Singer-songwriter Hillary Fitz is not your typical banjo-clawhammering, collegiate-tennis-playing, jungle-dwelling, Spanish-speaking, yoga-teaching, holistic-gardening ICU nurse. She's quite a bit more dynamic than that.
On a recent drizzly afternoon, Fitz comes bounding into a coffee shop in her south-city neighborhood, all smiles and hugs, her amber ringlets corkscrewing down from under a yellow knit stocking cap. She's a fast talker, rattling off everything from high school memories to life philosophies to upcoming plans with a spirited alacrity that complements the 29-year-old's globetrotting life so far.
Over the last few years, Fitz has risen to the top of the St. Louis folk-rock scene through stellar songwriting, vibrant vocals, sophisticated folkcraft and expansive grassadelica boogie. Along with her reputation as a formidable live act, her 2015 EP She and last year's A Vibrant Shade of Blue established Fitz as a writer of poignant, honeyed Americana, and a designer of fresh jazz-aware sonic alchemy.
Raised by a Celtic-music-loving father and jazz-devoted mother, Fitz wrote her first songs as a fourth-grader, teaching herself piano as a middle-schooler and taking deep dives into reggae and jam music while attending St. Joseph's Academy in Frontenac.
"I heard [Bob Marley's 1977 LP] Exodus for the first time and was like, 'What is this?'" Fitz recalls. "'Why do I feel so good?'"
A trip to a bluegrass festival exposed Fitz to jamgrass bands such as Greensky Bluegrass and Cornmeal, inspiring her to break the grass ceiling as a female picker.
After high school, Fitz attended Webster University, where she majored in environmental science, was an all-conference tennis standout and studied guitar under journeyman musician Dave Black. But during her sophomore year, Fitz became vexed by her classmates' ubiquitous fixation on smartphones, motivating her to find a way that she would temporarily be forced to live phone-free. She settled on moving to the middle of the Panamanian jungle.
"It was a hard sell to my parents," Fitz laughs.
Living totally off the grid, Fitz took an internship studying water quality, bathed in the river, slept in a hammock every night, had no access to screens (or mirrors, for that matter) and experienced a transcendental reinvention.
"It was completely life-changing," she says. "Being so close to nature, I was able to process and discover who I am. It gave me the courage to really put myself out there as a musician."
Back home, Fitz started gigging heavily around town, covering the likes of Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor on acoustic guitar.
"My first show was at Broadway Oyster Bar," she says. "I told the booking guy that I knew four hours even though I didn't. He said, 'Cool, you're on in two weeks.' I went home and freaked out."
Fitz enlisted drummer Drew Lance and formed a duo, learned a pile of songs, nailed the Oyster Bar gig and quickly became a staple of the St. Louis bar scene, playing four nights a week. Her wanderlust spirit did not fade, however: She took periodic breaks from performing to study Spanish in Madrid, work on a goat farm in North Carolina and complete yoga-teaching training on a small island in Thailand.
Beyond her solo shows, Fitz spent the next few years singing with soul-jazz guitarist Pete Lombardo, Al Holliday's East Side Rhythm Band and Sean Canan's Voodoo Players, in which she covered the female roles during Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads and other tribute nights. She still makes Voodoo cameos: Just last month, she channeled Joni Mitchell to stunning effect at the annual Voodoo Last Waltz concert at Delmar Hall.
All along, Fitz was writing original material, adding the banjo and mandolin and harmonica to her multi-instrumentalism, and experimenting with jazz tones and textures that added rich layers to her songwriting.
"I was listening to tons of Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday," she says, influences that made their way onto her 2021 album A Vibrant Shade of Blue.
One of the album's key tracks is "Metamorphosis," a song that Fitz says illustrates the evolving nature of her own personal story and the maturation of her music.
"A lot of my songs are about change," she says. "And the album ended up being completely different from how we started it."
Fitz's musical transformations have been stimulated by the ringers in her band: guitarist Matt Lyons, bassist Chris Turnbaugh, violinist Mark Hochberg and her longtime drummer Drew Lance.
"They are all incredible," Fitz says. "They can take the music anywhere."
COVID-19 prompted another of Fitz's metamorphoses. With no gigs to play, she decided to fast-track her way through nursing school as a way to secure a steady career that would also provide days off to pursue music. She is now in her first year as an ICU nurse.
"It is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Fitz says. "But it's very rewarding. When I get home, I know that my work was meaningful in someone's life and in someone's family."
One thing that she does not see changing is her fondness for her hometown.
"I love St. Louis," she says. "It's an easy place to live. We have great food, awesome art, beautiful parks and amazing nature areas a short drive away. And the music scene here is really supportive and collaborative. We all build each other up."
Still, given Fitz's rambling spirit, she knows that other adventures may again call her away. But for now, she is excited to polish off the year with the Hillary Fitz Band's show at the new Central Stage in Grand Center. Fitz promises that folks will see the full range of the band's stylistic shapeshifting and first-class musicianship.
"We're going to roll with the metamorphosis theme," she says. "Our first set is going to have an intimate, acoustic bluegrassy vibe, and then the second set will be electric, in-your-face rock & roll." Beyond that preview, Fitz prefers to keep any surprises to herself: "What you can expect is not knowing what to expect."
Catch the Hillary Fitz Band at 9 p.m. on Friday, December 30, at Central Stage (3524 Washington Avenue, 314-533-0367). Tickets are $14.50 advance and $18 day of.Coming soon: Riverfront Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting St. Louis stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
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