"Every once in a while, you hear something that's incredible."
Steven Foxbury, he of the late-'90s Orlando pop-rock outfit My Friend Steve — a band best known for its 1998 semi-hit, "Charmed" — and a first-rate songwriter in his own right, is telling me how he came to manage Matthew Fowler, an earnest, soulful, raspy-but-sweet-voiced 19-year-old possessed of an indelible songwriting maturity and knack for melody, a kid compared most often to the likes of Damien Rice and Glen Hansard. Foxbury, you see, doesn't manage bands — he never wanted to. There's too much crap that goes along with it.
For the last few years, he's been in Pittsburgh, running a recording studio. Last summer, he was
in Orlando visiting family, when his brother-in-law's sister's daughter passed him a disc her friend Matthew had made (and for which she'd done the artwork). Foxbury didn't think much of it. People pass him records all the time.
He got back to Pittsburgh, and put on Fowler's self-produced and -recorded album, Beginning.
"It seriously stopped me in my tracks," Foxbury says. "I listened to the whole thing, start to finish. It was" — he pauses, searching for the right word — "special. There is a magic" — another pause — "something in his music, his vision and the content of his songs."
If you didn't know Foxbury, if you didn't know how preternaturally anti-PR-bullshit he is, you might assume he's talking up his protégé in some hyperbolic, grandiose fashion, that he's selling him. And then you'd listen to Beginning and realize how wrong you are. Foxbury's not selling, he's testifying. And then you'd learn that Fowler began writing these songs when he was 14 years old, and you can't help but wonder what he's going to sound like when he's 24, or 34, when life experience catches up to his talent.
I first saw Fowler at a sort of coming-out performance Foxbury arranged for a few dozen journalists and musician friends, at the home of Orlando folksinger Terri Binion. There was no mic, no lights, no stage, just Fowler and his guitar and voice and harmonica. And he killed it — an impeccable, stunningly emotional performance.
Since then, Fowler's seen his star begin to rise — playing bigger and better venues throughout Florida, drawing the attention of American Songwriter magazine, inking a deal with the artist promotion company Missing Piece Group (which also counts Rosanne Cash among its clients). Beginning is scheduled for a March 25 re-release (Fowler originally self-released the album the weekend he turned 19, and sold 1,000 actual CDs on his own in just a few months, not counting downloads).
Much like Fowler's relationship with Foxbury, Beginning came together without much forethought. A buddy of Fowler's asked him to play guitar for him on tour, and to open with his acoustic material. Fowler wanted to have something to sell. So he set up a makeshift studio in his parents' kitchen.
"I just started gathering equipment from friends," he says. The tracks were mostly cut live — guitar, piano, a little trumpet here and there. Textured, but minimalist, allowing his big, emotive voice to dominate. Beautiful in its simplicity. Occasionally leaning toward overwrought, but charmingly so.
Beginning's "Don't Change," the first song Fowler ever wrote, is a very teenage rumination on friendship. "Near" conveys youthful love and longing, the kind that's all-encompassing and all-possessing. "Beginners" is a quite-self-aware confession of inexperience and wonder. ("Though I'm scared we're way too young/We will never say we're dumb/'Cause tears of love and pain we'll cry/We are beginners, you and I.")
None of these sentiments would feel out of place in, say, a show on The CW. Yet they're masked in an aching world-weariness and well-thought-out arrangements that are at once sparse and lush.
And the songs, like their creator, are growing up. "A lot of the songs, they're kind of vague in a way," Fowler told me. "Even to me, some of the meanings have changed over the years. I can still assign any meaning I want to them."
Fowler's young, yes, but his is an old soul, and that permeates his songs. Or, as Foxbury puts it, "There's a wisdom there well beyond his years."