For Illinois-based singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons, writing and recording his newest release, critically acclaimed record Mission Bell, took him on a dark, winding, and ultimately cathartic journey as he wrote and recorded, scrapped, and re-wrote and re-recorded the entire album.
Facing a separation from his wife and the challenge of recording an album from top to bottom on analog gear, Fitzsimmons was forced to dig deep and challenge his views on love, loneliness, and letting go. A hushed reminiscing of regret, mistakes, and what he so aptly describes as “survival mode,” Mission Bell shares some of Fitzsimmon’s most intimate lyrics yet, offering listeners a glimpse into the life of a man who finds himself standing alone at the end of the day.
We sat down with Fitzsimmons to talk heartbreak, the songwriting process, and how genuinely terrifying it is to record an album fully analog. For longtime fans, it’ll make you love him even more, and for new listeners, we guarantee it will send you running to put Mission Bell on repeat.
To get started, let’s dive into your songwriting process. This is your first analog-tracked album, right? I’d imagine the songwriting process for that would be different than it would be for something where you’d be writing and producing more at the same time.
Yeah, this one was different for a couple reasons. One, the analog thing, which is massive. I’m very much ingrained in the digital side of music production. I adore hardware, gear…I love microphones, I love guitars, I love preamps, I love compressors, but, by and large, since day one, I’ve been doing stuff on a computer. The analog thing, it was terrifying.
I’d done a little tiny bit with Chris Walla when we did Lions, but it was one or two tracks on one song. And I was like, “No, not gonna do that, man!” It’s just too scary, when you go from being able to make as many mistakes as you want, and have as many tries to get it right.
But it really is true — Chris taught me this, and Adam Landry, the producer that made Mission Bell with me — that it’s specifically those limitations that actually make the opportunity for something special. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be special; you could totally mess it up. But just having the limited number of tracks, you can’t just fuck around the whole time. You either get into it and sing it how it needs to be sung, or you don’t. We can’t cut and paste the whole thing.
In terms of production, that was really neat. Even in terms of life lessons and spiritual growth, just accepting the idea that perfection’s not the goal was big. That’s where I get stuck, and that’s where the last couple EPs I did, I think they’re missing an element of heart and soul and performance.
I still like them a lot, I really do, but any guitar, any vocal you hear on that, it’s probably a comp of anywhere from five to ten separate takes, and with the specific intention of getting it right, getting it perfect, not having performance but literally just hitting notes or playing in time. And that’s not what makes people feel things.
It’s so interesting to me because, until about 15 years ago, that wouldn’t have even been a way of thinking about music. Analog just has the tendency to accentuate performance and feeling, whereas digital is all about, “Does it quantitatively line up with the beat? Is it on the right pitch?”
Right. It’s all those things that you can measure that don’t necessarily have the feelings with them.
Right, right, right. And it’s not to say that it can’t coexist. There’s overlap. I was literally jamming out to Taylor Swift with my four-year-old daughter in the car today, and the production on that, it’s incredibly clean, but it feels great. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel certain things that, say, a Neil Young record might make me feel, but it makes me feel things, and it’s nice that I know that the kick and the snare are gonna hit exactly on the beat.
But for what I’m doing, I got worse and worse with it. It got to the point that, on the first version of this record, we gridded the drums. We had live drums that sounded great. They had real performance and pocket to them, and we gridded them. It’s like we took everything that was special about them and turned them into zeroes and ones, and just pasted them on like it was a robot doing it. It ruined something. It took something away.
What was the impetus for you for giving analog a try for this album?
The only reason that analog happened is because I got hooked up with Adam Landry, who essentially was given the responsibility of rescuing these songs and saving this project from the brink. And also me not really having any emotional capacity to care. Seriously, if I had been more in my neurotic self, if I hadn’t been so exhausted spiritually and emotionally, I think I probably would have been like, “No, I can’t do that. That’s not how I do it.”
But I really just didn’t. To me, it was like, “I just wanna record these songs. They mean something to me, and I have to finish them. I have to prove that they’re mine.”
Honestly, he could’ve said he wanted to do it outside and I would have been like, “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s just do the songs.” I felt the most unhinged that I ever have, but it wasn’t out of bravery. It was out of complete resignation.
