His hair’s gone and so is his weight. Cut short, lost. Only the beard stayed. But he gained an important insight. William Fitzsimmons, the singing mental health therapist, or better: the therapy-giving singer (because his songs offer our souls relief, too), thought that he had made it. Thought, that he had faced the whole world and found peace with himself after he sang about his own divorce and the one of his parents. But he wasn’t ready yet.
Before recording his fourth album Gold In The Shadow, Fitzsimmons quit writing music for almost two years, dealing with his inner-self. Now, the new work is the once again beautiful, slightly more instrumented result of this process, the catharsis. We met the artist (who cautiously excuses himself in advance, whenever he’s about to tell one something personal) in Berlin, discussing hitting rock-bottom, turning psychology into art, Sufjan Stevens and living without music.
“It was a wake-up call.”
William, you look thinner than before.
There were good and bad reasons for it. Some were healthy and some were not. Sometimes you go through hard things and get pushed to the site a little bit. But I was a bit too heavy before anyway. I feel better now, more healthy and fresh.
To be really frank here: It’s always slightly comforting myself, that psychologist as you have the same bad habits as “normal” people. But this comes a bit unexpected, since I expected you personally consolidated with the last record. What are the new bad reasons?
It was the time in between. I’d done a lot of work and there’s was an eating disorder for a lot of time in my life. Whenever things are very stressful and hard, I can fall back into that. It’s like a drug. In a way it was good, because they say, you hit bottom and things get pretty dark, but it showed me, that I needed to get help and make some changes. So I did a lot of work again.
Does the album title Gold In The Shadow reference to that?
Yes. I hope, it’s kind of clever and not too simple. It’s the idea of jumping with head first into all the shit, into all the dark stuff and not running away from it anymore. The really funny is thing, that I thought, I would have been already doing this with Sparrow and the Crow. It was still real, I had everything realised and wanted to go through this. But it was just a symptom and never got real help, just telling one story. It was a wake-up call. But if it had not happen, I think, I would have been writing about my next divorce or something. And I don’t think, nobody would need that.
“Nobody listens anymore, we just talk.”
So it was again a second, personal motivation to record an album behind the artistic one, wasn’t it?
Yes, but this time more at the same time than afterwards. Previously I had gone through something and was purging it now. There was the experience and then the album about it. This one was side-by-side. I was writing about this stuff while I was in therapy, trying to change and heal my mind. It didn’t have to wait, but could embrace the whole thing.
Gold in the Shadow follows a certain concept-idea, based on the DSM-IV, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Was the album thereby also a try to face your own work as therapist?
It’s half that and half external, too. A part of the whole process was getting outside of my head for a little bit, because one thing, singer-songwriters are good in, is being really, really self-involved. We love talking about ourselves. It’s okay to share some things, but it’s not really healthy. I wanted to write about this personal struggles and the psychology of them, but the other half is external and made with people I work with, so it’s not just about my share, but other people, too.
Writing about yourself and writing about other people: How much difference lies in these two approaches for you?
It’s really different. Only the emotionality is the same. You can basically write about everything as long as you understand its emotions. If you are a human being and all honest with yourself, you do understand a lot of different things; laws, grief and sadness, joy. You don’t have to go through a disaster to know what pains feel like. Your main goal as a therapist is empathy, living as if you’re in the shoes of the other person. So if you sit there and be client, talking to me about a great nervousness or a fear of snakes, I don’t approach you with sympathy or sadness, but with: How would I feel now, if I was you? Fortunately, I was taught by very talented people doing that. It’s really not that hard with emotions. Most people just don’t spend that much time for it. Nobody listens anymore, we just talk.
William Fitzsimmons : The Tide Pulls From The Moon
Let’s take a look on the person in your chair: How do separate the role of the inquirer as therapist from the role of the object as an artist being interrogated in interviews?
It’s a weird, because it indeed feels a bit backwards. Fortunately, I’m one of this annoying people, who like to hear themselves talk, so I’m very okay with that. And if people say they don’t, then they’re full of shit, because musicians want to get out on stage and play music. The goal of a therapist is to understand, not be understood. That’s the complete opposite of people’s life, because 99 percent of your time you go through it just trying to be understood and no one listens. But that’s why people go to therapy. It’s a bit awkward, but I’ve done that for the people, so I understand what the process is and why it’s a helpful thing. I spent time in both chairs and think, it works best like that.
Do you think, it helps your probable patience approaching you, because they know of this, of your vulnerability?
Absolutely. In fact, this is one of the reasons, why people connect with the music. I might could be wrong about this, but there’s a little of trust there, too, because people are more open to being vulnerable with me and that music because I was a therapist. So they find themselves in a more appropriate place to be more dark and honest.
