William Fitzsimmons

William Fitzsimmons

William Fitzsimmons is equal parts songwriter and psychotherapist, creating captivating music, which uniquely melds depravity, honesty, and autobiography into a counter-intuitive seamless whole. Since 2005, Fitzsimmons has created three full-length albums, each thoroughly themed and embossed with matters of family history, intimate disclosure, and bold confession, yielding rich folk music, ranging from the stark and acoustic to the voluminous and electronic. All the while reflecting William's commitment to addressing what is always pressing, and yet all too often ignored.

Fitzsimmons' path into music came at the influence and education of his parents, both of whom filled his childhood home with a myriad of instruments, sing-a-longs, and theoretical instruction. However, far from being a mere pastime in the Fitzsimmons' household, music was a communicative necessity between William and his parents, both of whom being blind, relied on the language of music to bridge the relational gap between themselves and a child who experienced the world entirely differently from them.

During his collegiate and post-graduate years, Fitzsimmons left music behind in order to pursue a career in the mental health field; becoming a therapist was a long-held aspiration. Upon completion of a Master's Degree in counseling, he worked as a therapist with the severely mentally ill for several years. It was during the latter part of his training that he began to write songs as both a preparative exercise for his work in the psychiatric field, and as a personal catharsis to deal with his own long-standing psychological maladies.

His first two albums, homemade and self-produced, were expositions on both his unorthodox upbringing and his family's disintegration during his youth. Their understated presentation and overt descriptions of relational and familial disillusionment met quickly and potently with listeners. Very soon thereafter, still working within psychology, William found his songs spreading broadly and being featured on national television programs. However, the process of such revelatory writing and rumination was taking a gradual and heavy toll. During the making of the Goodnight album, Fitzsimmons saw most of the segments of his life begin to tear asunder.

Fitzsimmons' third effort, 2008's The Sparrow and the Crow, was a detailed and afflictive retelling of the events surrounding his divorce from his wife of nearly ten years. Written as a personal apology to her, the album is a foreboding but genuine tale of misfortune and a reconciling of the darkest point of his life. It was named iTunes' Best Folk Album of that same year. Following the release of Sparrow, William would take a moratorium from songwriting for over two years.

Fitzsimmons' new release, Gold In The Shadow, is a musical reflection of the personal resuscitation and psychological renovation, which took place in the years following his divorce. Based on a specific set of psychopathological disorders from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV), he describes the songs as "a real and long coming confrontation with personal demons, past mistakes, and the specter of mental illness that has hovered over me for the great majority of my life." However, whereas nearly the whole of William's previous albums have dealt with the bleak and somber side of inter- and intrapersonal disaster, Gold is a work focused on healing. William continues: "I had reached the point where I was either going to yield to my sicknesses or engage them headlong. In either case, I could no longer continue the way I was."

Gold In The Shadow represents a welcomed musical departure, not from authenticity in writing, but in the field of focus. It is a return to his pre-music therapeutic passions, but with one eye now fixated on actual and optimistic change. It is ripe with personal elements, but also represents his first foray into external perspective taking; examining the lives and psychological struggles of those around him in addition to his own. It is an acknowledgment of the shadow self and the Todestrieb (Freud's "death instinct"); but, even still and more so, an acceptance of hope.

It's a line from Denison Witmer's latest album, Denison Witmer, but it's also the lesson that the acoustic singer-songwriter has learned from his first fifteen years of underground success. The release of his self-titled disc—his tenth full-length—comes as an occasion to reflect on what he's learned from a career in music: to be patient, to trust in happy accidents, and to admit every once in a while that he isn't totally in control.

In a way, even the start of his musical career was an accident. Hoping to print a hundred or so copies of his first CD, Safe Away (1998), a teenaged Denison found himself stuck with ten times that many, and went on his first tour in an attempt to keep the extras from going to waste. He sold the whole thousand, including one copy that found its way into the hands of the Burnt Toast Vinyl label, and a recording project intended for a tiny audience turned into a full-fledged album release.