Where did the resignation come from? You reached a point where you were just exhausted with the songs?
It’s not a happy story, but it’s a true one. I’ll give you the nickel version with the understanding that these things are always more complicated. As you know, human beings are not just one thing.
But I was making the record. I was co-producing it with a friend of mine who had been in my band for about five years. He’s a drummer, multi-instrumentalist…he does everything. I built a home studio in my house; it was really nice, and instead of going and renting time in a studio, it was like, “I’m just gonna use this money and make something really special that’s right there in the house.”
So over the course of a few months, we made the record together, and then, at the end of the project, before it was mixed, it was made clear to me that he and my wife had been having a relationship during the course of making that record.
That’s the reason why the record — the original version of it — had to go in the garbage can. Because I never would have been able to listen to those songs or play them in those forms. You know what I mean?
There’s a million, a billion things that I didn’t say about the backstory to give you more context, but for the purpose of the music, I didn’t abandon the songs because I loved them and I thought they were special. But they needed to be rewritten.
That’s so tough. What was the rewriting process like? How long was the gap between when they were initially written and when you actually went back?
This is something I’d never done before. I am like, religiously opposed to rewriting songs, half out of laziness and half out of the idea that there’s a reason why you said what you did when you wrote it.
That’s not to say that I don’t edit as I go. That’s not to sound stupid. I scratch it out and I come up with a different lyric, either that day, or week, or month. But these ones, they were already telling the story, and — at the risk of sounding romantic, or anti-romantic — there were things coming out from my subconscious in the writing that I wasn’t even really aware of consciously.
So I didn’t have to do a great deal of rewriting. Most of the songs survived, but the lyrics on just about all of them changed.
What kind of time frame did that happen in?
I took a break. It was a few months; it was like a survival situation. We’ve got kids and there are more important things than music in those moments. Even if I wanted to touch a guitar, I couldn’t go in the studio. I mean, I’m still living in that house. It wasn’t gonna happen quickly.
I had many conversations with everybody: my manager, my lawyer, the label. Everybody was really supportive. There were attempts on their parts — understandable, and kind — to salvage that record. They were like, “Well, maybe, what if we just…can we keep some of it?”
Because all the money had been spent. There’s a timeline when you do these things. Record labels, they’re not like me. They don’t think of tomorrow; they’re looking 18 months out for different things. But both labels, in Europe and here, were very supportive when I said, “A., I can’t ever…this record is completely in the garbage can, and B., I am in no shape to try to fix this anytime soon.”
So I’d say it was probably three months or so. It was nice to wake up and all of the sudden, those feelings that you’d been processing for those many weeks are ready to have some expression. I would just sit outside with the guitar and play them.
There’s no magic in it for me. The music sets an emotional foundation. It’s not about forcing words to come out, it’s about not censoring the things that come out. I’ve heard Paul Simon talk about that before. He said, “The hard part about the lyrics is getting rid of the verses that you don’t need.”
Something to that effect.
There’s a whole lot of things coming out, and most of the early stuff, it was angry and it was dumb. You know what I mean? I had to get through that period where I was writing just crude and unnecessarily angry things. I think angry song are a cop-out; I shouldn’t say that across the board, but for me, if it’s an angry song, it means that I haven’t worked hard enough to get to the root of the issue, because underneath anger, it’s fear, sadness. It’s things that aren’t safe to feel.
I always feel like anger’s just the starting place for most things. It spurs action, but it can’t be the end game.
It’s not getting to the core. It’s a secondary emotion. It’s as simple as that. You have to keep digging until you get to, “Why am I angry? What is the thing that’s causing me to feel this emotion?” There’s always something underneath.
We just did a promotional tour for [Mission Bell] a couple weeks ago, and a very common question was, “Why are there no angry songs? Why is it not an angry record?”
And that’s a decent question, but I guess because if I’m stopping there, I’m shortchanging myself, and I’m not really being an honest writer. That’s the whole thing, man. If somebody has given you the pen, and you have the wonderful responsibility to write things, you have to try to do it as honestly as you can. It’s hard, but you have to try.
What’s the balance between being honest and editing for you?
