INTO THE MYS­TIC

The spir­i­tu­ally in­fused mu­sic of Suf­jan Stevens is al­most im­pos­si­ble to clas­sify, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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.

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