superviolet is the project of singer-songwriter Steve Ciolek, who started the beloved Ohio band the Sidekicks when he was 15 years old. The group, whose last album was 2018’s Happiness Hours, officially called it quits in December, a few months before Ciolek began rolling out his debut album as superviolet, Infinite Spring. Some of the record’s best songs, like ‘Big Songbirds Don’t Cry’ and ‘Locket’, were actually workshopped by the band, and though Ciolek’s framework shifted after they broke up, they still benefitted from the spirit of collaboration. The Sidekicks’ Matt Climer plays drums throughout, while Zac Little of Saintseneca helped out with the production. Ciolek also got married last year – his wife, Kosoma Jensen, contributed to the record too – so it makes sense that Infinite Spring explores the endless possibilities of a fresh start, a space it both tries to conceptualize and simply basks in. The songs are reliably hooky and captivating yet wrapped in a lush mix that’s filled with joyous warmth; they can be playful at their most tenderly affecting and uplifting at their most frustrated. “I’m doing it different now/ Trying it out loud,” he sings on the title track. The thrill, of course, is that it can be so many things, for so many people.
We caught up with Steve Ciolek for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the origins of superviolet, his songwriting process, the making of Infinite Spring, and more.
Tell me about the origins of superviolet. What was your mindset creatively after the Sidekicks broke up, and how did you approach songwriting differently?
A lot of these songs, like ‘Locket’ and ‘Big Songbirds Don’t Cry’, we had jammed on as a band and worked out arrangements for. Matt, who plays drums on the superviolet record, he played in the Sidekicks, so he was already familiar with the songs in a way. That was nice, because it wasn’t like, “Where do I start? I have to write the first song.” There were already songs that I felt really good about. ‘Good Ghost’ was already written, ‘Infinite Spring’ was already written, mostly. There were pieces of the puzzle already laid out, so the process wasn’t that different from any other songwriting process for me. It always starts with trying to figure out what what this weird, vague, blurry picture of this collection of songs is, and trying to piece it together.
How did the nature of the songs change when superviolet became a more defined project? Was there something about the bigger picture that became clearer then?
I think so. Sonically, there was the possibilities of playing quieter and performing songs in as quiet of a setting, or singing in a vocal range that just feels really comfortable for me. When I was writing songs, I could just sit there, and if it sounds good when I’m just sitting and playing the song, that’s how it’s gonna sound on the recording. When I wrote ‘Good Ghost’ and ‘Big Songbirds Don’t Cry’ and ‘Locket’, it felt like a new chapter, in a way, for me, in terms of songwriting. I just felt like, overall, what I wanted to try to communicate, I was maybe falling a little bit short in some of my previous songs. I did this like week-long tour with Slaughter Beach, Dog – this is when the Sidekicks were still a band. I think ‘Good Ghost’ was somewhat finished and I was still working on ‘Big Songbirds’, so I was like, “I want to try and finish these songs so I can play them at these shows,” and part of that was, I’m playing these shows by myself, and the lyrics are front and center, so they have catch your attention – they have to be the most compelling part of the song.
I think that was a part of it, just trying to push myself a little further out of my comfort zone and look a little more inward and think about what’s going on in my life. And around that time, I was falling in love and involved in a more committed relationship. That has all these beautiful things you can think about for days and just try to wrap your mind around it, but you can’t, so then you write a song about it.
There’s this line on ‘Locket’: “How come all my candor just comes across as grandeur,” and then “comes across as jokes.” The song talks about love, but I imagine you must have experienced that feeling with songwriting, too – how something that’s honest or nuanced might be interpreted once it’s in the hands of the listener.