That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet. It’s tricky, man, because I’m writing a personal thing, and on some level, I like the idea of the artist being totally free. I can say whatever I want. But that’s a little too black and white for me. That’s a little self-centered.
To be realistic about it, I have children that will understand these songs as they get older, and it’s important for me that I’m able to say that nothing about this was either done with a heart of malice or disrespect. I think that matters
And frankly, if that costs some artistic integrity, I’m perfectly fine with it. I’m a father before I’m a songwriter. I made that decision I have to live with it.
There are things on this record that are hurtful to different people, and I took responsibility for that, but I can say confidently that nothing was done out of a spirit of vengeance. It was done for the purpose of telling a story, and processing all the stuff in myself.
One question I always like to ask people is, “Why do you write?” Would you say the main reason you write is to process your own emotions, or is it more outward focused?
Honestly, for me, it’s completely selfish. It’s one of the things where it just so happens that the way that human beings are, the way that we desire connection…the word they use in group therapy is universality. That there is something curative that happens whenever you hear someone sharing a story that relates to you, even if it has nothing to do with you.
So me listening to a song by The National, or by Nick Drake, or Amiee Mann, it has nothing to do with me. Absolutely nothing. You know what I mean? The artist didn’t think for a millisecond about my experience.
But that’s the cool thing about it.
So for me, it always has been a relatively selfish exercise where I feel like, until I externalize things, I can’t fully understand them. It’s why I believe in therapies, I believe in journaling. I do those things because I need to.
Songwriting is in that same camp. When I’m writing the songs, I can literally play them back or sing them, and there’s something that has changed, even by just being able to see it outside of my own head.
My mom always said you have to bring stuff out into the light in order to understand it. If it’s always in the darkness it can be misconstrued, twisted, all those things. So by the time I get on stage, it’s about giving people a milieu where they can feel those things as well. But in terms of writing, it’s completely all about me.
That’s really honest. It’s hard for people to admit that sometimes, but I think in most cases, those are the most honest songs.
Yeah, and it’s weird. It shouldn’t work. If you think about it, how many other things work like that, where you’re literally just doing it for yourself, but it ends up potentially helping other people? But it does.
Emotions are this funny thing that even with completely different life experiences we can find connection. Without that, we’d be hopeless.
Two more questions for you, William. What’s your proudest moment on the album in terms of songwriting?
Oh man, what a cool question. I’ll just say the first thing that came to my mind is in the song “Lovely.” It’s the chorus in that song:
Won’t you come back and haunt me again
Rise from the Baltimore snow and begin
Covering us who are wondering
Out at the edge of the end.
I was intending to write this record, man. I didn’t know any of this, but that song started from The Keepers documentary on Netflix. It’s about abuse in the Catholic Church, and a very specific story on it.
It’s a hard one, but it centers around the murder of this wonderful nun who most likely ended up losing her life because she was going to stop the abuse. Once she realized what was happening, she was going to speak up, and essentially she was silenced. The song ended up being about the abuse really, and it was about reaffirming someone that had been the victim of emotional and verbal abuse. And just a statement of strength and redemption for them, that they will have this resurrection moment, that they’re not gonna be the victim all the time.
I didn’t write the chorus melody. That was a friend of mine named Michael Flynn, who I co-write with sometimes. I had the verses completely down, and I was loving it, but I needed a lift. I needed something that felt like what I wanted to communicate, that I needed the music to say. Something that literally lifted up, like the rising.
The second I got the little iPhone Voice Memo back from him a couple days later, I was like, “Oh, it’s done.” It took like five minutes, and there it is, man. That was a sweet moment for me. I enjoyed writing that one.
It’s super cool when things happen like that. Last question. Best advice for other songwriters?
I think the thing that I settle on is that it’s very hard not to censor yourself. You are absolutely your own worst enemy when it comes to writing. If you just let yourself be a vessel, and you literally let dumb stuff come out, eventually the good stuff will come.
But it’s hard because everybody wants to be Bob Dylan. Everybody wants to make really clever lyrics and everything. I guarantee Bob Dylan wrote some shitty lyrics, but he’s also written literally some of the best lyrics ever. So don’t stop yourself. Let it flow and stick with it.
That’s still an exercise for me. I’m still learning how to do that, and I’m sure I always will be.