“I was finished with all this depressing shit, but also afraid about having nothing left to write about.”
How do you secure, that your observations and experiences become lyrical art and don’t tend to be too analytic?
At the very beginning of the new record there was indeed a danger of the latter to happen. It started out really theoretical and scientific as the defence mechanism that’s intellectualisation: You keep everything in your head so it never has to go to heart. But I’m too much an emotional person, that I would ever get to hang up. Quite the contrary, I lean too far in emotional stuff and get too sappy. I was really careful here, pulling it away from being a textbook of diseases.
And musically there’s more instrumentation which also opens the book a bit more.
You have to have both. When Sufjan (Stevens) made the states record, they would be missing something, if they did not have both, the corky, historical stuff and the very emotional things. Both things have to be there, otherwise it would be kind of an empty project.
What do you think was going on inside of him, when he quit his apparently huge project of making a record on every of the 50 US states? It seemed like a life project.
And it would have been incredible. He could have finished the last one at 70. I think, he was serious in the beginning. Ambition often goes with creativity and he’s probably one of the most creative people alive. I don’t know him personally, but I also think, he got a little bit bored. He never wants to do the same thing in a row. Which is kind of a shame, because I guarantee, if he had made ten or fifteen of them, every single one would have been good.
Maybe he should have put out other records in between and give it time.
Right. And probably that’s what he’s doing at the moment, because he could come back at some point. But I doubt that. I’m always talking about writing books instead and I can see him doing that, too, which would be really awful, because we need more of his records.
Because there’s a special cultural need for us in them?
I don’t know. Things get watered down, get deluded. For instance, there was a kind of fear when I was done with the last record, because I was finished with all this depressing shit, but also afraid about having nothing left to write about. By the way, this is a good place to be in life, if you feel, you have nothing to empty out. Sufjan and a small group of others again have so many substance in them.
“The purpose of writing the songs was becoming a better therapist. And it’s the same reason still.”
You grow up with music and probably can’t even imagine life without it. (William: Yes.) Then you turned away from it in your adolescence for a while, before returning soon again, which brings us to the DMS again. It’s actually a quite controversial manual, with experiments like the Rosenhan-one questioning it. Was there ever such event for your relationship towards music, too?
Music used to be a family thing for me and then became a depressing one, because family went to shit. Then all of a sudden music isn’t that great thing anymore. We used to do it together and now we don’t. So I got into music that was a bit louder, harder and faster – not metal, but neither folk. It was just noise. Once I was able balancing these things out and accepting that, I realised, it does not always feel grey. Sometimes Christmas isn’t perfect, but that’s okay. It can still be good and have to get these things together. Maybe this is a bit cheesy, but there’s the Watermelon Principle: If you want to have a watermelon, you have to take some seeds. That’s life, you’ve to deal with it and there are too many good things in it and music to give both up completely.
You wrote about your patients’ struggles first. Is music also a good tool to canalise things?
I did not directly. It was the exercise of me being more emotionally connected to them, so I could help them. But I didn’t play them the songs. But the purpose of writing the songs was becoming a better therapist. And it’s the same reason still. You try to understand yourself and other people better and music is a great vehicle for getting there.
For the end: You’ll play a little set at the Berghain Kantine tonight. The whole complex experiences an almost religious musical devotion, where music becomes not part of your life, put your lifestyle. What do you think about this?
That’s a good question. Music is very powerful and will as I believe be here forever. Nothing could ever replace it. Aber it’s only meant to do certain things and can only go so far. Relationships and people for example will always have music. But the people take it too far, absolutely. A fork, Gabel, is great for eating with, but if you try to build a house it’s shit. You have to use something for the right thing. And music is meant for many, many things, but to make it a religion, your one passion, it’s incomplete.
William Fitzsimmons Gold In The Shadow was released by Grönland / Rough Trade. See here for a previous interview by us with him, here for another rather interesting one by the National Association for Mental Illness called “William Fitzsimmons: From Mental Health to Music” and here for the tape.tv channel with a mixtape, live videos and a tour documentary on Fitzsimmons. If you want to see him live: here are the upcoming dates:
17.06. Dortmund, Konzerthaus
18.06. Neuhausen ob Eck, Southside Festival
19.06. Scheessel, Hurricane Festival
20.06. Brussels, Botanique
25.06. Amsterdam, People’s Place
26.06. Cologne, Gloria
28.06. Berlin, Lido
01.07. Vienna, Jazz-Fest
02.07. Nuremberg, K4 Festsaal
03.07. Frankfurt a.M., Mousonturm
05.07. Graz, Postgarage
08.07. Leipzig, Centraltheater
09.07. Kassel, Kulturzelt Festival