William Fitzsimmons is a singer and songwriter who uses inspiration from his experience working in the mental health field. He will be performing in the Sheldon Ballroom Friday, March 25as part of the Oswego Indie Series. I spoke with him about his unconventional musical childhood, his experience in the mental health field and how that led him back to music.
1. You grew up in a unique household because both of your parents were visually impaired. What was it like growing up in that kind of environment and how did you use music to communicate?
It was different, for lack of better words. Of course, I didn’t realize that at first. It’s relative when you’re just a kid in that situation, you assume that everyone’s parents are like that but, after a while, I caught on that it was a little bit different. We never really left the house too much; we didn’t travel or anything. It was mostly just the house and the block and my parents. It was a bit dark, we got very used to not having the lights on because my parents didn’t need them. So we didn’t assume that we needed to turn them on, but music was the thing we all shared together. It was a level playing field for everybody, ‘cause it didn’t matter if you were blind or sighted or whatever, and that was kind of our one thing that we could all share and that no one was left out.
2. Did anybody have a particular instrument they liked to use, or would everybody play a variety of instruments?
My dad is a pipe organ player, and he never really left that too much, and my mom played the piano and she loved to sing. When we were very young, we would just bang on the piano and annoy our mother and, you know, break strings on the guitar. When we were very young it was more just about singing together, and as we got older we had lessons and we were just exposed to different instruments to focus on and we took on different ones, but mom and dad stayed with the keyboard.
3. You decided that psychology and counseling was your calling. What was it that led you to that realization?
I think that for something like that it’s not one defining thing; it was probably a whole bunch of things working together. I think that the most basic thing to me, and this was a hindsight that I didn’t know at the time, or else I probably wouldn’t have done it, was that I had my own physiological maladies and I think that sometimes a lot of people go into the health profession because they, themselves, would sort of like to be mended in some sort of way. I’ve wanted to help people. I think I was very interested in those parts of my own brain that didn’t feel like they were working the right way. I wanted to see if there was something that could fix it, psychologists seem to offer, claim to offer, a pretty good cure; if there was one thing it would probably be that.
4. How did music come into your counseling work?
You know, it’s funny, I worked in an inpatient psychiatric unit in New Jersey for several years before I went to graduate school, and I never once got into any music therapy-brought the guitar in or anything like that, not because I didn’t believe in that but I was never really exposed to that in the field. Music was a separate thing at that point. I didn’t really see how the two could work together. It was probably in graduate school when I went and decided that writing would be a really good exercise and catharsis to empty out the stuff in my head. To get out a lot of the stuff I was struggling with, so I could be more effective in thereapy. It connected better than I thought it would. If I hadn’t have felt like that, I probably would have never played music that seriously much anymore.
5. When did you realize the songs you were writing as a tool were something more than just a better vessel for therapy?
I played those songs for family and friends to see if they thought they were any good, and one of my friends convinced me to put the music up online at MySpace. This was at the time right before MySpace peaked. Within a few weeks people began to send me messages about my music. People didn’t just say that they liked my songs, they began to say things like "This song really moved me," or "This song made me cry." It was powerful and really rewarding to get feedback from total strangers that were being affected emotionally by my music. It was after this that I thought the music was something more than just a hobby.
6. Your 2008 album, "The Sparrow and the Crow," was about your divorce from your wife. What was it like to put yourself out there with something so personal in something that is meant for the world to hear?
It does seem like a strange thing to do, but it was easy coming from my background in therapy because I was used to sitting through really heavy, disturbing emotions, impulses and desires and to treat it as if there was nothing strange about it at all. Talking about my own divorce was pretty easy to do after having to deal with all of that.
7. Your new album is conceptually based off of a list of psychological conditions. How did you decide this was the next step in your music?
After I toured the "Sparrow" record for a couple years, it was good professionally, but personally it was kind of rough. Playing those songs after a while started to depress me because they’re kind of sad, so I took a break from writing. Once I got back into it, I returned to what I knew best, and I wanted to use some of the time to see if I could take care of the personal [things] that I’d never really taken care of. That meant embarking on a path that I’ve encouraged people to take themselves, in terms of therapy and medication and healing and things like that. It seemed like a natural thing, to document that as I was going through it; to understand what it was like to actually change.
8. Where do you see your music going in the future?
I would like to write songs that aren’t so carved into the singer-songwriter genre, though I love that genre, and those are the records that I’ve made. I feel like I’m in a different place, emotionally and mentally, and I want to take the music further. I feel like I’ve done that with this record but, when I’m playing these songs, I feel like there’s one foot in the first five years and there’s one foot that’s not. I’d like to go louder and bigger, and see if I can pull that off.