The year was 2008. George W. Bush was working through his second term, and St. Louis singer-songwriter Ian Fisher decided he'd had enough of American politics. In fact, he'd had enough of America.
So that year, as he finished up his studies at Webster University, Fisher enrolled in a study-abroad program based in Vienna, Austria. Except when the semester ended, Fisher never came home.
Instead, he set out on what very well may end up being the longest European tour in history. Seven years and more than 500 concerts later, Fisher still isn't looking back.
Today, the Missouri native has addresses in both Berlin and Vienna, but he estimates that in the seven years he's been in Europe he hasn't accrued more than a year, cumulatively, inside those homes. It's a hard lifestyle to maintain, but Fisher doesn't see any other way.
"Touring, for me, is a kind of searching," he says. "It's going out there and making something happen and not just waiting for it. I know a lot of artists who wait around for things to happen to them, and most of them never get anywhere. Some of them get lucky, but I've always been a restless soul, and touring sort of suits that restlessness — it sort of feeds me, somehow. When I'm on tour I feel like I'm accomplishing something, even if I'm just going around in circles."
On Fisher's latest album, Nero, the indie-country musician explores the emotional effects of a life on the road. On Friday, October 23, Fisher will return to St. Louis to play a record release party at Off Broadway before setting off on his first real American tour.
Nero is named after the Roman emperor who is commonly believed to have started the Great Fire of Rome in an effort to clear crops and build a palace.
"I don't think it's healthy to destroy everything you once were, but sometimes destruction is construction too, on a personal level," Fisher says. "I feel like over the last six years that I wrote this album, I destroyed a lot of the things that made me me, and there's some kind of nostalgic loss that comes with that. There's this nostalgia of looking back on something that you'll never have again — which is youth. Which is being a naïve young 21-year-old American coming to Vienna for the first time. I know I'll never have that again; I know that my hometown will never be what it was when it was my only hometown. I know that Vienna will never be this royal city of endless opportunities that I once perceived it as — this place that I threw so much meaning onto.
"There's something sad about that," he continues. "But I think that it's also something that I kind of like — this nostalgic looking back — because it makes me aware of the things that I've had and this path that I've blazed for myself. It makes me proud, to a certain extent, of what I've accomplished."
Fisher grew up on a farm in Ste. Genevieve. These days, he rarely makes it back to the United States, but he says that Ste. Genevieve, his farm and his family will always be his primary base. Still, after seven years abroad, Fisher appears to be losing track of what it feels like to be truly "at home."
On "Just Like a Stranger," Fisher sings:
I'm always wondering how it'd be,
To move back to Ste. Genevieve,
To start a little family and do some settling down.
But I got sidetracked making contact,
With every point and place and face and town,
I did some living, did some thinking,
And did my fair share of rambling 'round.
And when I got back they'd say, "Get back in your place, boy,
This ain't the city, now go back to where you came from."
And I'd say, "Man, I came from here,
And though I may seem a stranger,
Our stories are quite the same,
But I can understand you, I'm a stranger everywhere."
Of the ten tracks on the album, "Just Like a Stranger" is the only one that was written in the United States. Fisher remembers sitting in a cabin on his family's farm, one he built with his father, and feeling like no matter where he goes, he will always be an outsider.
"This is kind of one of the cons that comes with being gone all the time. It's one of the things you lose," he says. "Maybe it's something you gain, too. But it often feels more like a loss when you feel like, no matter where you go, the average person you meet is instantly going to not be able to relate to you."
In some senses, Fisher is living the dream. Even when making ends meet is a struggle, he's still surviving as a touring musician, sharing his music and exploring the far corners of a foreign continent. But the thing about living a dream is that once it becomes real, it loses its dreaminess. The romance and the luster are drowned in the mundane and the everyday-ness of it all.
There are moments when Fisher revels in the beauty of his chaotic lifestyle, but there are also times when he misses staying in one place. He misses Missouri. He misses small talk, naiveté and smiling at strangers on the street. He misses hot wings, stock-car races, pulled-pork sandwiches, having a larger selection of films on Netflix and being able to easily find books in English. Most of all, he misses his farm and his family.
Despite the nostalgia and the occasional homesickness, Fisher is adamant that he has no regrets. He imagines that five years from now, he'll probably still be doing what he's doing.
"It is exhausting, but it's also pretty entertaining," he says. "When you tour like this it seems to stretch out time, to where a day becomes a week and a week becomes a month and so on and so forth. And I kind of like that. It's the closest you can get to immortality."