The title of his seventh album, Are You a Dreamer? (Militia, 2005), offers a clue to Denison's songwriting process.  According to Denison, music—or life—is sometimes like a dream, the connections between one idea and another, or one moment and the next, making sense on an intuitive level rather than a rational one.

But that's the beauty of a dream:  "I like it when things don't necessarily add up," says Denison, "and I'm okay with that, when things spin a little bit out of control."  And when his songwriting follows along with that intuitive logic, "instead of necessarily guiding it," he says, "for me, those have always been the most successful moments creatively."

But calamity struck while Denison was working on the follow-up to his eighth album, 2008's Carry the Weight (Militia). His father fell terminally ill, and Denison took a break from music-making in order to care for him.  He helped friend and producer Devin Greenwood build the Honey Jar, a recording studio in Brooklyn, and when he finally returned to finish the EP he had started recording, he instead found himself putting together enough material for a full-length—The Ones Who Wait (Asthmatic Kitty, 2012)—a whole album created, in a sense, by accident.

Co-owning a studio has made it possible for him to create a recording using the same intuitive processes that drive his songwriting, rather than showing up with a strict plan for his time in the studio, to bring in trusted collaborators like Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens, and Rosie Thomas, and give them free reign to realize his music.  It has given him the control he needs, in other words, to relinquish control.

For Denison Witmer, Denison takes the same spirit of quiet acceptance that he has brought to life's mysteries, happy accidents, and even calamities, and turns it towards—as the title might suggest—himself. Citing inspirations as different as Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and the life of knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey, he reflects on the life he's led, from his earliest days on the road.

"One day I put out an album, and then I was packing up my car and going on tour.  Then ten years in," he says, "I was still doing the same thing."  The song "Constant Muse" is about those first years:  "I think it's the most direct song on this album, about deciding to keep doing something that chose me, rather than I chose it—and now, choosing it."

Having lost a father, Denison is now father to a son of his own, named Asa, and the new album looks towards the future as much as it reflects upon the past. In another one of those happy accidents, a friend introduced him to a song called "Asa" that just happens to weave the name's different meanings ("healer" in Hebrew, "morning" in Japanese, and so on) into the album's themes of comfort and consolation.

In an age of flashy pop hits that give off more light than heat, Denison's music is, like his career, a slow burn, but it offers an enduring warmth. He makes "quiet music" (his words), intimate and introspective, that trusts his audience to bring something of themselves to it.

It's an open-ended, patient approach to songwriting. "You could be whatever you want," goes the first verse of Denison Witmer's "Made Out for This"—"but I know that you're feeling older." It could be addressed to the listener, or to a lover, or even to Denison himself. But the second verse sounds less like a love song than a hymn: "I follow the light as it moves," Denison sings, "And I'm still making my way back to the river." And while the verses offer reassurance, the refrain is nagged by doubt: "What if I'm just not made out for this?"

He doesn't offer easy answers.  "I guess what's encouraging to me," says Denison, "is that you hear sometimes people, who you never thought they had any doubts about what they're doing, have some doubts."

At the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, given a chance to survey the work of one of his artistic heroes, Denison experienced a small epiphany: no one ever thinks of the obscure, early paintings when they think of the name Van Gogh, but those famous, late masterpieces would have been impossible without them.  Even when he was making drawings for art school, Van Gogh was already Van Gogh.

"Looking over the arc of a career, there are moments when you got it right and moments where you didn't," says Denison. "For me, music's always about the process.  It's not always about the final product; it's more about the journey.  You work song by song and album by album in pursuit of something—I really try to trust that approach."

Denison Witmer, the album, brings Denison Witmer, the artist, one step closer to that something.

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William Fitzsimmons with Denison Witmer

Thursday, November 21 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM at Doug Fir Lounge