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Another side of William Fitzsimmons

Therapist-turned-songwriter finds catharsis with Lions

When William Fitzsimmons started recording his latest album, Lions, he envisioned a drastic transformation. The singer/songwriter, a former psychotherapist, had wrapped touring for 2011's Gold in the Shadow feeling unsettled by the pressures of the music business. "The majority of conversations I was having were either starting or stopping with mentions of ticket sales, or, 'Can we get to the chorus a little quicker so we can get on the radio?'" Fitzsimmons says. "There was discussion of me hosting some sort of TV show that was going to be tied into my past as a therapist, and have some sort of connection with a pharmaceutical company. Like, real, real bad, dark shit. I just woke up one morning and thought, 'I don't like this. I don't want to be doing any of this.'"

Fitzsimmons, whose breathy, emotionally raw ruminations on loss and heartbreak have garnered comparisons to Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, took some time off to collect his thoughts and write music for its own sake. Months later, with a fresh perspective and a handful of new songs, he reached out to producer and Death Cab for Cutie bassist Chris Walla to record what he conceived as a very different kind of album. "There's a part of me that was thinking this was going to be an indie rock record," he says. "I went in with a very American mindset: 'It's gotta be bigger, it's gotta be louder, because that equals better. It's gotta be more indie rock.' All those things."

Surprisingly, it was indie rock veteran Walla who pulled him back from the brink.

"I would say, 'We can totally do this killer drum thing here,'" he says, only to have Walla steer him back toward the way the songs sounded on Fitzsimmons' original demos. "We would throw the demo on again and listen to it and I would say, 'OK, I see your point.' To my surprise, I got one of the best indie rock producers around to make a folk record," he laughs.

Lions doesn't break much new ground musically, anchored by Fitzsimmons' Nick Drake-meets-Sufjan Stevens vocals and a folk aesthetic lightly embossed with muted tape loops and other effects. But it feels lighter than the rest of his catalog. Earlier records like Goodnight, which deals heavily with his parents' divorce, and the critically adored The Sparrow and the Crow, which examines his own split from his now ex-wife, displayed an assured songwriting talent, but also earned Fitzsimmons a reputation as an artist mired in anguish and sorrow. By contrast, despite its familiar sonic template and lyrics like "Come quickly flood to drown/This soylent heart I've found," songs on Lions, such as "Well Enough," "Ten Lions," and "Blood/Chest" feel cathartic, even uplifting, in a mellow sort of way. "I don't feel the heaviness" of past releases, he says. "With these new songs, I come off stage and actually feel good. That's kind of the vibe I get from the audience, too."

That's a welcome development for an artist who has struggled with depression, and with the trauma of revisiting painful parts of his past during live performances. "It was taking its toll," he says. "There were times in the past I would start to cry a bit, and I can't think of anything more pathetic than paying 20 bucks to watch a guy weep on stage. So I established some boundaries for myself. I bought a carpet from Ikea that I put on stage before every show, and when I step on stage I have the life of the show to feel those things again. When I step off that carpet, I close that door."

Despite his flirtation with blowing up his sound, Fitzsimmons hasn't closed the door on his approach to songwriting, which is very much informed by his former career.

"I'm always looking for two things when I'm writing," he says. "First is an emotional, visceral reaction. I want to be moved by my own song. That sounds kind of Kanye-ish, maybe, but I want my own song to make me cry. The second thing is to have a real and profound insight to take away from it — in therapy, that's the goal. Action's always preferred, but you can't have action without insight."

Live, Fitzsimmons balances all that emotion and introspection with a surprising sense of humor, cracking jokes and tossing off left-field covers (he's tackled Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Rihanna, among others). Audiences shouldn't expect a stoic, morose performance — especially Atlanta audiences. "In the past in Atlanta, I feel like I've had to fight for it a little bit," he says. "I don't mean that in a bad way. Certain cities can be a little more picky. New York is one, and in my experience, Atlanta is one. I'm going to work for it."