This could be an interview. But let’s be honest: Most interviews are boring, even if you get to talk to people as smart as William Fitzsimmons. That’s why I’m not doing an interview when I meet him at the last date of his European tour in Leipzig, Germany. Instead I try to chisel some counselling out of the man who used to work as a professional psychotherapist. It becomes a session that is more than interesting: We talk about patchwork families, suicide and not having sex for six weeks.
Hi William, it’s a pleasure to meet you. What I would like to do with this interview is to turn it into a therapeutic session. You don’t get to talk to a professional psychotherapist that often, free of charge, do you? And there definitely are some people who tell me that I need some counselling.
William Fitzsimmons (laughs): Everyone needs some counselling, man!
Thanks for your understanding. I hope you don’t mind stepping back into the role of your former career.
Fitzsimmons: Not at all. It’s still one of my greatest passions. You don’t get into that field unless you really want to. Because otherwise it’s torture.
So let’s start with my first problem. Your latest album is called Lions, and I don’t like that title. Because basically I don’t like animals at all. What does that say about me?
Fitzsimmons: What school of psychology do you want me to refer to? Freudian?
I don’t know, you’re the expert! But I’m sure Freudian should be interesting.
Fitzsimmons: I find animals to be pure representations of human qualities. That’s one of the reasons why I love animals. I love talking about them and thinking about them in music. Birds, rabbits, lions, dogs. A dog is for loyalty. There’s no better example of that pure caring, non-judgemental love than a dog. If you kick a dog, it still just wants to be your friend. A lion is noble and dangerous and absolutely vicious. And all these are qualities that we share as human beings. It’s just more hidden, and that’s why we avoid trying to think about those things, because they’re troubling. It’s hard to admit that you have an evil side to you. We fashion ourselves as usually very good people. “I’m a good person! I never killed anybody!” The truth is: The capacity is in all of us. The only difference between me and a serial killer is that I’ve not killed anybody. Now you might think that’s a big difference, but I don’t. Because I think that in the moments that I’ve had hate in my heart and anger and rage, I’m very close to doing it. So I think maybe the avoidance of that could be a reason for you not to like animals. Maybe you don’t want to confront some dark things.
I thought about this myself and my conclusion is: I don’t like animals basically because they can’t talk. That makes them highly uninteresting in my regard. Of course, if I had a dog for example, there would be some kind of communication. But it’s not the kind of communication that you can have with people. You might even consider it to be similar to the kind of relation ship between an artist and the audience: You have to feed them, they look up to you, but it will never be on par. Would you agree with that?
Fitzsimmons: That’s interesting. Communication is so layered. Physical touch can sometimes be so more powerful than language. There are some things that you just can’t communicate with words. Words are very incomplete, even if you speak the same language.
When you look at the audience at a show or when you meet fans, do you sometimes feel like you’re the pet keeper and they’re the pet?
Fitzsimmons: Sometimes, yeah. But I like to think of it as something really interactive. The reason why people connect with my songs is not my story. The reason why art works is because we bring our own problems, our own feelings into it. Denison Witmer [who is opening for William Fitzsimmons tonight] has this song called Born Without The Words. When he first played me the demo, my oldest daughter was only a few months old. I got really emotional, because it was opening up all this stuff. But what I felt had nothing to do with what he wrote the song about. And it didn’t matter.
It’s what you make out of it.
Fitzsimmons: Yeah, exactly. We call that constructivism. Meaning does not exist on its own but it is constructed by our personal experiences. In that way I think the relation ship with your audience is purely interactive. The fan is not just a passive participant. Even when I feel magic in a show, it’s because of the audience. It’s not because I’m playing so well tonight. Fuck! It only really works when everybody is trying to make it happen.
I’d like to come back to Lions, though. Did you pick it as your album title because lions are rather social animals? They’re one of the few cats that are not loners – and in my opinion that fits your music well.
Fitzsimmons: Yeah. Lions are familial by nature. But their relation ships are so beautiful and dysfunctional at the same time. The females often do the hunting. They bring the food back, and who gets the first share? The male does! And who gets the second share? Maybe the children. The female is often the last one. That’s so bullshit! Another thing is that they take really good care of their children, but then at some point the males kick them out. They become a thread and they will have to find their own way. Maybe they will die, maybe they’ll be on their own or maybe they’ll find a family. All these really weird dynamics are totally represented in our own cultures.
What do they say about your own life?
Fitzsimmons: There’s a similarity with me being an adopted father. For example watching the dynamic between me and my daughter’s birth mother. I’m thinking about how it’s going to play out in the future. That there was this inseparable bond that took place between two people that all of a sudden was broken. What’s going to happen in the future with that? Maybe it will be a really positive thing, maybe it will be a challenge. And for me, too. Now that I have children that I have no biological, natural connection to, and yet I would gladly die or kill for them. You know what I mean?
