William Fitzsimmons grew up in Pittsburgh the son of two blind parents, in a household where sound necessarily played an outsized role. He received his Master’s Degree in Counseling at Geneva College and worked as a psychotherapist before turning to music full-time. He is currently on tour in support of his new seven-song EP, Pittsburgh. Fitzsimmons’ grandmother passed away last October, and over the course of the three days spent putting her to rest, Pittsburgh was born. The seven songs are an elegy for her and in remembrance of the city they shared. He performs at Mr. Smalls Monday, May 18.
I read an interview you gave back in 2011 where you said you began writing music and songs “as an exercise in catharsis.” Now, with this new EP, and given its backstory, does it feel like everything has come full circle?
I think that’s actually a really accurate way of looking at it. I think most music, and art in general, is a lot more tied to a specific place than we realize. When I first left Pittsburgh, what had been home for most of my life, a large part of me was trying to get away from a lot of the difficult things I went through growing up. The last couple years, though, probably just because I’m getting older, I’m starting to feel a nostalgia for it that I never had before. The release has been letting most of the old painful memories die away and thinking more on what was actually wonderful.
You’ve lived in Illinois for about a decade now, so how would you characterize your relationship with Pittsburgh today?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t still a conflicted one. I love Pittsburgh. When I hear the word home, it’s still the place I think of, second only to my family. But I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have some sort of ambivalence over where they came from. I have a pride about having been raised there that I’ll never let go of. But I’ve had some of the darkest days of my life there as well.
How do you perceive the Pittsburgh of today compared to the one you left behind?
I think it’s changed probably in a similar way to the rest of the country. I mean people are still people. But there’s an honesty there which is pretty damn unique to most other places. And there’s a toughness. Not just in the traditional “kick your ass” kind of way either. I mean a tolerance of difficult things. That hasn’t changed. But it seems to be a more open place than it used to be to. To divergent ways of thinking, to left-of-center art. There wasn’t a lot of folk music being played when I was growing up there. But I feel like there’s a desire for even that there today.
You began your music career by recording songs at home and putting them up on MySpace. Are you pleased with your popularity in Pittsburgh today despite not playing many shows here when you were first starting out?
Haha, I didn’t play any shows in Pittsburgh when I lived there! Nobody was calling looking for a really depressing singer-songwriter to entertain the bar crowd. But now, and I mean this very sincerely, it feels like playing a hometown show when I come back. And that’s something which means a lot to me. I usually don’t get nervous when I perform, except there. But I feel very welcomed. Pittsburghers tend to take good care of their own.
Monday will obviously be an emotional day for you, performing this new material in Pittsburgh for the first time. Will you attempt to approach it just like any other show?
No, I think the best thing I can do is to go into it realizing that it’s going to be somewhat hard to get through. But I covet those emotional experiences. They’re how you know you’re alive and how you grow. You can try to minimize it, but then you’ll just get blindsided. I’m going to walk on that stage knowing exactly where I am and fully experience whatever comes.
Here’s the video for the title track, “Pittsburgh.”
Should you survive the fall from branches we have climbed and lost yourself in years
the ones we left behind
Should rivers run between your frozen heart and mine and words we spoke so young
were cast before our time
I’ll come for you if you want me to
Should all your sons forgive their fathers where they fell and wrap them for the cold
to rest their winters well
I’ll come for you if you want me to
I’ll come for you if you want me to, Pittsburgh