hear it and then you’re fine. You also have to be present. That’s the important thing. If you stand on the stage and you’re thinking “here we go again, it’s just another night, let’s get through this”, then you shouldn’t be playing at all. Everybody is tired, but for that short time you have to be totally there, even if there is only 20 people. You have to be really present, because for them this is a special night, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.

When a situation like that happens, when you loose your guitars, which I bet are really close to you, do you try to fight with it or you just accept it?

I do love my guitars but they’re not the thing. The songs are the thing, my band is the thing, the audience is the thing. Those are actually the things that matter. I can walk up there with a 50 dollar toy-guitar and do the show and if my heart is in it and the crowd wants to be there, I bet it (would) be a very special night.

A few years ago, I was at your midday acoustic show which took place in a music store in Berlin. There was this tiny stage surrounded by shelves with CDs, the lights were full on, people were shopping, it was a pretty awkward environment. I even remember you had two kids behind you playing bloody Nintendo, but despite those surroundings you still managed to create a very special vibe.

That’s funny that you were there. I’ve not forgotten that performance. That was one of the weirdest things I did in my life (laughs).

Of course your full band concert in the evening was great too, but considering the environment you had to deal with, the way you changed it into something close and intimate was really amazing.

Thank you man. That’s very kind to say. I think it’s hard to not worry about all the stuff that actually doesn’t matter. A friend of mine in the US runs an online music store. I was corresponding with him before I made the last record and we were talking about different microphones and different things and he wrote me back at one point saying just out of the blue “Dude, just make the record. You have everything you need, you don’t need anything else, you don’t need another guitar”. And I was like damn, he’s totally right. I’m focusing on the wrong things. There’s nothing wrong with the microphones, nothing wrong with cool guitars, those are great, but it’s not the most important. It’s so easy to forget that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I had my guitars tonight, I really do, but I’m totally excited to play the show without them, because it’s going to be fine.

IMG_4795Batman watches over “that” performance (Berlin, 12.2011)

You mentioned your last album “Pittsburgh”, which is about your late grandmother. Tell me, why was she so special in your life?

I was close with my grandmother my whole life. She was really regular and a pretty big part of my life. We spent a lot of time when I was a kid and then when I was an adult too. She was a really generous, very spiritual person. Also totally self-sacrificial, really honorary and stubborn. Throughout my life, I never even for one second thought that she didn’t care about me. She was like that to everybody. She was inviting homeless people to our house for Thanksgiving. She raised five kids, which turned out to be my aunts and uncles and these are five of the best people I’ve ever met in my whole life. So she was really wonderful. Her passing away was a big loss to me and to the whole family, but it was good to make songs about her.

How do you move on when something like that happens? People often say “life goes on”, “everything’s going to be alright”.

Yeah, those super helpful advices (laughs). It doesn’t work like that. I don’t think anybody really knows how to do it, but you can either face it or avoid it, I guess. I think one leads to a healthy place and the other leads to a pretty unhealthy place. I find a lot of solace by connecting to the people who care about me. But the older you get, the more that number of such people tends to dwindle, yet the intensity of these relationship gets larger, because you have had these relationships for 10, 20, 30 years and people really know you. There are the people that know William in his 30s, but there are also people who knew me when I was eight years old. And it’s really important to have those people in your life and make sure you stay close to them. That’s probably one of the most scary things to me. I don’t mind getting older. I’m totally comfortable with that, but the thought of losing people that know me must feel like you are disappearing a little bit. At some point, nobody might know who I was when I was young, that’s scary.

In terms of things like death though, I still find more comfort in facing it than avoiding it. I’d rather sing about that, than anything else. I feel better then, more in control, when staying aware of those things. It’s important to confront those difficulties. That’s the whole idea about existential philosophy – if you actually confront things like anxiety or death you are going to be healthier, because you are facing the actual truth. But its not always pleasant.

You mentioned control. I think there is some in that, because for example, if I get a call with information that somebody close to me is in the hospital, and I’m not in the city at that time, obviously that totally effects me and I worry and have all these images and projections while not being able to actually do something about it. But once I get to the hospital, I still can’t actually do anything about it and it’s still scary, yet when I’m actually experiencing it being directly inside the situation, I feel there is less fear in it. It’s still heavy, but it just feels closer.

Closer…I like that, that’s a good analogy. I think I still haven’t figured it out, man. These are inevitabilities you can’t stop.

That’s true, but I think it’s important how you deal with it and to me your music is very much about that, about touching where it hurts. You touch yourself first, then you put it out, empty yourself out and people relate to it. As weird as it may sound to some people, by touching what is hurtful, painful and vulnerable in the people listening to your music, you actually help them. It’s therapeutic. That is why I think your music is not sad at all. It’s just super sensitive.

I agree (laughs). I haven’t met someone who hasn’t approached it on one of those two extremes. People take my music as either very depressing and dark or don’t hear it like that at all. It’s totally weird and very dividing, but I like it.

