Pair a singer-songwriter like William Fitzsimmons with a veteran indie-rock producer like Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla in the studio and there are bound to be high expectations. Will Fitzsimmons' acoustic folk roots be maintained? Will Walla exert enough influence that we see the birth of William Fitzsimmons: Indie Rock God? Will there be a meeting of the minds somewhere in the middle? And does it even matter who "wins" in the end, as long as the album is a good one?
Fitzsimmons' new album, Lions, is his most daring, emotional work yet, but writing and recording the record was almost like an out-of-body experience since he was not the main focus of all the songs. Ahead of his show this Friday at the Kessler, Fitzsimmons spoke with the Observer about balancing expectations versus reality, stealing a song from his wife and how crucial it is to let the songs be what they want to be.
DC9 at Night: You've talked in other interviews about being a background character on this album. Was it hard to write from that perspective?
Fitzsimmons: I don't think it was that hard. What was going on in my life at the time was so much not about me that it wouldn't have made sense. It would have felt really artificial to put myself in the center of the story.
What led you to write "Speak?"
That's a special one for me. [Laughs] That's actually a cover song, believe it or not. My wife wrote that and I sort of stole that from her. It's weird too because it was a full song and we tried to record it not as a ballad, but just straightforward with drums and everything and it just wasn't working. Chris (Walla) and I almost gave up on that song. We both loved it, but it just wasn't working. We were on a break, and I went in and sat down at the piano and just started playing those two chords over and over again, recorded it on the tape machine, looped it and went from there.
What helped you turn the corner on that song?
We had to let go of the idea of controlling the song. It had its own idea of what it wanted to be. I know that sounds a little wonky or esoteric, but it's the truth. Sometimes the songs are really very particular about how they want to come out. Everybody has family baggage and stuff, but that one is a lot of history in a very short number of words for me.
Is it hard being able to make that choice? Or is it easy to let the songs be what they are?
Before I was medicated it was really hard. [Laughs] It was extremely difficult to the point where I would do four or five versions of a song and still wouldn't be happy. But there's something about working with Chris and the state of mind I was in that I just never once really worried about it. I was happy the whole way through. There were moments where things weren't working. We had to change things, but there was never one moment where I had second thoughts.
Do those compromises make the record feel any less like it's "yours?"
I'm sure at some point I'll listen to these songs and think, "Ah, we should have done that," but more than any of the other ones, it feels like we just let it be what it was... Of course you want people to like it and buy it -- I've got mouths to feed at home! -- but from an artistic perspective, you can't worry about it anyway. It's out of your control, so you do the best you can. You play until you're moved by it, and then you just hope that somebody will feel the same way.
What was it like to work with Walla?
I never would have thought I'd have the opportunity to work with him. It was wonderful. I've been a pretty geeky fan of his work, on both sides of the recordings. It was amazing. It was not exactly what I thought it was going to be. I was going to one of the best guys in indie rock, and I sort of thought I'd come out with an indie rock record on the other side of it, but that didn't happen at all. I couldn't be more happy about that, but day one, I was...I don't know if bummed is the right word, but I was sort of surprised it wasn't going in that direction.
What was his vision like for the record then?
He encouraged me to let the songs lead the way, and we kept going back to the demos, because that's why he wanted to do the record in the first place. He didn't know about my music beforehand or anything. It was just those 12 or 13 songs I had sent him. That's what he was jiving with. He wanted to capture that. He didn't want to take control of the wheel.
You're part of an industry that feels less and less like it is about creating art and more about image. What keeps you coming back and fighting for your artistic integrity?
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I'm just trying to get paid. [Laughs] But seriously, I have learned to not criticize anybody for the path they're taking. In fact, I really have a lot of respect for people who are honest about it. Someone like Katy Perry, like her music or not, she's not being dishonest about what she's doing: she's trying to entertain people and make them happy. Of course it's a brand thing and an image thing, but she's not lying about that. The only time I have distaste is whenever the lines are getting blurred and people are trying to sell something that's not what they are. It's why most of the music I listen to is written by the people who are singing it.
Is artistic integrity something you consider with your own music?
The thing I try to think about is making a decision that I'm going to be fine with in ten years. That's the new rule for me. If it's like a movie or TV show that's like, "Hey, we want to use this song," as long as it's not something that I would be ashamed to tell my mom about, I think it's fine. If I can look back on it and be proud of it, then that's cool. And I've already made mistakes in doing that, but I'm grateful for those too. It's nice to know that you can fuck up and still keep going and do better the next time.
WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS plays with Leif Vollebekk on Friday, May 30 at 7 p.m. at Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St. $20-27.50