The child of two blind parents, folk/electronic singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist William Fitzsimmons worked as a mental health therapist before turning to full-time music making. His first two albums, 2005’s “Until When We Are Ghosts” and 2006’s “Goodnight” were entirely self-produced in his home, and it wasn’t until last year that he ventured into a studio to record “The Sparrow and the Crow” with producer Marshall Altman. Known for his deeply personal lyrics, Fitzsimmons’ last two albums were written about his parents’ divorce and his own, respectively. Now, he’s recorded his own haunting cover of Kanye West‘s “Heartless,” which Billboard.com exclusively debuts here. Fitzsimmons is currently touring all over the country, and talked to Billboard.com about the unexpected song and how it fits with the rest of his work.
You’re obviously well-known for your own songwriting, what was it about Kanye’s “Heartless” that made you want to perform it?
I’ve really always just wanted to get into top-40 hip-hop, as you can tell by the stuff I’ve done before, it’s the natural next step [laughs]. But really, I’m drawn to anything that has a melancholic chord to it, and that song certainly has one. And there’s something sort of fun of finding that, especially a song that people sort of don’t take to be that serious, not that it’s not a wonderful song-it’s sort of in the vein of Jose Gonzales, who did a cover of one of Kylie Minogue‘s old songs called “Hand on your Heart.” And it’s straight up kind of bubble-gum pop, but the way he does it is he kind of rips the production to shreds, and it’s actually kind of a heartbreaking and sweet and poignant song. I think that’s true about “Heartless,” and was maybe lost on some people, because it’s Kanye and everything and the way it was produced.
Was there anything that you wanted to come through in your own interpretation that isn’t in the original?
I wanted it to be far less compelling, I really think I achieved that goal. I wanted to take something exciting and really make it boring. I think it would be great if you quoted a lot of these sarcastic things as straightforward and serious. No, I think I guess it was the pain in the song. I know that seems a bit obvious, but that was something that was a little bit lost on me until I really listened to it. I mean, even some of the lyrics are sort of goofy, which I think he did on purpose-there’s the line “how could you be so Dr. Evil,” that’s kind of ridiculous. But I think he’s almost making light of the fact that there was real heartbreak there. I feel it’s a bit like the teacher that whispers instead of yelling, I think you can kind of get your point across with more reservedness than straightforwardness sometimes.
Turning to your own writing, you studied mental health counseling before you became a full-time musician, does that affect your writing at all? Your music is very therapeutic in a way.
They really are connected. I like to think of myself as still being more involved in therapy than anything else. That was my real dream. I mean I love being a musician and I’m terribly lucky and all those things, but I spent the great majority of my adolescent and adult life preparing to do something that I stepped away from very abruptly. So I didn’t want to feel like that was wasted, and I kind of felt like it was my responsibility to make the two work together. And I don’t think I’m unique in that, I think a lot of people provide that for other people without making it expressed, but I like to give people the outright permission to access the music in that way, to bring their own shit to it and figure out what they need. We all use music for that. That’s what it still offers to me, both when I’m listening to other people and when I’m writing. And it’s very humbling–without exception, every single show, I have people come up to me and share, it gets a little heavy after a while, they share pretty dark stories, and how the music has helped them. And really there’s very little difference between what I’m doing now and what I was doing when I was counseling, it’s just a difference in numbers, there was one person or a couple of people in the room then.The themes of your music are very personal, and you produced your first two records entirely yourself at home, but “The Sparrow and the Crow” was done in a studio and more collaborative-has bringing other people into the process changed the way you approach writing or arranging, or the way you think about how people are going to interact with your music?
It did change some things. I was very opinionated about these songs, more so than with some stuff before, because of the subject matter, I felt like it had to be a certain way because I was trying to communicate things more so even than in previous work. And Marshall and I actually fought a lot, pretty much every day. You know producers can be very stubborn sons of bitches, and that’s good, that means they’re confident and they know what they’re doing, and artists can as well. That was a new thing for me–obviously before if I didn’t like the way something sounded I just didn’t do it. So there was a lot of compromise that took place. And the cool thing, the reason I think I’m going to be more drawn to working with other people from now on, is the whole gestalt thing, that the whole is greater than the some of its parts. It wasn’t always pleasant, but you know I think records that are pleasant to make, especially for this kind of material, I don’t think they’d be as good as they should be.
Your most recent studio album came out last year and you’re on the road right now, are you writing for a future album, or can you tell me anything about the direction your next release might take?
I don’t like writing without a specific reason to write, I know that it’s sort of become my job to do that, not to sound ungrateful but I have a bit of distaste for that because I’ve never had to do that before. But luckily, I’m a pretty well enough disturbed person that there’s plenty of material, and everybody’s family is crazy so I can keep digging into that well. No, I’ve recently come upon some ideas that I think will come upon as lovely muses for new things. One thing I do want to move away from, I don’t want to make another divorce record, I’ve made two of those, and I think the world has had enough. Or maybe I don’t know, maybe I’ll just keep doing that and that will be my thing. No one gets sick of that, right? No, I have some ideas, it will be different, god help me if it’s not. As for timing, I do have to set deadlines for myself–I’m home for a couple months after this tour, I’ll probably try to do a lot of writing then and then hopefully try to record and put out a new full-length some time next year. “Heartless” will just be released as a single, unless I feel like dropping another nine hip-hop jams. No, that would not be awesome in any way.