Infinite Spring, the gorgeous debut album from superviolet, is bookended by songs on which Steve Ciolek sings about staking out a new direction.
On album opener “Angels on the Ground,” the Columbus musician delivers lines about starting over from scratch (“There isn’t a map to where I’m driving/And I’d have to build the highway, too”), while the title track, which falls near the end of the album, builds to a surging crescendo as Ciolek offers up the refrain. “Doing it different now,” he repeats.
At the time Ciolek started writing these songs, around 2019, his words reflected the sensation of falling in love, which he said opened an entirely new world (Ciolek and his wife, Kosoma, married in March 2022). But in the years since, they’ve also taken on added context, with Ciolek’s former band the Sidekicks calling it a day and the musician launching a new venture, superviolet, with help from a few familiar faces, including Sidekicks drummer Matt Climer.
“We decided we weren’t going to do the Sidekicks anymore, and when we were getting ready to announce it, the pandemic happened,” said Ciolek, who worked as an Uber Eats driver through a stretch of COVID, his delivery profile reading “failed musician.” “Then we were like, well, nobody’s a band anymore, so it seems silly to make an announcement.”
Isolated by the pandemic, Ciolek took a couple of songs that had previously existed within Sidekicks – “Locket” and “Big Songbirds Don’t Cry” – along with a handful of more muted tunes that he first workshopped on a 2019 solo tour with Jake Ewald of Slaughter Beach, Dog, and went to work, writing and recording in relative solitude with no sense of expectation and no initial plan for a larger release. Eventually, as the songs began to accumulate, he invited neighbor to produce, the musicians and their respective partners forming a natural COVID pod.
“Zac lived in the apartment next to us, so he and his wife were kind of in our bubble, and there was a second-story porch that we could just hop over and hang out,” Ciolek said. “Working on my own, it was like, I need to include other people on this idea, because it felt strange to get that far and not have any feedback. You can get really lost in it, where you don’t know if anything’s even good.”
In general, Ciolek said, the songs he started to workshop on his own took a quieter tack, particularly in the way he played and sang, since he didn’t have to project his voice to be heard above a loud rock band. “You’re opening these big shows, and you’re like, ‘Hey, we have to get these songs to reach the people in the back of this room,’” he said. “So, naturally, certain songs would make their way onto setlists and onto records more than others.”
While the album certainly captures a more reflective side of the musician, it’s filled with sonic surprises, Ciolek describing the process of working with Little as “going through mazes,” with the two sometimes traversing a winding creative path to land on a final take. “There were literally days spent on like, ‘I’ve got this idea for a sound,’ and you’re trying to find this app on your phone that has the sound of a mellotron, and then you’re running it through the tape machine, and then we’re going to run it through this spring reverb we have,” Ciolek said. “We wanted every little piece to feel like it was special, and we had the time to do it since we were at home. Most studios wouldn’t let you do that kind of thing unless you were Metallica or something.”
The pretty, occasionally more delicate instrumentation – Infinite Spring arrives steeped in folk-rock and 1960s dream-pop, along with the indie-rock influences that defined later Sidekicks records – also reflected the musician’s swooning state of mind at the time, with Ciolek describing the process of falling in love as a necessary stripping down of self.
“I think I tried to take maybe a little more of an honest look at myself and relationships and love than maybe I would have allowed myself in the past,” he said. “And I think that comes from being in a relationship where you’re communicating these things to another person. You’re sort of bringing that out in each other, and being really honest about the strong feelings you have toward them. Or being honest in the difficult conversations you have to work through. And I feel like having that kind of honesty in a relationship maybe allowed me to access those self-reflective skills a little bit more.”
After Ciolek wrote the bridge for “Dream Dating,” for instance, in which he relays the steadying impact Kosoma has had on his life (“When I’m in a tailspin/You’ll be the railing”), he sat on the edge of the couch and burst into tears. “And it was like, well, that’s what that part is going to be,” he said. “And I’d definitely never had that experience writing lyrics before.”
Elsewhere, Ciolek sings about a love so pure it can transcend death (“Good Ghost,” a gorgeous soft-focus folk tune), the way a relationship can reflect back on a person, allowing them to see their greater value (the soaring “Angels on the Ground”) and the future fears that can begin to take root once someone has entered into a committed relationship. “Now all my nightmares are in highchairs,” Ciolek sings on “Locket,” a darkly comic line that vibrates with early parental nerves.
On lead single “Overrater,” an effortlessly catchy earworm that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Sidekicks record, Ciolek also playfully ribs the business side of the music industry, which he said gradually became more of a drag in recent years. “In a van in headphones is the last way I want to die,” he sings, painting a picture of the drudgery he began to associate with touring.
Ciolek said this road-centric existence – crowded vans, endless highways and fluorescent-lit convenience stores interrupted by intermittent moments of genuine wonder – started to feel more removed from the married life he has crafted for himself in Columbus, which included starting grad school at Ohio State, where he’s currently studying physiology with the aim of pursuing a career in physical therapy.
“I’ve done more things with music than I ever thought I’d do, with touring and playing in a band. But then you get into that cycle where you put the album out, then you have to do the tour, and then you’re into this almost-scheming part: Who could we open for? Maybe we can get on this playlist? What kinds of things should we do on social media?” Ciolek said. “And you’re running this business and trying to sell merch, and it has almost nothing to do with music. And it’s exhausting, and it makes you feel kind of bad about yourself, because you’re almost playing this game.
“I probably sound shitty, and I’m not trying to complain about it. But being gone now and going on a tour where you’re in all of these cool places, it doesn’t feel complete if this other person you really want to experience it with isn’t there. … I don’t know. I think you should tour, and playing shows is a great way to share your music. But the halt on touring [during COVID] made everyone have to slow their wheels, and I do think it led to some recalibration where people finally started to ask, ‘What would it be like just to be home?’”