Do you feel any responsibility towards the listeners of your music? They way a lot of them perceive it as very personal and intimate and probably they share a lot of personal stories with you and many of them have quite fragile souls, I think.

Well, we all do.

You think so? That everybody has the same sensitivity?

Yeah, totally. Don’t you?

I’d say we all have sensitivity, but they might vary in terms of its range.

I think that there are people just lying about it. You know, most of the time I don’t like to be sad. Sometimes I do, because it’s familiar and comfortable, but most of time, I don’t want to be weighed down by something, so I look for situations and opportunities, that don’t feel that way. I thing that’s generally the course that most people would take. We seek pleasure over anything.

I have this observation, that most people crave for love and intimacy, but at the same time they are afraid of being hurt so they block certain places in their hearts and minds, which is quite a paradox for me, as I feel humanity is very much about feeling. Nobody is looking for pain. Nobody wants to feel that, but it’s part of humanity just like the night is part of the day.

True. There are medicines, which block pain receptors and that is super dangerous. It’s as if you placed your hand in a stove, burnt it up and didn’t feel nothing, eventually couldn’t be able to prevent yourself from harming your body. Pain itself is a really productive thing, it can be a guide. It allows you to learn about yourself and it pushes you back on the right path. If I’m doing something wrong, nature has a way of telling me that. If I eat something I’m not suppose to eat, my body will let me know it was wrong. But you are right, that paradox is definitely a real thing, but on the other hand, I think it’s really great to escape those thoughts and feelings sometimes.

Just to finish this subject, I have just recalled a David Lynch quote, who said once, that “Stories should have the suffering, not the people”.

Wow, that’s well said.

11026304_700611433400615_2973300727072572557_oA fragile soul…
William’s concert at Halfway Festival (Białystok, 06.2015)
photo by Michał Heller/oifp

Ok, so we have talked about some deep stuff, because this is very much present in your music, but tonight is your first time in Poland and probably most of the people haven’t seen you before, so I presume many of them will have a similar impression to what I felt seeing you for the first time live and that was a surprise. I was surprised, because when you are perceived only through your music, you seem to be this very spiritual and sensitive person, and of course you are. But when you get up on stage, all of a sudden, it turns out you are also very funny, laid back, very open, freely talking about pissing your pants after you drank too many beers or telling stories about what happened after you forgot to take your Prozac.

(laughs) That’s true.

That is quite different to the image based only on your music, but at the same time I think it makes you approachable, normal and most of all very real.

I understood a while ago that I was not a good actor. To be honest, the first years I was playing shows I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I was supposed to be just the dude who was in the songs so I would just stand up there and play, but after some time I thought it sucks and is really boring.

So when I went up there for the first time and I was myself, at the start it was kind of weird, but also totally free and I loved it. People also seemed to really respond to it, so I thought: Why not? Why can’t I just be myself? What’s the point in hiding? I feel there is quite a lot of performers who for any number of reasons put on a bit of a facade, when they perform. Maybe its self-protective. For some people, being on stage can be a nerve-wracking experience, but to be honest I get a little frustrated by that. I think people get a better understanding with what you try to communicate with them when they can understand where you’re coming from. And that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s just the person that I am – I am a guy who loves playing music, but I am also a dude who makes penis jokes all the time (laughs).

11337041_700611243400634_6075153568176858904_oA dude with a pen…pint
Halfway Festival (Białystok, 06.2015)
photo by Michał Heller/oifp

Do you still consider yourself an active therapist or is it all suspended because of your music career?

Only in an analytical sense because of song writing, but I haven’t practised therapy in ten years.

Considering your experience in that field, would you agree that a lot of people want to be a therapist and go to study psychology…

Yes, I would agree. I know what you want to ask.

...that they want to do it because they have problems themselves?

For the most part it’s true. I would wonder why somebody would want to get into it if they didn’t have some sort of struggles.

Was it the same with you?

Of course. The nurses on the psycho unit that I worked at for 4.5 years used to say that the best place to hide a tree is in the forest. Anybody that worked on that floor; whenever it was a nurse, technician or a doctor, we were all trying to figure our own shit out.

Did it actually help you?

No. The thing that helped me was when I finally gave up and I went to therapy myself and got myself taken care of. It’s just like anything else, doctors make terrible patients, etc. I thought I could figure it out academically. That was the way I learnt to deal with things. I would read a book, study about something or go to class. I spent the better part of seven years doing that and ended up in exactly the same place. I was still messed up, depressed, anxious. But once I just gave up, I said “I don’t know what I’m doing. I need some help” and actually did that, then the stuff got better.

Wasn’t it a challenge for your therapist to take care of somebody with a knowledge such as yours? You knew the mechanisms of therapy and you could go there with an attitude that you knew yourself better anyway.

I was a little scared of myself because of that, but the women that I went to was the exact opposite of me. With her, there was no cerebral process at all, no academic or intellectual stuff, no theory being applied. She was just this amazing stubborn middle aged woman that just told me what’s up. As far as the books go, she was doing everything wrong and it was exactly what I needed. She was honest with me. She accepted me, but she never put up with any bullshit if she thought I wasn’t being honest about something and that helped me.

