A lot of things intersected to prompt Fitz, known for his many hits with Fitz And The Tantrums, to release his first solo album, Head Up High, March 26. For starters, there was the obvious factor of COVID and not being able to tour for a full year.
But as I said, it took multiple events to lead to him striking out on his own for the first time. He also turned 50 and he admits that prompted a lot of reflection and new ideals. And, he tells me, being home for the last year with his wife and three kids, he had to totally reexamine his life as a father and husband.
All of those life-changing events played into Head Up High, an album that shows the singer behind such feel-good anthems as “HandClap,” “Moneygrabber” and “Out Of My League,” getting much more introspective on songs like “Slow Down” and “The List.” But longtime Fitz And The Tantrums fans are still going to find a lot to feel good about and dance to on Head Up High.
I spoke with the singer about the making of the album, the songs he turned to during the pandemic to feel good and how the massive life shift he underwent during the last year will be part of his career going forward.
Steve Baltin: When did you decide it was time to make a solo album?
Fitz: We were up in Redding, California. We’d just built the entire stage and our tour manager walked in and goes, “Show’s cancelled, tour’s cut short, we’re all going home in an hour.” Came home and was in shock like everybody else. We have three boys at home. We have a seven year old and a three and a half year old and an eighteen month old at home. And these are not ages where you can just set them on a mission and walk away. It’s like constant supervision, constant care. Zoom, trying to get these little ones to do Zoom school. It was so hard for my wife and I in the beginning. We were just cooking, cleaning, three meals a day for 24 hours a day because there was no school. And my home studio in my garage became my oasis. And every hardest period of my life I always go to music, whether I’m depressed, emotionally distraught, whatever it is. Music, every time, saves my spirit. And I had planned a week’s worth of writing with a good friend of mine. Actually another Long Beach guy, this guy Ryan Daly who was a good friend of mine whom I worked with before. And we were supposed to work on the Monday but of course nobody knew what was going on. So we tried it and it was so challenging at first even trying to find a way to be creative. It took a little bit of trial and error but we got in a groove. And me and my three friends kind of just made it a daily check in.Those first four, five months of the pandemic I was in here five, six days a week just writing music. And I’d say halfway through making the songs, I’m like, “This just feels different, I’m singing in a different way, I’m talking about different things.” I had just celebrated my fiftieth birthday in the pandemic. There’s a song on the album called “Slow Down.” It’s just literally about that moment where you transfer it from an intellectual place of understanding mortality to a deeply emotional one where you see the finite of your own existence. So I started exploring different types of things and it just felt different. I was like, “Wait, is this a solo record? I think it is.” And once I did that I dug in even further to these slightly more personal themes. And before I knew it I turned around and had recorded 40, 50 songs and tried to pick the 12 that I felt were the best ones.
Baltin: Is that normal for you to write that many extra songs?
Fitz: I’d say I’m halfway talented but I just have a great work ethic more than anything. My tenacity and my work ethic have been the key to my success because I’m a decent songwriter. The way I’ve been able to write good songs is I just write a lot of songs. Because I’ve also watched it with other artist friends of mine that have exploded over the years. I think that the danger is that once you have success you think everything you do is awesome. And I don’t know if it’s my own low self esteem or fear of failure or whatever drives me, but I’ve never had that thing where I think what I’m doing is awesome. I’m always pushing and pushing and pushing. On the last the Fitz And The Tantrums record, All The Feels, I wrote 100 songs for that record. And then you’re writing so much it’s forcing you to peel back the layers of the onion. And I find it as a way to therapeutically dig deeper into what your subconscious is really feeling. But at the end of the day, the ones that make it on the album are cool.
Baltin: When you write songs like “Moneygrabber” or “Out Of My League” that become hits with people and then resonate with millions of people, are you still surprised?
Fitz: I think that the more I’ve done it, I’ve honed that skill. When we wrote that first album we didn’t have a record deal or anything. We had somehow magically gotten an opportunity to perform on KCRW, which is like the mecca of independent, local public radio. And we went on the road and started playing. We played every night and “Moneygrabber” wasn’t even out yet. And yet everybody after the show kept talking about it. So I knew that was the song that led us there. And then every subsequent album after that I’ve known those songs. Like when Noelle [Scaggs] brought me the beginnings of what became “Out Of My League,” as soon as she played the demo, I was like, “There’s something here.” When we wrote “HandClap” that song was one of those rare moments where a song feels like it almost writes itself in 15 minutes. I have always had a great sense of the macro. Everybody in Fitz and the Tantrums, they’ve dedicated their life to being so good at what they do. I’ve always had an amazing sense of arrangement, of aesthetics. It’s all about the landscape you paint and that’s what I’ve been always great at. The big picture. And that’s why me and the rest of the band have always worked so well. They’re so good at their instruments and I’m really good at the big picture.
