the AU interview: William Fitzsimmons (USA) talks Pittsburgh and touring Australia

Early 2016 will see Illinois singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons make his first trip to Australian shores for a handful of intimate solo performances across the country; including for the Perth International Arts Festival.

Well known for his confessional songwriting Fitzsimmons, has drawn comparisons to the likes of Iron and Wine and Sufjan Stevens – whilst his songs have featured on many a television show. Incidentally Fitzsimmons also got an honourable mention back in 2010 by Beard Now magazine for the best bushranger beard on a non Australian (I think you can probably see why)…

Pittsburgh is clearly a deeply personal record, inspired in part by your grandmother’s passing. Where these songs always meant for release? Or was this initially just a means of catharsis, a way to reflect?

I discovered a long time ago that getting these thoughts outside of myself was a part of maintaining my own sanity. It’s just a way to externalize some things that are better understood in the light of day than in my own head.

If a song I’m writing affects me strongly, I’ll always release it. It might sound arrogant, but I figure if it helps me out, it might just do the same for somebody else.

The album is also inspired by your childhood hometown; what are some of your “musical” memories of home?

Music played a pretty central role in my life as a kid. My folks both play, my grandmother played. Most holidays involved some sort of brutal sing-a-long. My dad made us rather unpopular with the neighbors by playing his pipe organ at all hours.

But my favorite memory is probably listening to my mother sing and playing piano. It’s very nostalgic and peaceful to think about. We’ll still play a couple John Denver songs whenever we get together, just for old time sake.

Pittsburgh is your sixth album, how do you feel your approach to songwriting or album making has changed since your first early releases?

It’s funny, I wouldn’t have guessed it, but I actually look at writing songs a lot simpler than I used to when I first started. Not that it’s gotten any easier, because it hasn’t. Writing songs is a massive son-of-a-bitch.

But now all I think about is getting to the absolutely singular and utter center of whatever it is that I’m trying to communicate. Getting to the center of the feeling I want to make someone understand and not worrying about anything else. Not worrying about sounding cool or impressive. Or being clever. Or being current. Or being the next cool thing. None of that shit matters. If I make myself and somebody else feel something I’ve done my job.

Folk music, along with Americana and roots music has been growing in popularity in recent years, what do you attribute this surge in popularity to?

The pendulum on popularity is constantly swinging. There have been periods of revival and revision in all kinds of music for as long as people have been releasing and sharing music.

I think when we all get a little tired of one style, something “old” gets a little twist and everybody gravitates towards it for a while.

Confessional music seems to get really popular whenever there’s nothing out there that is addressing really difficult topics and we all want something that gets into the deep, dirty stuff.

This impending tour will be your first visit to Australia, is there any touristy things you want to tick off?

I’ve sincerely been looking forward to coming down for a long time, since I first began traveling actually. It’s one of those places that’s just so far away when you grow up as isolated as I did that you never think you’ll be able to go there.

That being said I’ve just never been one for ‘tourism,’ at least in the normal way people mean. I love visiting new places, but for me the enjoyment is more about just walking about or spending time with people who live there or trying well regarded local food or drinks.

Plus when you’re touring you’re constantly moving and usually just about late for something, so if you try to fill up your time too much you just end up running around and not taking anything of value in at all.

Are you performing this tour solo? Or are you bringing a band along with you?

For this first trip I wanted to just play really intimate, solo shows. I often play with a band but I like the idea of a first impression being about just the songs and a simple, honest performance of them.

That might seem counterintuitive, and some folks might think it’d make more sense to go in with some big production, but I think sometimes intimacy makes a bigger impact than volume, if you’ll take my meaning.

How do you approach the set list?

To me a set list is always somewhat of a compromise between what people want me to play and what I feel inspired to play. No, fortunately I have enough records now that there’s always enough overlap between those two things so that we all can be happy.

I used to be kind of hardcore about it, like “I will play what I want to play and people will just have to deal with it.” But when I got a little older I realized it’s not selling out make people happy, it’s my damn job! Being an entertainer and an artist are NOT mutually exclusive things. The key is to find those old songs that still effect me and that people enjoy. Playing new songs always feels a little weird, but people that like what I do tend to be pretty patient and open-minded by nature I think.

Are there certain songs that always make the cut?

Nothing is off limits and nothing is always on the list. If you play and song over and over, no matter what at some point it’s going to lose something for you. It’s like repeating a word so many times until it starts to sound completely alien. That being said, there’s a couple that, for whatever reason, seem to just hit me almost all of the time. “I Don’t Feel it Anymore” and “Everything Has Changed” are two that can sincerely catch me by surprise pretty often.

And take Australia for example, somewhere where you haven’t played before, does that allow you to delve back into your earlier records more?

Absolutely! I think it’d be pretty lame to go in to that situation and only play newer songs, even if that’s what I might have been doing in other places. I can get a little surreal if you play a lot of the old stuff and then go into a run of shows where you’re playing new ones. But for making people wait 10 years before a first visit, it’s the least I can do.

What’s next for you?

I’m actually recording a new album as we speak. I don’t know why but I’ve been writing a lot of new songs lately. Those periods of time are pretty rare for me, so I’m taking full advantage of it. You never know when the next song is going to show up, so you have to get to it when the chance is there.

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Don’t miss William Fitzsimmons on his debut Australian tour. Dates are below and more details can be found on his official website.

February 9th – Newtown Social Club – Sydney
February 11th – Northcote Social Club – Melbourne

William will also appear at the Perth International Arts Festival.