That might be a little bizarre question and it is a hypothetical one, but especially having in mind the environment you were raised in, with both your parents being blind, if somebody, who is very close to you, his/her life dependent on you losing one of your senses, which one would you choose – hearing or vision?

That’s a heavy question… You know, I’m tempted to say I would keep my vision.

Why?

Because being blind is really scary to me.

You know how it is.

I do and I don’t.

You know more than other people.

Yes, but I was never blind. I always like to make that distinction. I know how it is to be a child of a blind person, but I don’t know how it is to be blind. My parents don’t seem to be bothered by it that much. They seem to be fine.

Did you see them struggle with some things although they didn’t admit it?

Of course. One day my dad fell in a construction site. They tore up the side-walk to dig out the sour pipe and they had just this stupid yellow piece of tape and this is before you had a dog, only canes and canes are on the ground. They can’t fell the ribbon, so my dad feel into that hole. It was about two meters deep. He wasn’t hurt badly or anything, but when he got home that’s when he immediately called dog guide school and made an appointment to get one. And that’s a funny story. There was a lot worse stuff that went on. I know I am a musician but it’s scary to think about navigating the world without it, so yeah, I would probably keep my eyes. Just because it’d be terrifying to not be able to see what’s in front of you.

Especially now, once you’ve seen the world. Were your parents blind since they were born?

Both of them were born prematurely in about the seventh month and it was roughly 60 years ago, when the science of incubation was not great. At that time, it was basically about keeping the lungs. That’s the most fragile part of a prematurely born baby, as they are the most underdeveloped. So they put them into this glass box and filled it with oxygen to keep the lungs strong, but oxygen at high levels is toxic. So my mum was blind after a day or two, and my dad lost most of his sight and then the rest of it as a child. So if you asked my mum to describe an apple, she would be like “I don’t know”. Or she would say it’s red, but only because she learnt that at school.

This is something that makes wonder sometimes. How people who have never seen the world actually perceive reality? When you say to them “this is blue” – what does it actually mean to them?

It means nothing. I’ve had that conversation with my mum for example about red. I tried to describe it to her, but this is like a different language. It’s not there, it doesn’t exist in her mind, which is really kind of fascinating.

Life is hard. We go through a lot of stuff and it’s hard to not be angry sometimes. Lately, I’ve actually picked up a little bit of anger about her being blind and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because she’s got grandkids now. And I think she learned relatively recently, that it was technically preventable. There are different things the doctors could have done even back then, but they didn’t do it, so you know… But anyway, that’s a great question. A hard one. I think I will be tortured by it for a while.

Thank you for your answer. If I was to choose, I always thought I would keep my hearing, but what you have just said made me think, as it gives a different perspective.

As long as I have my hands I think I should be ok. Even if I can’t hear, I can still play the guitar. Actually I wonder, when Beethoven went deaf, but was still composing, was he relying on the theory at that point or was it just math, you know, if the fifth falls to the sixth, or the sixth falls to the seventh, etc. Or maybe it was something else?

I think it was a combination of his technical skills and imagination. I guess he could imagine how it would sound, but whether it actually made him feel the same way as when he could actually hear it, I don’t know.

If only we could ask him that. What a great answer that could have been.

Definitely. Ok, last one. Let’s finish off on a lighter note. You’re an artist, a songwriter, a person who creates and I think that any creative process is not something that happens at beck and call, that you sit by the table and decide to create something. Maybe there are people who operate that way, but I guess in most cases it’s just a constant, ongoing process of thoughts, being open to stimulations and following unexpected impulses. So what I wanted to ask you – was there any bizarre place or an awkward situation in which you had an idea for a song that actually turned into a song and could you give an example?

It happens all the time, to be honest. It usually happens in moments when your frontal lobe is not very well connected to the rest of your brain. The frontal lobe is the place of judgement, discretion, it’s the part that gets blocked whenever you’re drunk. When that happens the receptors aren’t able to receive and send information quickly to your brain, but it’s in those moments when, for example, I’m really tired, angry or super sad, these sort of swervy thoughts come to my head and I just chase them.

The most recent one was when I was on my way to Pittsburgh for my grandmother’s funeral. It’s even in the first line of one of the songs on the album. “As we drove down North of 85…” and when I was driving there I had this realization that I’m really speeding, going too fast on the highway, but actually why? After all, it doesn’t matter now what time I get there. The situation won’t change and I’m going to have to face what’s on the other side of that trip. That was a very strong experience, a 12-hour car ride. I was tired, drinking red bulls and coffees to stay awake and this is the situation I was talking about, when you are in a really strange place, but your mind is opened up to more things. For me it’s about getting past yourself, moving yourself out of the way. It’s not easy, but like you said, if you do remain open to it and you put yourself in situations where you are encountering other people, it’s going to come to you eventually.

Interviewer: Chris Bienkiewicz

“..As we drive down North of 85

Passing state lines like a ghost

As if you might still be alive..”

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