Yeah. It’s not DNA what makes a family.
Fitzsimmons: Exactly. It’s not that genes don’t matter, but there are lots of other things. Showing up. Sacrificing. Being there for someone. Caring for someone. These things only get clear to me as I age. When I was 18 or when I was 25, I couldn’t understand these things.
So I have to put forward my second problem. It’s that I can’t resist the urge to categorise. I have to put everything in excel sheets. And I do so with music, of course. In case you were wondering: I put yours in the “Folk” category. Are you alright with that?
Fitzsimmons: I love that! Even when I’m playing electric guitar or when I’m using electronic drums, to me it’s folk music. What my heroes do, like Nick Drake, James Taylor, Mark Kozelek, Sun Kill Moon, that is folk music to me. Folk music is confession, it’s honesty, and it’s aesthetic, it’s a prettiness.
But what about my excel sheet mania? What does that say about me?
Fitzsimmons (laughs): Categorizations are funny beasts. It’s a very necessary, but a very unfortunate part of life. Not just in music, but in everything.
The funny thing is: Of course I don’t want to be categorized myself, because I feel unique. But I’m trying to pigeonhole other things and other people.
Fitzsimmons: You know, I’m OCD. I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. So if you want to talk about the need to arrange certain things: I get it, I totally understand, man. It’s okay when you take it with a grain of salt. When you’re aware that there are shortcomings, that it’s incomplete. My oldest daughter, for example, is biracial, she is black and white. My niece and nephew are black and white and they are confronted with this question: Which one are you? And you know what the answer is? It’s: Both.
Or “I don’t care.”
Fitzsimmons: Yeah. But for some reason the world at large cannot accept that answer. Another example: I met a really wonderful woman last night that was transgender. She was born a male, but she feels like a female. I have a song on my record that is about that situation. And it’s another example of someone only attempting to be what they believe they are inside, and for some reason we don’t want to let them do that. I’m just as guilty in a way when it comes to this. I was raised in a very religious home, raised in the belief that there is only one narrow road to being good and everything else, everything left and right of that road, is wrong. I don’t believe that anymore, but it took me a while to unlearn that. C.S. Lewis, one of my favourite authors, once said that nothing in itself is evil. It’s how it’s moderated.
I was checking my huge amounts of excel sheets and tried to find other artists who have made an album called Lions (or Lion). I found The Black Crowes, Youssou N’Dour and Steven Lynch. And I found that Dire Straits and Chavez have made songs called Lions. Which of those artists do you feel closest to?
Fitzsimmons: I love Dire Straits! Knopfler is a hero. Do you know why I respect him so much? Because he walked away at the height of the band. They were massive, playing stadiums, but he just wasn’t feeling it anymore. There are few people who might resist the opportunity to just keep cranking it out and make 500.000 Dollars every night. But he did. That kind of integrity is very inspiring to me.
Is he someone that you would like to work with? Or who else would make your dream collaboration?
Fitzsimmons: I’ve gotten to work with a lot of heroes. Brooke Fraser, one of my favourite singers ever. Rosie Thomas, who sings one the new record with me and is kind of a friend now. Sufjan Stevens, who engineered one of the songs. Chris Walla, who produced the record. That Death Cab record is among my top five of all time, an absolute masterpiece. There’s still a lot of people who I think it’d be cool to work with. Juston Vernon from Bon Iver. Sam Bean from Iron & Wine is a big favourite of mine. But I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky and I probably shouldn’t ask for more.
So it’s time to confess my next problem: I find it hard to act my age.
Fitzsimmons: Oh, I understand that.
We’re roughly the same age, but I tend to behave like a kid. For example: After tonight’s show I should probably do something age-appropriate. Maybe I should go home with my girlfriend and make babies or something. But I’m afraid I’ll rather go out, partying in places full of people 10, 15 years younger than me. What does that say about me? And which decision do you recommend?
Fitzsimmons: Well, you could combine those (laughs).
Yeah, that’s a good idea. But if I had to chose?
Fitzsimmons: I’m probably a bit biased because I’ve been on tour so long and I haven’t had sex for six weeks. So I’d probably go for the first one. I cannot wait to see my wife! (laughs) Seriously: Acting your age seems like a ridiculous concept to me.
I agree. But when I was still 18 years old and I met grown-ups at a club, it felt strange, like: What are you doing here, old man? Now I might be this old man, making a fool of myself. There should be other things in my life that I spend my time with. On the other hand I still enjoy partying as much as I ever did.
Fitzsimmons: I understand what you’re saying. What a great question! I think it’s a matter of prioritizing. That was one of the coolest things for me about having children: I was forced to prioritize.
