"What a predictable moment/ The songbird leaves its nest," croons Steven Fiore on "Carolina," the lyrical centerpiece at the heart of his new album Young Mister, titled after Fiore's new moniker. The singer-songwriter has had a whirlwind few years. Since signing a publishing deal with Universal Records at age 20 and trying to make a go as a songwriter, he's always aimed big, whether he was in Charleston, Boston, or Los Angeles.
Speaking of the City of Angels, Fiore moved there two years ago following the release of his last solo effort, 2013's Youth & Magic, and the new album reads as a breezy trace of his psychological disillusionment with that time.
"The beginning was [good]," Fiore says of the now-defunct publishing deal. "I signed it when I was 20, so for me it felt like getting right out of high school and heading straight for the major leagues. So it felt like that was it — this was success. And the first year was great. They had me traveling a lot, and I was writing with people in L.A. and Nashville. Same throughout the second year, and then things started to slow down. I was getting smaller placements here and there, but I wasn't really willing to play ball in the way they wanted me to."
And judging by the lyrics, the town didn't really suit him either. "When L.A. chews me up and spits me back out into the sky/ I know I'll land next to you, in Carolina," he sings on "Carolina." On "Take Me Away," it's even more explicit. "I've never felt so lonely around so many people before," he intones in the first verse, and then, "What am I doing here/ Please, love of my life/ Won't you hurry, come and take me away" in the chorus. Fiore would eventually move to Chapel Hill with his then-girlfriend, and they, married, now live 20 minutes outside of Asheville in the tiny town of Waynesville.
"I feel like the record was one long story, to be honest, about the past two years of my life," Fiore says, having traveled down the mountain from his home for cell reception. Even Charleston, it seems, is too much for him now, despite his envy over how the music scene has grown over the past few years.
"It's great, just seeing it blossom," he says. "And it is a bummer to not be there anymore, definitely. It's the one thing I miss about Charleston. I love my hometown, but it's a little too busy for me now. That's why I'm living on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere — that's my vibe."
Given the weightiness of the subject matter, you might expect a morose, Elliott Smith-style exploration of depression. Instead, this is the breeziest and most energetic record Fiore has released yet. Full of tightly wound bursts of pop rock that reach for exultant heights even at their most dour, there's a polished, professional acumen that mirrors that of another singer-songwriter who made a big swing at assisting major label artists: Butch Walker.
"That's kind of what I wanted to go for with this project," Fiore explains. "This kind of almost happy-sounding sad songs. I wanted to take a more lighthearted spin on the production than I had in the past. I wanted this to be a summer record. I wanted 'Pasadena' to have that feel, and all of the other songs kind of have that vibe. I really hate when people are really melodramatic about stuff, so my way of dealing with that is making the production as fun as I possibly can, because I don't want it to stand too seriously."
Fiore doesn't credit Walker as an inspiration, though, so much as the satisfying classic rock rollick of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and The War on Drug's cerebral reinvention of the same as the inspiration for the sound of the record.
[The War on Drugs]' newest album was a big influence on me recording this kind of stuff," he enthuses. "That was the first new band I heard in a while that I really loved. So when I was writing these songs, that wasn't necessarily what I had in mind, but in working with Wolfgang [Zimmerman] in the studio, that's kind of what came out in the production side."
Charleston's Zimmerman, whom Fiore had worked with before on his single "Heart Sounds" and done a few co-writes with, proved an apt foil for the ace songwriter by providing just enough rough edges and surprising moments to balance out the frontman's classicist tendencies.
"I think when he works with the other artists that he records with, there's a little more wiggle room for weird stuff, and it works really well with other people. I think he and I both saw we only needed to turn the weirdness up to about five," Fiore laughs. "We used a lot of the lo-fi recording techniques and some really cool things, but we did a lot of one takes and tried not to over-examine things. I think it was a good balance between my pop sensibilities and his indie, outside-the-box production style."
And more than anything, it's Fiore's incredibly assured skills that are showcased. From the built-for-the-highway guitar gallop of "Would It Kill You" to the understated and slinky Brit-pop ballad "Everything Has Its Place," the album is as appealing for its diverse, stylistic mastery as it is for its concise, sharp lyricism and bountiful hooks. It's not hard to see how Fiore could have made a nice career out of bolstering some of the dreck that still comes out of the radio.
Except for Fiore, it wasn't worth it.
"Just writing the stupid songs just so it would get played, keeping things vague and writing songs that didn't matter, I wasn't really ready to do that," he says. "Even now, if I have a song that's gonna be cut by somebody that might be huge, I still want it to be seen as a good song, not just about beers and trucks."
And that's in the songs too, as he sings in "Would it Kill You:" "Doesn't matter how bad the songs are on the radio/ Your mind is blown, we get it/ It's white noise, it is static."
"Now I'm on a much better track for the kind of success I'm looking for," he softly concludes.