Yeah. And it’s not like a bad thing that when people hear songs, you try to figure out, “Alright, what’s the song generally about?” But I always feel like when I’m writing songs, I’m trying to write about this topic or this thing I’m thinking about, but I’m trying to figure out the most nuanced way to look at it, because that’s how life is. I try to maybe look at it from a different angle, or think about it as on a different timeline, or as this character experiencing it, and I almost try to remove myself from that. But usually, someone would talk to me, and the de facto is that they assume the song is about you and about an experience that you probably had, and these are real people in your life. And that’s a fun way to think about songs, but to me, it’s more like, “Well, within the song, yes, all of those things are true.” That’s what’s great about writing creatively, is that you can just make the rules, and you can make up whatever you want to happen in the song.
When you came up with ‘Big Songbirds Don’t Cry’, was it liberating to write through that perspective that sort of distances yourself from the speaker, or was it actually more vulnerable?
It was fun for me in my mind, because obviously, I relate to the songbird in the song, but it was also observational at the same time. People that write songs – that’s a way to channel whatever feelings you’re going through and create something, but at the same time, maybe you don’t have great coping mechanisms or social skills otherwise. It started with thinking about, like, guys in emo rock bands that maybe can be really emotionally vulnerable in the lyrics, but maybe there’s more work to be done on just the human communication part.
Are there any aspects of songwriting that were vital to you when you first started Sidekicks that you still try to keep as guiding principles?
Beyond the excitement of just coming up with the song – I think that never goes away. After the first crappy songs that we wrote as a punk band, that’s maybe when that world opened up in my mind where I would start trying to come up with melodies, trying to come up with the next song or the next album. I think that excitement of what’s on the horizon, what am I going to do in the future – that was the main driving thing for me. When the record rollout is happening, I’m trying to think about what the next thing is going to be. I try to start it as early as as I can, almost – that’s for me the most exciting part of it all, because it’s so open.
I’m interested in the difference between that kind of anticipation and excitement, and the expectations that build the further you go along as a band. Something you said was on your mind when you were making Happiness Hours was the thought of: if this was the last thing you put out, would you be happy with it? Is there a part of that philosophy you tried to carry over when starting the new project?
Yeah. Because this is a new chapter in my life, I always try to pump myself up and be like, “What if this is the last thing I do?” I’ve always wanted to make this album that could be anything, where it’s like, any of these quiet songs, any production idea, I’m gonna try and flesh that out. Working with Zac and Matty, we were all very down with including whatever types of songs Obviously, I don’t think this record’s some experimental thing, but it’s a little bit further than the Sidekicks maybe had gone previously, as far as exploring those different dynamics, different tones and production things. Being a little bit more in control of that kind of stuff – us self-recording it allowed for being like, “I’ve got all the time, I’m gonna spend as much time as I feel like I have to until it fees right.” Or basically until everyone else around me just says, “It’s good, stop!” [laughs] That’s the hardest part, especially when you’re doing something yourself. You don’t have studio time and there’s no money being sunk into it. It’s like, “I can just keep EQing this kick drum for six hours and no one will stop me.”
Was that a mindset you had with every album, or was there more of a real sense of finality with Happiest Hours?
I don’t know, because we started the band when we were in high school, and then pretty quickly Ryan [Starinsky] joined and started playing bass. But at so many different points, when we had different member changes, I thought of being like, “This feels like a good time to say this band’s done.” Our band wasn’t like, “We are a pop punk band, and we are always going to make like pop punk albums.” I feel like this superviolet record, there’s a lot of songs on it that would have just been the on the next Sidekicks album. But we talked about it so many times, changing the band name or just starting something new, just because it felt like it would give it a little bit more of a clean slate, where the songs don’t have to exist in the context of the rest of these albums. It’s a fun way to conceptualize a band’s catalog, being like, “You went from this to this, that’s a cool progression.” But I think of them more as, “This is this thing, and this is this thing.” I almost feel like every record was maybe like, “I don’t know if we’re gonna do another one.” [laughs] It’s a good way to put as much as you can into it to serve the songs.
The theme that really binds Infinite Spring together is possibility – whether it’s do with this new phase in your musical trajectory, falling in love, or even the time of year in which it was made. Were you conscious of how these different parts of your life were aligning in that way?