So your advice is that I should become a father and stop partying?
Fitzsimmons: Well, the most important thing is being aware of your decision. The danger is putting down that little voice. The little voice that asks you: Do you really want to do this? Sometimes you just do fucking stupid things. Sometimes you drink a lot of wine, have a nice buzz, have fun with your girlfriend – that’s life, that’s beautiful. You know, I got fucking wasted a couple of nights ago. I missed my family a lot, I was homesick and it was the last show with the band. I had an awful night, it was so dumb. But I’m going to learn from that.
That sounds funny because I think there might be a lot of people who can hardly imagine you partying, having it large.
Fitzsimmons: Yeah, most people think that I spend my time sitting in a little chair crying. (laughs) Sometimes I do, I’m a human being. I must admit: Sometimes I really enjoy being morose. And I don’t need excitement in my life. I don’t like roller coasters and I don’t have to jump off an airplane or any of that stuff. But of course I experience life much in the same ways as everybody else does. The only difference is that I’m lucky enough that I get to write songs. I really like experiencing strong emotions, and I sometimes need to feel something really deeply. It’s like that when I’m writing music, too. If I’m not crying, it’s not going to be a good song.
The advantage of your image as a morose singer-songwriter is that you can perfectly grow old with it. You can write these kinds of songs for 40 years to come. Did you ever see it that way?
Fitzsimmons: Kind of. But the thing is: I receive, I don’t create. I’m a middle man, I’m more like a vessel. That’s how I write. The songs are kind of out there, and they just come through you. My best songs – I couldn’t tell you how I wrote them. I don’t remember one word. They were sort of given to me.
That means that it could stop at any time. If there are no more songs coming to you, your career is over.
Fitzsimmons: True. But that’s a healthy fear, because it’s realistic. You know, that was one of Nick Drake’s greatest fears. He expressed that to one of his closest friends: He was afraid he didn’t have any more songs in him. I cried when I read that in one of the biographies. He believed that he didn’t have any more songs in him! That motherfucker had fantastic songs! I’m sure he had a lot more in him! But he was depressed…
…which nicely leads to my next question and the delicate topic of suicide. When I told a friend of mine yesterday that I was going to see your show tonight, he told me: Put away the razor blades! It’s not an odd association, I think. I condemn suicide, but sometimes I like to listen to music that sounds like a soundtrack to it. What does that say about me?
Fitzsimmons (laughs): I love that one! You know, there’s two types of people in the world. There’s people that value insight and there’s people that hate insight. I try to be non-judgemental about people that don’t like insight, but I have a lot of trouble with that. When I meet someone who seems totally opposed to ever examining the past, examining their families, their relation ships, I just can’t really connect with that person. So the razor blade comment – I totally get that, man. I don’t want to fucking listen to that kind of music all the time. But there are situations when I want to, and you have to be ready for it when it comes.
When you were still treating patients as a psychotherapist, was there ever a situation when one of them threatened to commit suicide or actually did?
Fitzsimmons: Oh yeah!
How did you cope with that? It seems like a huge responsibility to me, like a terrible burden.
Fitzsimmons: None of my individual clients, thank God, ever committed suicide. But when I worked at a hospital we did have people that died of various reasons. Drug overdoses, stuff like that. You know, it’s awful. It’s absolutely awful. You try to have a professional distance about these things. I talked to a lot of surgeons and they have this ability. Some of them told me that it’s almost like a piece of meat when they’re cutting someone open. You kind of have to see it like that. Because if you realize that this person’s life is in your hands, that can be a really overwhelming experience. I remember one occasion that was almost funny, but it was only funny if you knew that patient really well. I’ve known her for years. She wasn’t allowed to have razor blades but she stole some from someone else. Then one day, she came out of her room and she had superficially cut her wrists. She spread her arms, there was blood dripping on the floor. But everyone knew that she just wanted all of us to see. She was taken care of. You deal with those people the same ways that you deal with any other person: You listen to them.
Is writing songs a little bit like therapy for you?
Fitzsimmons: It’s pre-therapy. Writing songs to me is about understanding. It’s about learning and processing and understanding the things that I don’t yet understand. And in that way it is a therapeutic thing. But when I stopped viewing it as actual therapy, all of a sudden it became so much better and more powerful to me. When I wrote The Sparrow And The Crow I thought: That’s how I’m going to get over my divorce! Write these fucking hardcore honest songs! Play them! And then you can move on! But that just fucked me up worse. Every single night I had to think about this shit, and no one was helping me. People were clapping, but I needed fucking help, I was in a bad place. So writing songs is definitely a helpful thing, but it’s no substitute for people.
Thank you very much, that was nice. And I feel a lot better!
Fitzsimmons: You’re welcome. That was awesome, no joke, maybe the coolest interview ever!