INTO THE MYSTIC
The spiritually infused music of Sufjan Stevens is almost impossible to classify, writes Iain Shedden
SUFJAN Stevens isn’t good at being a rock star. ‘‘ I don’t have any moves,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t have a drug habit. I’m certainly well behaved. All I have is a loud mouth.’’ Actually, it isn’t that loud, at least not in conversation, but his voice, a soft American purr, is certainly far- reaching.
In the space of seven years and as many albums, the New York- based multi- instrumentalist and songwriter has formed his entry in the rock music lexicon. His work lies somewhere between new folk and pop but could just as easily be described as experimental or even avantgarde. Jazz, new age and African music are significant influences, too. All in all, the Stevens musical hybrid is hard to pin down.
Ironically, this is partly the reason for the 32- year- old’s success. His music is ambitious at times, incorporating a variety of instruments including prominent horns and strings, sometimes with intricate arrangements, but just as often — even within the same song — it has an abundance of exquisite pop melodies. On top of that, some lyrics are marked by religious imagery or spiritual overtones, while others are narrative journeys through relationships and places.
Stevens’s manner is warm and gentle, and he is surprisingly open and responsive given that he has been known to be evasive in interviews. This, however, is usually related to inquiries about his lyrics, especially those relating to faith and spirituality. He doesn’t want to be misunderstood, he has said.
I believe that music is a sacred form and it can be a language in which you communicate with divine things,’’ he says.
Love is a popular subject of songs because love is a sacred and mysterious and abstract thing, and we can find ourselves stumbling for the nomenclature of love. A harmonic approach is much more direct.’’
Some of his poetic inspiration can be traced to childhood. His name, pronounced soof- yahn’’, is Arabic in origin and features in early Islamic history. Stevens’s parents belonged to an inter- faith spiritual community called Subud when he was born and the name was given to him there. Later, he went to a Christian school in his native Michigan. All his albums, although not all the songs, have spiritual or religious references, but some songs are ambiguous or abstract in meaning. Recently a fan declared on a Stevensdedicated website: Sufjan, why do you keep us all in the dark?’’ When I mention this, he rises to the topic.
For a listener to demand that my lyrics be clarified or explained or summarised . . . that’s a lot to ask because who’s to say I know for certain what anything is about?’’ he says. I believe that the song exists outside of me and that when I’m singing or writing I’m participating in something transcendent and that the song is as mysterious to me as it is to the listener.’’
His albums thus far include two named after US states, Michigan ( 2003) and Illinois ( 2005), which may or may not be followed by one each for the 48 remaining states. Sandwiched between those came Seven Swans ( 2004), an acousticbased collection of Christian folk tunes. Last year, just because he could, Stevens released a five- CD — yes five — boxed set of Christmas songs, some original, some traditional.
One may think he was being deliberately, obstinately diverse or perhaps he isn’t good at staying in the one place, musically speaking. Whatever the motivation, his talent is prolific. Australians will get to witness it next month when Stevens tours here for the first time, a trip that includes three shows as part of the Sydney Festival. The line- up for all those shows includes a full band and a five- piece strings and horn section, essentially the ensemble that has accompanied him on tour for the past two years.
The most extravagant and demanding of his performances of late came last month, when Stevens completed a work, without lyrics, The BQE, which he dubbed a symphonic and cinematic exploration’’ of New York’s BrooklynQueens Expressway. The show, over three nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Art, included a 30- piece chamber orchestra, a backdrop shot by Stevens on 8mm film and a team of hula- hoopers, none of whom will be accompanying him to Australia.
It was a fiasco,’’ he says. I use the word fiasco provocatively or very creatively. I call anything that is a bigger deal than it’s worth a fiasco. This is by far the most complicated thing I’ve ever performed. It was an epic event for me because it was the accumulation of nine months of labour.’’
Stevens was similarly provocative in 2002, when he announced that he was embarking on a project that involved recording an album for each of the 50 US states.
He admits now that the comments weren’t meant to be taken as gospel. It’s absurd is what it is,’’ he says. I indulge in hyperbole and provocation because it keeps me on my toes. I often say things just to try them on.’’
* * * CLEARLY, Stevens has a steady supply of creative juices. He grew up in the town of Petoskey, Michigan, and had his first brush with music there while at high school, where he learned oboe and English horn.
