Photo: Ole Westermann

William Fitzsimmons: The Man Behind The Beard

The Painful, Joyful Evolution Of Lesbian-Loved Folkie

By Sarah Bricker-Hunt

If there's a unifying theme to be found in William Fitzsimmons' songwriting so far, it might be family, in all its weird and beautiful forms. From providing the soundtrack for a lesbian wedding proposal, to the ancestral importance of his iconic beard to adoption, Fitzsimmons has honored, explored and celebrated an evolving concept of what family means throughout his songwriting career. It hasn't always been a joyful exploration, but it's always been an authentic one.

Right now, he's feeling good. Following a string of releases featuring some darker moments, the singer-songwriter's latest album, "Lions," may surprise longtime fans. For Fitzsimmons, however, his music has always been about honest expression, whatever that might look like. "Humans are often experiencing simultaneous pain and joy," he says. "I say a lot of shit not everyone says, that's all."

When Fitzsimmons hits the stage on Saturday, June 7 at The Ark he'll deliver the truthfulness and quiet charm his audiences have come to expect. But things have changed in the nine years since his debut, "Until When We Are Ghosts." His idea of family has changed, maybe. He's moved past the hurt of a divorce, found love once more, remarried and adopted two children. All of this helped to shape "Lions," which, unlike previous releases, is not a concept album, but which does feature Fitzsimmons' trademark introspection.

"A lot of it came from getting close to the birth mother of my daughter," he says. "Kind of sharing in her life and her sharing in ours. There was a lot of joy in it but also a lot of pain. It's not a 'happy' record, but it does have a lot more joy on it. The older stuff is very mono-tonal, more like 'this is a tough thing; this is a tragedy.'"

Things have changed for Fitzsimmons, but fans can expect the same communal experience they've always enjoyed at his live shows. Those fans, too, are part of the ever-widening Fitzsimmons family. "I want them to have a voice in that process. I don't want to let the idiot who's calling out 'Freebird' every night have a voice, but you know, it's consensual. We're sharing something."

The "we," of course, includes his large gay following, particuarly lesbians. It's so extensive that, in 2011, an AfterEllen writer affectionately gave him the moniker of "lesbro." In fact, he's such a "friend of the lesbians" that he helped facilitate a marriage proposal between two lesbian fans last year during a show in San Francisco, playing a song in the background while a fan named Heather proposed to her girlfriend from the stage. "My music is very often associated with sad and troubling things," he says. "So whenever it gets to be connected with something beautiful like that proposal, I kind of jump on those opportunities. It's rare, but it makes me feel very good."

Fitzsimmons is known for many things - being a friend to the lesbians, strong, emotional songwriting, and his powerful-but-calming stage presence - but this is a guy you can spot from across any crowded room thanks to his wooly mammoth of a beard. Some online fans have suggested the beard get its own billing credit when Fitzsimmons tours. "I actually cut it recently," he says. "It got so long that I was sort of having to eat everything with a knife and fork. It started to be a disaster. At that point I was like, 'What am I doing?' But I like it."

The beard has become synonymous with the singer's image, but it is not the gimmick some might think.

Once again, it's about kinship, about family. "My dad, brother, all my uncles - they all have beards," he explains. "It was just kind of a family thing when I was growing up. It was a passage to manhood. And I honestly think it's kind of like tattoos. When you have them, you don't really think about them too much, but I look in the mirror and I see a little bit of my dad. I like that connection. It feels good."

For all that Fitzsimmons has experienced, it all comes back to his roots, again and again. At times, the music has been about his childhood and a sheltered upbringing, growing up with two blind parents. Sometimes, it's been about his first career as a mental health counselor. These days, it's often about becoming a father and loving the pleasure and pain that have come along with it.

Always, it's been about truth.

"That's all I have," he says. "I'm not a crass songwriter. I can't just sit down and write something that's going to be on the radio and it's going to make people want to dance or something, but I seem to have an ability to invite people to have an emotional experience - and for me too. I like to sit with that. I think it's helping me, and it seems like it's helping other people too."

William Fitzsimmons

8 p.m. June 7

The Ark

316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor

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