I was probably thinking about it. Using infinite spring as the metaphor came literally from the spring –spring gives me this burst of energy that gets my brain going like, “You could do anything!” [laughs] In a way, I feel my best when I’m in that kind of mindset. But it’s not a lasting thing, and it’s not like it happens every single year or something. But it was a pattern that I noticed. To me, it’s a way of looking at the future in a positive light and being amazed at what’s around, and then being amazed at what the future might hold. Within the context of love, but also in the context of songwriting or in the context of self-reflection; how you can become a better person, or better at communicating, or better at just being present for somebody. It felt like it applied in so many different ways.
‘Good Ghost’ is an incredibly heartfelt song. What do you remember about writing it?
At the time, me and Kosoma, who is my wife – she was living in Kentucky, and I was living in Ohio. She was only there for a year during grad school, and I remember we would just talk every night for a long time. You don’t run out stuff to talk about, but at some point it’s like, “Alright, I gotta go.” It’s kind of along with the song ‘Locket’, where it’s just long-distance – you’re telling someone you love them, they know you love them, but at some point it’s like, “I don’t know how to communicate this.” You just want to be there with this person, and you just feel so connected with them, I suppose. And then, I remember we hung up, and I just sat down – this is the stereotypical “I picked up the guitar and started playing the song,” but that is what that song was. Picked up the 12-string – that’s the only song I’ve written on 12-string, and the chord progression sounded cool. I came up with the “If you become a ghost, you’d be good ghost” thing, and then I wrote maybe the first part of it. I had to get back into that headspace of thinking about a connection with somebody else, but in a way that maybe transcends time. Admittedly, I’m a little bit more of a scientific-minded person – as evidenced by my scholastic endeavours [Ciolek studies physiotherapy at the Ohio State University] – but it was interesting to try to think about ghosts and the feeling of someone else’s presence when they’re not actually there.
How did the collaborative element of the process end up shaping the record?
When we were working on the songs, we were mostly only hanging out with each other. Zac, who produced the record, and his wife Leticia lived on the department next to us. So he would just hop the fence over, he would sit in the room right there, and we’d set up the preamp. I just would sit in a chair there, we put a mike in the hallway, and that was how all the vocals were done. The same room you wrote the song in is the room where you’re recording. We would make dinner a lot of times and just hang out all together. All through the whole process, I’m sitting down playing a song for Kosoma and we’re just talking through it. Leticia played flute on ‘Dream Dating’, Kosoma played clarinet on ‘Dream Dating’ and sang harmonies on ‘Locket’. Matty has been my best friend since like 15.
It was this very close-knit group of people that felt different than being in a band. It felt more like collaborating with these people that I love and want to share this process with, and they were really gracious with helping me sort through my ideas or encouraging me. When I hear the record, those are the things that I get, at least for me – that’s the place it puts my mind in, and I’m super proud of that.
You talked about this headspace not being a lasting thing – and the bittersweetness of Infinite Spring, to me, is that the periods of time that seem open to limitless possibilities are also the most ephemeral. It’s natural for some of that excitement to have faded away, but are there lessons from that time that you still latch onto?
At the time when I was making the record, it was like the door had just opened and all these things were happening right now in front of me. The future felt – not like it could be anything, but there were so many amazing things on the horizon, at least in my life. And now I just feel like I’m… living in it, I suppose? [laughs]
Like, living the dream as opposed to living in it [a reference to a lyric from the song ‘Infinite Spring’]?
Honestly, yeah. It’s strange, because I feel like there’s an aspect of some of the songs that came out of a frustration of just being in the cycle of touring and putting out music and playing shows – maybe not frustrated, but so fulfilled through art, yet also maybe somewhat unfulfilled as a working artist. Whereas right now, I feel more connected with myself as an artist, and as a person that’s just trying to create things and put them out there. This record feels like I have more of my identity in that. We just got to sit down and put sounds onto my computer and fiddle with them until they sounded cool to us, and then put them out. That, to me, just feels very wild.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.