It’s a pitch-black night on the beach, and Steve Martin pulls out a ukulele to serenade Bernadette Peters with a winsome rendition of “Tonight You Belong to Me.” As they sidle up to a bonfire, Peters picks up a trumpet and joins in the song. The whole scene is irresistibly sweet and plainly silly.
That was 1979, when Martin made his big-screen debut in the comedy The Jerk as a lovesick man-child. Fast-forward 34 years and give a listen to Charleston songwriter Steven Fiore’s new song “Spend a Little Time”: “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t go through/ To spend a little time with you,” Fiore croons over a slow-shuffling guitar rhythm that almost matches the plink of Martin’s uke. By the time Clay White joins in with a simple trumpet solo on the bridge, you’ll have heard echoes from The Jerk and reached an obvious conclusion: The greatest love songs are timeless.
Fiore, who releases his debut full-length album Youth and Magic this Saturday, is a longtime Steve Martin fan. Not only did the beach scene from The Jerk help inspire “Spend a Little Time,” but the album title itself is lovingly copped from Martin’s first five-minute magic show. In his autobiography, Martin mentions that it was inaccurately printed in a program as “Mouth and Magic,” a detail that still makes Fiore cackle. “His brand of comedy is my favorite brand of comedy,” Fiore says. “The way he explains things, the way he’s totally not afraid to be a kid.”
How appropriate, then, that Youth and Magic includes a track titled “The Little Prince” based on the classic children’s book of the same title. But as generations of readers have discovered, author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story is not just for children, and Fiore applies the plotline — in which a little boy lands on earth with strange tales about loving a vain rose on his home planet — to his own romantic history. “Anybody who’s ever had a breakup and then gotten back together with somebody before, it’s the perfect story of the in-between time, where you experience all these different things and sometimes every move that you make makes you wish you’d stayed,” Fiore says. So, in the song, he sings, “I flew away from there to escape the one I love/ It seems awful to say, but she chased me away/ With her tender pretensions I just couldn’t stay.”
In terms of production, Youth and Magic sounds uncluttered and acoustic, with lots of fingerpicked guitar over drums by Michael McCrea, bass guitar by Mannie Schumpert and Taylor Bray (who handled much of the recording and production at his Nashville studio Forty-one Fifteen), horns by White and his sister Ivy, piano by Dewey Boyd, and cello by Lonnie Root.
Written and recorded over the course of three-and-a-half years, Youth and Magic includes songs from all the seasons of young love. “Room To Grow” is about breaking up and vowing to “save the best for myself,” “Calm Down” is a brutally honest look at relationships on the rebound, and “Hourglass” deals with forgiveness and the assignment of blame when a couple gets back together. “It’s so hard to write a song like that when you’re living with the person you’re writing about,” Fiore says. There are some peeks into Fiore’s diary, but most of the songs are actually written from the perspectives of fictional characters or Fiore’s close friends. “The best love songs aren’t always just directly from your eyes,” Fiore says.
Two tracks on the album stand apart, though, because they aren’t love songs at all. “Glory,” a somber piano-driven number, is a denunciation for those who would use religion as a crutch, while “Signs” deals with doubt and belief. “I might find the good Lord in a pile of ashes/ If just the right light should fall,” Fiore sings. “Everyone around me’s seeing signs/ I know better, I’ll close my eyes.”
“The whole song is about having that feeling of, like, maybe I do still believe in it sometimes,” Fiore says. Oddly, he notes, his Christian friends often say it’s their favorite song of his. In faith as in love, hope springs eternal, and sometimes the remembering hurts like hell. “I wish I could [believe], especially for the positive aspects and having that spiritual being to lean on that was a big part of my life for a long time,” he says. “Sometimes you feel the sting of that when it’s not around.”
Fiore, who has spent years playing small-venue gigs around Charleston and on the road, will release Youth and Magic this Saturday at Jail Break Charleston (click here for more info). For the sake of all Steve Martin fans and doe-eyed couples attending, hope that he plays “Spend a Little Time.” The album features a number of songs that explore the more complicated facets of romantic love, but the purity of that one song’s purpose is a rare treat to hear.