The town of Jacksonville — some 19,000 souls — lies peacefully in the southern part of Illinois. It’s a mere blip on the map, a place you might stop if you needed a bathroom break while en route from St. Louis to Chicago.
But Jacksonville is also a town with some interesting cultural history. It’s close to where Abraham Lincoln lived, and Mary Todd used to enjoy shopping there. It’s the childhood home of Ken Norton, the only boxer ever to break Muhammad Ali’s jaw. It’s been memorialized by Sufjan Stevens on Illinois and by Mary Chapin Carpenter in the song “John Doe #24,” which tells the story of a blind and deaf man who was found wandering the streets in 1945 and lived in the town’s institutions for nearly 50 years without ever being identified.
It’s a place of madness and a place of peace. And now it’s home to another songwriter, William Fitzsimmons, who shares some interesting biographical quirks with the town. Jacksonville houses state schools for the blind and deaf; Fitzsimmons was raised by blind parents. Jacksonville is also known for its unusual number of pipe organs; Fitzsimmons’ father repaired pipe organs and even built one from scratch in their Pittsburgh home.
But Fitzsimmons says he ended up in Jacksonville purely by chance. “I was driving back to Pittsburgh from LA after my first tour,” he says. “I had burned a lot of bridges in Pittsburgh so I needed a fresh start and thought, ‘What the hell.’” Living in Jacksonville has its advantages. “It’s boring but wonderful. At 10 pm it’s completely quiet. You can see the stars. And it’s a great place to write.”
Wherever he may live, Fitzsimmons’ music focuses more on inner space than any outside place. Before he became a full-time musician, he made his career as a therapist, and his five albums of intimate folk songs deal with personal demons in an attempt to exorcise the pain of events in his own life: his parents’ divorce, his own broken marriage. This openness, a willingness to be vulnerable, resonates strongly with Fitzsimmons’ fans, who daily send him messages detailing their own difficulties. Fitzsimmons’ music helps them heal, they say.
“If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you for making The Sparrow and the Crow [Fitzsimmons’ 2008 record about his divorce], it really helped me through my own fill-in-the-blank,’ that’s such an amazing thing,” he says.
“It’s cathartic for me, because it normalizes the experience I went through. It’s people sharing, taking five minutes out of the day, or 90 minutes for a show, and being able to feel something that’s not just, Oh I’m doing fine.”
But on his latest record, Gold in the Shadow, Fitzsimmons takes on a new perspective. Each song is based on a specific psychological disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, the bible of psychotherapy. For inspiration, he has even called up the stories of past patients. By taking on others’ perspectives, he was able to grow as a songwriter.
“There’s a difference between sympathy, which is feeling bad for someone, and empathy, feeling what that person is actually feeling,” he says. “That’s the work I did when I was a counselor, and it’s the same thing when you’re writing.”
Does good art have to come out of pain? Fitzsimmons doesn’t think so. But, he adds, “I don’t think that we ever reach that ‘Valhalla’ point. When everything’s going good, a pigeon can still shit on your window. There’s no perfect day— it’s still bitter, it’s still sweet.” n
William Fitzsimmons plays with Slowrunner and William Haworth • Sun, May 15, at 7 pm • Aclub • $15-$18 • All-ages • aclubspokane.com • 624-3629