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Monday, 04 November 2013 10:20

St. Louis songwriter Fitz exorcizes Midwestern devils and angels and more

St. Louis songwriter Fitz exorcizes Midwestern devils and angels and more Courtesy of Mike Fitzgerald
Written by Jason Warren
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The haze of the cigarette smoke from the night hung in the sunlight peaking through the bar's pane glass windows. The staff had run in circles attempting to prep the bar for the Sunday patronage and touching up whatever happened the night before.

The scene was South City, St. Louis, and anything and everything could have happened: wives or girlfriends cheating on their significant others, men finding the next big score. Beer, whiskey and vodka flowed like water from a mountain spring, but it was the afternoon, and the football games were on in the background along with a rotation of new alt-rock hits pulsing from the bar's sound system.

The Famour Bar, on Chippewa and Brannon, was the perfect place to meet up with Fitz, aka Mike Fitzgerald, a St. Louis native and singer-songwriter not to be confused with Fitz and the Tantrums' front man. Fitz' songs are the perfect soundtrack for South City; they are songs of heartbreak, drinking, partying and love, songs that anyone who has walked the streets of this city can relate to. But they're also bigger than that; much like Springsteen's songs, they can be understood outside the interstates that frame any single place.

Fitz has two albums under his belt and has played throughout the city on some interesting bills that have paired him with a variety of acts that range from Afro-punk to hard rock. Through all of this he remains true to himself and his sound: an acoustic guitar, harmonica and songs that stand on their own two feet.

"I have been the underdog for so long," he says, "playing my guitar and harmonica. When I play with bands I have that feeling of 'I gotcha, you didn't see me coming.'"

"It's kind of a silly story," Fitz says of how he began to play and write. "I had a guitar sitting in my bedroom collecting dust for three or four years. When I was 16 I was involved in high school sports. I played football and someone came across my knee and completely fucked it up. I couldn't play for about six months. I didn't have a lot going on because all my friends were out being social and playing football and I was trying to get my knee together."

So instead of resting on his laurels and waiting for his knee to heal and get back on the field Fitz picked up that dusty guitar and started to hammer on it.

"The first song I learned was 'Wonderwall' by Oasis," he says. "Easy chords but being able to play it and sing it was the most amazing thing I had done." In that moment a realization came to him that being songwriter and singer of songs is what he was meant to do. "That is when I changed gears. At 16 you are floating around, trying to figure out college and I just wanted to write songs."

It took a while for him to find his voice. "When I started playing it was very much Dave Matthews. That is why I picked up the guitar. I would write with a lot of complicated figures and guitar passages, but I couldn't really sing and play at the same time, so I started to change it up."

The inspiration for this change and creating his own style was watching "No Direction Home," the Martin Scorsese-directed Bob Dylan documentary.

"Something clicked in my head," he explains. "I said I just wanted to write simpler songs, just four chords. Songs where I don't have to do five million things and I can just sing."

While attending college he started to find inspiration in literature and poetry courses, all those words "and how the stories were put together." Outside those academic halls he started listening to Johnny Cash.

"It was about mixing folk music with a little bit of harder country," he says. "There is also a blues aspect and that just sunk in from being from St. Louis. Really, everything I listen to informs all I do."

But life after college can be a bitch. Not only is one carrying around a college degree but looking for a place where one fits in and a reason to justify all those thousands of dollars on tuition. Carrying around his degree in English only made his images and words take flight; while shelving books at a local Borders, his love of words took on a life of their own.

"I was working at a book store, my first job out of college and I was working retail," Fitz recalls. "I was living at my parents' house, and I didn't have a lot going for me at that time and I picked up 'John Barleycorn' by Jack London." That book would be the catalyst for his first album, "Adventures of John Barleycorn."

"Drinking can ruin your life but you can also meet the most interesting people," he says. "You also get to see those dark corners you don't usually see in everyday life. It is about going to bars meeting people, meeting girls."

Fitz' album "Midwestern Devils & Angels" continues the same sonic aesthetic that he explored on his first album, and the sparse production certainly echoes "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen.

"Part of the reason I have been recording by myself is because of listening to 'Nebraska,'" Fitz says. "He was recording on four-track recorder. It doesn't sound great, but they're just really good songs on that album. It is just him playing his songs, but it's still fantastic. I thought, 'I can fucking do that.'"

"Midwestern Devils & Angels" is an extension of the songs that first appeared on "Adventures of John Barleycorn," but this time the imagery is much like that of Springsteen's music. Still, you can hear the call of south St. Louis; there may be a focus on relationship problems in the nightlife, but ultimately there is redemption.

"Yeah, it is definitely a St. Louis record. I grew up here, but when I came back [from college] I started coming into the city, seeing more and seeing the parts that weren't the suburbs. It is about seeing the different places and things St. Louis has to offer. It is about these parts of town that are so much older than us and have been around forever. There is a history here."

"Mississippi Woman" by Fitz

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