Baltin: Let’s come onto the writing on this record. Were there one or two songs, early on that really shaped the theme of the record?
Fitz: Yeah, obviously this was the pandemic. There’s quite a few pandemic lockdown isolation songs that we wrote that ultimately didn’t make the record because at the end of the day they were powerful and emotional, but I’m like, “I f I don’t even want to listen to this song right now because it is depressing the s**t out of me, who the f**k else is going to want to listen to this song?” A perfect example is, the morning that we wrote “Head Up High” we had all met here. And that like two and a half, three month mark of the lockdown, we’re like “What the hell, this is groundhog’s day. I just feel crazy.” Everyone was kind of crusty and depressed and confused. And that song was written to like literally lift me out of my funk that day. And to remember to try and stay positive and keep your head up. And to answer your question, I would say it was “Head Up High” and the song “Slow Down.” And another song that’s on the album called “The List.” “The List” is one of my favorite songs on the record because it’s just that sort of self reflective moment of just being like, “Why am I such a f**k-up? Why am I such a mess up? Why am I always like, I’m old enough to know what my issues are, my problems are and why am I looking at this same list one more time, one more year and haven’t done s**t about it.”
Baltin: Are there things that you feel are changing now because of this year?
Fitz: One hundred percent. Up until this year I was on the road for 12 years straight, without a break, never home. The longest stretch I ever was home was maybe two months, if I was lucky. If I was lucky I would get two months at home. So pretty much at the two month mark of the lockdown pandemic on, that was the longest I’d spent at home in 12 years. The longest time I’d ever spent with my kids. My third child was born two weeks early while I was in South Korea doing festivals and concerts in South Korea. And he came early and I missed the birth of my third son which had deeply impacted my wife. She was very emotional about it because the baby was almost born in the car on the way to the hospital. And thank God her mother was in San Diego and was able to drive in two hours and get her before she gave birth. But it was a weird thing to not be there. And the reality is I’ve never spent that much time, uninterrupted time with my kids. I’m in and out. It’s my wife that is holding it down. And I realized for myself, I kind of liked it that way. I’ve struggled with being present and always being a dad that’s engaged. And this last year forced me to step up as a parent and watch these human beings grow. And dig deeper with my wife. Friday was the 365-day anniversary of when I was on tour and the tour got cut short in Redding and we all got sent home. I just looked at her and said, “Holy s**t, babe. 365 days we made it.” And we’ve never spent this much time, her and I together. And we like each other still. We’ve fallen more in love. We’ve had to work as a team. So to me, learning to be more present, to show up more, to work on my intimacy with my kids and my wife, those were the big challenges, or goals, things that I achieved in the lockdown.
Baltin: Artists had an opportunity to listen to a lot of music. What are those songs that pick you up every time?
Fitz: Music saved my life as a little boy, as a teenager, it’s been my thing. And then as it became my career, I started listening to less and less music because I’m making music all day or I’m playing live shows and my ears are ringing like a crazy motherf**ker at the end of the night every night. I just don’t listen to that much music. And this year has been getting back to the joy of listening to music. And I’ve had two artists, that for my wife and I, have saved our souls and provided many a dance party. And that’s Remi Wolf and Bakar. Remi Wolf, I love her so much. I love all of the influences from the ’70s, ’80s, techno-tronic, New York club dance scene influences. And then Bakar has just been this artist that my wife and I have become obsessed with. So those have been our two big things. We’ve had so many dance parties. My kids even know all the words to all their albums. Especially Remi Wolf at the beginning because her music is so danceable and fun.
Baltin: When you listen to the album as a whole what do you take from it?
Fitz: In writing the song “Slow Down” that’s when I realized, “Oh right, intellectually I’ve always understood that life is finite. But now I’m understanding it emotionally and in this moment of being still and seeing my kids and they’ll never be this age again.” And it was very impactful to me to sort of hold onto that idea. And I’ve always tried to put uplifting music out into the world. And I’ve seen the power of what that can do. One time we were on the road with Fitz and the Tantrums and we got a message from a family saying, “You guys are coming to Texas. We would love for you to meet our daughter. We can’t tell you what your music has meant to her. She had a life-threatening disease this last year and spent most of the year in hospitals doing treatments. And we didn’t know if she was going to make it. And your song ‘HandClap’ became her mantra song.” It’s almost making me cry right now. Because we met that family backstage and to meet this little girl and then to meet her and being a parent myself, and seeing the power of what that was. You can see the power. I don’t claim to be the deepest writer in the world. I’m not trying to be Jeff Buckley or whoever it is. I love making music. I try and write inspiring, positive messages. And then to see how important it was to that family was everything.