Later he mastered piano, drums, guitar and banjo, and has been adding to that list as his career progresses.
His first adventure in playing music collectively began at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He joined a band, Marzuki, with fellow students and eventually wrote songs for them, but says he never felt as if it was going to be a long- term project.
The band was an experiment, really. It was a college band. We were all really young and immature and naive. I wasn’t singing at all then. I was just playing recorder and piano. Then I took up the guitar just so I could be more useful to the band.’’
However, the guitar- playing inspired him to write. When the songs he wrote didn’t suit the Marzuki style, he began recording them himself and the bulk of those formed his first album, A Sun Came ( 2000).
Stevens was guided early on by the musical tastes of his stepfather, with whom he formed a record label, Asthmatic Kitty.
He says having a label gives him the control he needs over his work. It’s important, he says, particularly during a technological revolution in the music industry, for artists now to have a greater responsibility to the business and industry side of their work’’.
The time of the major record labels is coming to a close,’’ he says. I don’t want to sound apocalyptic about it because I think a lot of these companies have been supportive of music over
the years. They are meant to stay around, but there’s a lot of diversification around that will allow the artist a lot more control over what they do with fewer resources. I think that’s a good thing. I like being in control of the business side of my work.’’
On the musical side, it’s difficult to spot the influences that form Stevens’s eclectic material.
‘‘ Growing up I listened to a lot of really bad American top 40 music,’’ he recalls. ‘‘ But my one saving grace was my stepfather, who intermittently would send me tape cassettes of old records. He sent me some Nigerian afro- beat music such as King Sunny Ade.
‘‘ I love that stuff with the polyphonic rhythms and the guitar sounds.’’
English ’ 70s new age innovator Mike Oldfield was another early influence. It’s easy to appreciate that he would have something in common with a talented multi- instrumentalist such as Oldfield. Still, there’s little that’s identifiable from Oldfield’s landmark Tubular Bells in Stevens’s catalogue.
Stevens moved to Now York in 2000 and a second album followed in 2001. Enjoy Your Rabbit was a departure from his debut, a more electronic song cycle based on the signs of the Chinese zodiac. After that he began work on Michigan , sometimes known as Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State .
No matter what form his songwriting takes, the process, he says, is a mixture of hard work and inspiration, though he’s not sure about where the latter comes from. ‘‘ I’m just as curious as the listener,’’ he says. ‘‘ When I’m writing it’s a really ordinary enterprise. There’s nothing sublime about it. There’s a mechanical approach to an instrument — a guitar has frets, a piano has keys — I find that I often just go to them, with my eyes wide open and with great expectation and just hope for the best, but sometimes it can be tedious and painful.’’
Stevens’s fan base is of the gushing variety. They see him, somewhat ironically, almost as a deity. That’s rather different to how he views his audience, however. And he makes no apologies for that. His art, he says, is the focal point and the driving force.
‘‘ I don’t feel any obligation to the listener at all,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t feel any obligation to my audience. I find that my responsibilities are to my work, to the music. And that to me is an even greater responsibility. It requires a lot more maturity and creative wisdom. The audience will come and go and is an illusion; the public is a phantom. It doesn’t exist. I don’t reside in everyday life with a sense of responsibility to the public.’’ If this appears cold or even arrogant in newsprint, it sounds perfectly reasonable in the good- natured way he explains it. Just in case you missed the point, though, here it is again.
‘‘ To me, my public is just my friends and my family and the people with whom I work. The notion of the artist’s responsibility to the public can be really dangerous. If you meditate on their expectations too much you will squander all of your creative energy.’’
After his Australian visit, Stevens will direct his career in another new direction, this time experimenting further with his voice and with orchestration. ‘‘ I’ve been writing a lot recently,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m in a musical renaissance right now and learning a lot about my voice and arrangement . . . orchestration.
‘‘ I find that musically I’m able to express things that I wouldn’t be able to in conversation or in exposition.’’
Whatever that exploration turns into, we can be sure it will have Stevens’s far- reaching voice at its heart.
‘‘ It was never my intention to become the solo singer, performer, songwriter,’’ he says. ‘‘ I always thought I’d be the kind of musician that resides in the background . . . a kind of support musician for a band.’’
In the light of his prolific output, comment sounds suspiciously provocative.