William Fitzsimmons has always been a painfully real songwriter.
A singer whose work draws on his own life, it speaks of joy and fascination, alongside isolation, pain, and grief.
New album 'Mission Bell' emerges from the end of a lengthy relationship, with the initial version of the record being abandoned as his world seemed to collapse.
Heading out to Nashville with producer Adam Landry, they began reconstructing the relationship, cutting each take live to tape.
A remarkably intimate and challenging experience, 'Mission Bell' might well be his finest album yet, a lucid, heady, hugely emotional experience from first note to last.
We invited William Fitzsimmons to discuss a few of his literary influences for Their Library, the writers who inspire his own work...
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What is your favourite book and why?
1984 by George Orwell. It’s actually been my favorite since I first read it in like 10th or 11th grade as a teenager. It was my first foray into anything that had a social/political edge to it, at least in an obvious way. It was also kind of risqué with it’s sexuality and death and mind control themes.
I always resented being forced to read books in school, but that was the first one where I just couldn’t put it down and re-read it immediately after finishing it. I couldn’t get enough.
What other authors do you like?
Honestly my literary heart belongs to the books of my childhood, particularly C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and Tolkeins’ Lord Of The Rings books. My mother used to read the Narnia books to my brother and I at bedtime and I would just get so lost and happy in this fantasy world with talking animals and magic. It made some of the difficult parts of my childhood much easier to handle.
On the opposite side I also adore reading memoirs and experiential books from persons who’ve either struggled with, or worked with, mental illness. It might sound dark, but I’ve had a fascination for a long time with the ways in which the mind can go wrong and turn towards the darkness.
I think when we understand those things better we can learn how to keep ourselves on better paths.
What draws you to certain books?
Honesty, sincerity, and courage to write about things that some people might find uncomfortable or inappropriate or morbid. I like authors to say things that I’m often afraid to say myself. It gives me validation and strength as a songwriter to be willing to express my own thoughts and feelings that I might be terrified to admit out loud.
I like books that are meant to challenge you and your current ways of thinking, not just affirm everything you already think or believe.
Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? What is it and why?
Aside from self-help and science fiction/fantasy books, I tend to gravitate towards books that are already largely considered classics and most people would already be familiar with them. I don’t really trust myself yet to branch out and try to find hidden gems, not at least until I can say I’ve read enough of the great books to have a working knowledge of them.
A couple books I think should be standard reading for every student are The Metamorphosis by Kafka and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. They’re wildly different from each other, but I think they both offer glimpses into the “shadow” side of human experience that most people prefer to avoid. But there’s so much wisdom to be found there!
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
I think they do, but not in a literal, “word for word” way. Not that I don’t find certain phrases or word choices particularly inspirational, because I do! Writers like Steinbeck and Whitman, who can say simple things in beautiful, heart-wrenching ways make me pause in my own writing and ask myself if I’m really finding the absolutely best way to say something. But more than words and phrases, it’s the lack of fear that I find is most impactful for me. It’s easy to say things that mostly everyone agrees with. But to say something that goes directly against the grain is hard! When I read a book that does that, it gives me permission to do the same with a song.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve found that I absorb material best when I’m reading a couple or a few books at the same time. If I read only one, sometimes I just sort of float through it without really appreciating all the details. I just finished The Stranger In The Woods, by Mike Finkel, about a man who lived in the Maine forest for 27 years without human contact.
I’m also reading Comfortable With Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön, a book that’s been incredibly helpful as I’m attempting to heal from some very difficult recent personal issues. Lastly, I’ve been reading several books by John Gottman, a renowned researcher on divorce and marriage. I’m usually a little bit all over the place, haha!
What is the first book you remember reading as a child? It was probably this little picture/word book my grandmother bought me about Bible stories. David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, etc... It had these wonderful little cartoon drawings and I remember sitting on my bedroom floor pouring over that as I was just learning to read.
Did you make good use of your library card when you were younger?
I LOVED going to the library and checking out books! We lived in a pretty small town, 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, but we had this amazing old library that was pretty massive for the size of our town. My mom would walk my brother and I down there in the summers and we could check out like five books at one time.
It felt like Christmas morning. I can remember when they got these Star Wars novels that had the coolest cover art on them! The older I got the more active I got into sports and going out with friends, but there were always special quiet moments at home with a good book.
Have you ever found a book that you simply couldn’t finish?
Finnegan’s Wake by Joyce and Moby Dick by Mellville. Moby Dick is so great in certain parts! So detailed and expansive! I tried to read it twice, both while on tour, and I just gave up about half way through. I love language, but at some point I think Melville was just taking too long to get to the point!
Likewise, I’ve attempted Finnegan’s Wake several times, and I fully recognize Joyce as a genius, but to me it’s just completely unreadable. Some people will be furious at me for saying that, but if I recall correctly many of his contemporaries felt the same! (E.g. Virginia Wolfe).
Do you read book reviews?
I will read books reviews, but only sometimes. If I’m looking for a book on self-improvement and there’s several options to choose from, I think it’s smart to get some wisdom from someone who knows about the subject better than I do. But, there are also times when I think it’s actually a mistake to color your experience with someone else’s opinions before allowing yourself to form your own ideas.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
Absolutely! I’ve read several books many times. Catcher In The Rye, Animal Farm, The Chronicles Of Narnia, The Great Gatsby, etc... I think at different points in your life your able to understand things that you’re not at earlier stages.
If you only allow yourself to experience certain books once, you’ll never get everything from it which it has to offer. I think exactly the same about music. How differently do I understand Joni Mitchell’s 'Blue' as an adult with children than I did as a teenager!
Have you ever identified with a character in a book?
As weird as it may sound, I don’t think I ever really have! At least not in some really powerful way. Not that I haven’t in small ways; the character Edmund, from the Narnia series is so selfish and flawed, I think I always felt that way as a child. I knew I had the capacity to do good, but I often found myself making poor decisions. His path from bratty, angry child to humble strong young man is sincerely quite moving to me.
Is there an author or poet you would like to collaborate with?
I think it would have been so cool to write songs with Tolkien! Of course he wrote countless songs in his books, albeit without accompaniment or specific melodies. But to be able to sit with him and but music to these astounding word pictures would have been incredibly fun. Truthfully, though, I think I’d be too scared to write with someone who was so proficient and powerful with language.
Anything I would say would probably sound like a child’s words to them!
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'Mission Bell' will be released on September 21st.
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