How Having Blind Parents Created Empathy in William Fitzsimmons' Music

William Fitzsimmons' unruly beard belies his gentle songwriting.
William Fitzsimmons' unruly beard belies his gentle songwriting.
Erin Brown

From the time we are thrust into the world and make an attempt to find our place in it, we have to seek ways to be seen and heard by those around us. The things we say, the words we write, and the clothes we wear help to us to not only differentiate ourselves from others but allow us unique self-expression. For William Fitzsimmons, the bearded singer-songwriter from Jacksonville, Illinois, his attempts to be seen by his parents were musical in nature. His mother and father are blind. Both were struggling musicians, and they passed on their love and knowledge of all things melodic to their son.

"There was no disability with music," Fitzsimmons recalls. "It was something we [all] could share. It was a purely good thing. I don't know if I would ever pick up a guitar if it weren't for my folks."

As Fitzsimmons grew up, his struggle to understand others rather than himself became a prevalent theme. As he started writing his own songs in his 20s, Fitzsimmons was working on a master's degree in the field of counseling. He worked as a mental health therapist but was writing introspective folks songs influenced by the music his mother had exposed him to as a child.

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"I don't know if I was ready to be a therapist when I was doing it," he says. "I enjoyed it. I think I was okay doing it. I think I was a little too wet behind the ears and a little too young to understand the privilege that it is to speak with somebody in their struggles. It is a burden, but I think I understand it a little bit more now. I kind of get to sit a little more in that space now as a writer. We look to artists a lot of times to help get us through difficult circumstances. When somebody comes up to me after a show and tells me something really personal and how one of my songs was involved or helpful in that, that's me being a counselor. Maybe from afar, but I covet that responsibility and I've become quite addicted to it. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't able to reach people that way."

The poetry of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and the storytelling ability of James Taylor helped him find a way to relate to his mother, and also helped him find his own voice.

"My mother and I still have the same taste in music. It's pretty neat to experience that," he says.

As he's grown as a songwriter, the music has become less about him and more about his compassion for others.

"When I'm at my best, it's less about me expressing myself," Fitzsimmons says of his songwriting and performance style. "When I wrote my first song in my early 20s, it was completely about me. I don't feel like doing that anymore. I find other people a lot more interesting that just one person's story."

When Fitzsimmons is onstage, he has the ability to be seen and heard in a way that would give his contemporaries pause. His confessional yet humorous banter between songs helps the audience to not only to understand where Fitzsimmons is coming from, but also to recognize what makes his songs resonate so strongly with them in the first place. Growing up with two people with a heightened sense of hearing gives a possible explanation to the hushed and intimate performance style Fitzsimmons has developed over the years. His tall, lanky body doesn't match the subdued, melodic tones that come from his mouth, but when they hit your ears, you have to take heed.

"You can grab certain people's attention by speaking softly," he says. "You can get people's attention when you yell, but it doesn't put people's heart in a receptive place.

"It's tempting [to be loud], but whenever I step into that territory, all of a sudden the feelings that I am trying to communicate get really, really muddy. They get really covered up, and I don't know why that is. It might just be that I never learned to speak that language, but every time I try to put myself into that space, it just kind of goes off the rails. It's not until I rein it back in to a quieter place that I can remember what I was trying to communicate in the first place."  

Last year brought the release of Fitzsimmons' album Lions. Produced by former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, the record's 12 tracks contrast with the artist's previous work by focusing less on his self-described "sad bastard" songs ("It's my favorite genre," he quips) that won him acclaim in folk and indie rock circles and more on the drastic changes that have occurred in his life the past few years. In that time, Fitzsimmons has become the adoptive father of two young girls, and the song "Took" references their biological mother with the lyrics, "How we break long division / I will miss all her children / Fall from grace and your favor / From now on only stranger."

Being a father hasn't cramped Fitzsimmons' style as a working musician. In fact, he has enjoyed having his children nearby as he finishes work on his next album at his home studio.

"I loved it when I grew up having the pianos in the living room. My mom's guitar was always strewn about on the couch. The pipe organ was right there. That was such a neat thing for me. My nearly 3-year‑old daughter will come up and play the xylophone or strum one of the guitars or something. I love that. That's how it should be. Of course, I have this little dream of me and the whole family onstage doing The Sound of Music family thing with my daughter on the drums or the keys or something weird like that. I want them to at least appreciate it. I would never force them into playing music. I like the idea of approaching art, and music specifically, as something that really does need to be treasured in a different way than most other things."

While Fitzsimmons and his mother treasured and bonded over the same taste in music, his father's tastes focused more on classical music. Does his father like the musical output his son has produced?

"He doesn't dislike it, he would never listen to that kind of music if I wasn't his son. He's super-proud of me. There's a part of him that wishes he could have done this. We get to share being a working musician."

William Fitzsimmons is scheduled to perform Friday, February 20, at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater

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