Over the course of his career, William Fitzsimmons has made his living writing a specific brand of honest and inward-looking folk songs that fearlessly and candidly examine the evolving self while dexterously communicating his talent for robust melodies and catchy instrumentation. That the subject matter tends to dwell on the darker parts of human existence and relationships is no coincidence.
“I get that question all the time: ‘You ever gonna write some happy music?’” Fitzsimmons says. “There are a million different good answers—to paraphrase Ani DiFranco, ‘When I’m happy I just want to live, I don’t want to write about it’—all that’s true. Personally, my job description when it was handed to me, for whatever reason, was: ‘You need to write about the hard shit.’ It became my responsibility. It might sound a little egotistical, and I don’t mean it to, but it’s just my job. That’s what I do, and I do it well. So, I write ‘sad music’; if that’s how someone wants to categorize it, that’s fine. But if you look a little deeper, I think there’s a lot more going on.”
Beginning with his debut album Until When We Are Ghosts, Fitzsimmons has released nearly a dozen full-length, EP, and live records of profound and intensely personal material. When it comes to his songwriting, nothing in his private life is off limits: he has written about being raised by disabled parents, experiencing two divorces, adopting his two children, and working with the mentally ill as a mental health therapist prior to his music career. His 2018 album, Mission Bell, chronicled his separation from his then-wife caused by her infidelity; when he realized that, despite their attempts to save the marriage, the split was destined to be permanent, he began work on a new album as a response to both the imminent divorce as well as his own turbulent behavioral reaction. Now, Fitzsimmons is set to release Ready the Astronaut as a powerful testament to his own past, and by weaving his story through the familiar tale of Icarus, he illustrates his willingness to accept his life’s highs and lows by paying tribute to the influence they have on the future.
Following an earnest attempt at reconciliation with his ex that included a move to Nashville for a fresh start with their two children as well as couples counseling, Fitzsimmons found the marriage at a point beyond salvation. He sat down with his classical guitar in the house they shared and began plucking out a three-chord cyclical vamp, playing it over and over for an hour. The imagery for title track “Ready the Astronaut” came to him in a flash (“still I am running scared/cursed with a living ghost/still I’m afraid to fall/ready the astronaut/I’m never coming home”), detailing a metaphor Fitzsimmons has been drawn to since his childhood.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the astronaut thing,” he says. “When I was a kid, the idea of escaping my situation was attractive. Having disabled parents, being fat, being a band nerd and made fun of on the bus every morning…I wanted to escape the corporeal realm, to escape my body and my family. The farthest you can get is putting on a space suit and getting the hell out of Dodge. Somewhere that was always in the back of my head. And in that moment in Nashville, at 41 years old and already through one divorce, I had thought this was the relationship that was gonna fix everything. And all of a sudden everything was happening all over again; I was right back to where I started, again. That was an overwhelmingly bad feeling and I just wanted to escape. The album was born out of wanting to not have to live over the same mistakes that I had made so many times already.”
Compared to his usual creative bursts, the rest of the songs came to him more slowly and deliberately—due in part to the subject matter, perhaps, but also to circumstance. Once the marriage had been determined unfixable, Fitzsimmons found himself on tour and decided to treat himself to what he refers to as his “rock and roll walkabout”—a time of unapologetic excess, something the man who had first married at age 19 had never experienced. It was at this point that the theme of the Icarus myth first entered his mind for the album: rather than putting his feet on the ground to take stock of his life and start over, Fitzsimmons instead resolved to fly. But just as the mythological son of Daedalus was advised to not soar too high for fear of melting his wax wings in the sun, the musician, too, soon discovered his own flight had not allowed for proper preparation. And what’s more, a commonly overlooked moral of the Icarus tale is that the character was also warned to not fly too low in order to avoid the salt in the sea destroying the wings’ plumage—another shared detail Fitzsimmons would soon discover in his own story.
“I was having a blast, but it was extreme and I hadn’t allowed myself the chance to heal,” he says. “My life has always been very up and very down. In fact, ‘down’ is a common theme in the record. The Icarus myth is usually abbreviated as a moral against pride, but the idea of ‘ascension-ism’—that I’m going to be greater and go farther than anyone thinks is possible—also includes the idea that there’s a crash coming. Even while I was living in this self-destructive way, I just didn’t care—if I couldn’t have what I wanted then I was gonna watch myself and the whole world around me burn. So some of the songs are about me coming to terms with the end of not just the marriage but the end of the life that I thought I was gonna have, and the other half is about those experiences after the fact, when I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t. There were a lot of crashes, but even that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Relocating to the small town of Jacksonville, Illinois, Fitzsimmons continued writing in response to those major life events. While Mission Bell had served as a more visceral, gut reaction to the preliminary breakup and also included a sense of hope for the relationship’s future, new songs like “Dancing on the Sun,” “Down with Another One,” and “You Let Me Down” began to lend a heavier tone to the new work, representing a more complete and total response to the finality of it all. To the songwriter, there is some sadness in the album, as well as anger, betrayal, indignation, and frustration, but there is also plenty of resignation and peace—qualities he identifies as among his favorites in any piece of music. “To Love Forever,” which ends the record, exemplifies that sense of resigned complacency by identifying a love that has run its course. And the seven-minute long “Daedalus, My Father” is a cyclical, confessional exercise with only a single chord change to lend it a sense of slow acceleration, but by its end the song reaches a moment of clarity that echoes in both the singer and the listener’s minds. The balance achieved in the process suggests that the singer has reached that ideal flying height Daedalus wanted Icarus to follow for a proper escape—somewhere in between the sun and the surf, not too high yet not too low.
“Both of those things are very dangerous,” Fitzsimmons says. “Daedalus was right; there’s a middle, a balance, where the peace is. Religions call it different things. That’s why I’m in therapy, why I write, why I journal: I want the balance. I don’t want the extreme depravity, nor do I need the heights or the adulation. To me, even the hard shit, the bad shit, is a part of the orchestra, and I want to hear it all. That’s what’s going to help me be a good person, a good dad, a good partner. A lot of the writing is about me being OK with who I am and giving myself permission to be happy. I’d been living a fantasy about what mattered, what happiness was supposed to look like. I’m happier when I look at the truth: two divorces; lots of mistakes. But I’m doing OK now. I think life gave me a few more colors to mix with, but my goal as a songwriter hasn’t changed. I want somebody to hear this record and for them to feel something so strongly that it disturbs them in a healthy way. I want to disrupt the heart in a way that can help somebody get through something. Honestly, I don’t think that’s ever gonna change. I was hired to do this job, and I’m gonna do it until I’m dead.”