William Fitzsimmons – The Beauty in the Darkness

July 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Rhythms, July 2009.

The new record from Illinois songsmith William Fitzsimmons is a work of heartbreak and hope. By Dan Rule.

The motif that came to define the gorgeously fragile songcraft of William Fitzsimmons’ new album The Sparrow and the Crow was neither planned nor designed. Driving rural Illinois one afternoon in the months following his divorce, the notion came to the young songwriter – quite literally – out of thin air.

“I remember it was a very windy day and I was just driving down the road by myself,” he offers. “And there were these two birds flying against the wind. And you can notice when a bird is doing that because they’re not moving – they’re sort of staying in the one place – and it looks a bit odd. Anyways, all of a sudden one of the birds turned around and went with the wind and flew away, and it left the other one just fighting against the wind.”

“It sounds a little weird and a little cheesy but I had a little bit of a breakdown when I saw that,” he continues. “Sometimes I think that – I don’t know if it’s nature or god or whatever – you’re kind of reminded and confronted with yourself by something that if anyone else saw it, they wouldn’t even notice. That, to me, was just the universe trying to tell me that I should face all the wrong things that I did, I guess. So in the writing of the record, that’s how I conceptualised the story. I was the crow, which often means evil or selfishness or bad things coming, and sparrows are seen as love and loyalty and the sparrow was my wife.”

Punctuated with hushed electronic textures, the guitar and piano-led songs that comprise the record lay Fitzsimmons’ sorrow bare. Over 13 intimate vignettes, he revisits and sifts through the debris of his failed relationship. It makes for a particularly affecting and harrowingly candid narrative, but one that – quite remarkably – transcends its gloomy subject matter. What makes The Sparrow and the Crow so effective is its musical warmth. Indeed, while the Pittsburgh-raised songwriter is clearly in a dark place, he frames it with the vocal, tonal and melodic qualities comparable to Sufjan Stevens or Iron & Wine.

“It wasn’t what you would call a fun record to make,” he says with a laugh. “The writing was very lonely and was kind of a dark thing to delve into. But also, it was rewarding in a cathartic sense and I think, musically, that’s where that kind of sense of hope came from.

Fitzsimmons’ perspective on sound and music is a rare one. Both his parents were blind and he and his brother grew up in a house filled with noise. “My parents both loved noises,” he says. “I think blind people are kind of drawn to anything that gives off a sound, and it’s kind of maddening as a kid growing up in that when you can see because it’s sort of non-stop,” he laughs.

Amongst the Fitzsimmons family cache were huge collections of orchestral and folk records, countless instruments and a pipe organ that his father built into the wall the house. “It was kind of crazy; there were talking clocks and there was always music playing and there were mum’s cockatiels and parakeets, which had a flight from end of the kitchen to the other. It was kind of fun, but sometimes it was just like ‘Damn it, can I just get five minutes of silence here?’,” he chuckles. “It didn’t happen a lot, I can tell you that much.”

But there was a more significant consequence of being raised in such a setting. “My brother and I had to grow up very, very fast in a way,” he explains. “It’s a bit odd when you’re a five-year-old kid and you’re in the city and realise that you have to actually protect your mother. That’s a strange role and it put some strange anxieties and fears into my brother and I that I don’t think most people have.”

Fitzsimmons – who before finding success as a musician gained a degree and practiced in the mental health field – has always understood music as filling a kind of therapeutic role. While his first self-recorded and released records Until When We Are Ghosts (2005) rippled with autobiographical detail, 2006’s follow-up Goodnight delved into his parents’ divorce.

Although difficult, the young songwriter isn’t about to change his ways. “I’ve always wanted to make sure that my music was authentic,” he says.“I guess the art to that is finding a unifying metaphor or piece that can tie everything together.”

“As dark as it was, it was kind of nice to have the idea of The Sparrow and the Crow as a guiding point, otherwise every song would have been called ‘I fucked up’ or something like that,” he laughs. “I mean, that would have been cool for a couple songs, but you know, I don’t thing the James Taylor fans and old school folk fans would really appreciate the F-bomb.”

The Sparrow and the Crow is out through Mercer Street/Downtown/Inertia

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