Sufjan Stevens Biography
Sufjan Stevens Biography
Sufjan Stevens (pronounced , born July 1, 1975) is an American singer-songwriter and musician born in Detroit, Michigan. Stevens first began releasing his music on the Asthmatic Kitty label, a label he formed with his stepfather, beginning with the 2000 release A Sun Came. He is best known for his 2005 album Illinois, which hit number one in the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart, and for the song “Chicago”.
Stevens has released albums of varying styles, from the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit and the lo-fi folk of Seven Swans to the symphonic instrumentation of Illinois and Christmas-themed Songs for Christmas. Stevens makes use of a variety of instruments, often playing many of them himself on the same track, and writes music in various time signatures. He is considered part of the folk revival in indie pop, but his influences are very broad. His music has been likened to electronica and aesthetically compared to the minimalism of Steve Reich. Stevens’ music often has spiritual themes, and many songs (most notably on Seven Swans) draw inspiration from Bible tales.
Stevens has garnered much interest from the press for his “Fifty States Project”, his aim being to complete an album about each of the states of the United States. Stevens has thus far completed two state records, Illinois and his home state record Michigan. He has stated that he remains serious about its completion. In interviews, Stevens has alluded to many different states as his next project, including Oregon, California and New Jersey.
Stevens was born in Detroit and lived there until the age of nine, when his family moved to Petoskey, Michigan. In Petoskey he attended Harbor Light Christian School as well as the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. He went on to attend Hope College in Holland, Michigan and received a Master of Fine Arts from The New School in New York City.
Sufjan is a Persian name that predates Islam and most famously belonged to Abu Sufyan, a figure from early Islamic history. The name was given to Stevens by the founder of Subud, an inter-faith, non-religious spiritual community to which his parents belonged when he was born. The name “Sufjan” means “comes with a sword.”
Stevens’ parents later gave him the option to change his name, but he was unable to think of a name that he liked; his parents later admitted that they did not really have the money for him to legally change his name.
A multi-instrumentalist, Stevens is known for his use of the banjo, but also plays guitar, piano, drums, and several other instruments, often playing all of these on his albums through the use of multitrack recording. While in school, he studied the oboe and English horn, which he also plays on his albums. This multitude of instruments, including string and horn orchestrations, figure prominently in his compositions, giving his music a symphonic sound.
Stevens currently lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, in New York City, where he makes up the Asthmatic Kitty Records staff of the Brooklyn office. His brother Marzuki Stevens is a nationally recognized marathon runner.
Stevens at the Independent Music Awards, Webster Hall, New York City
Stevens began his musical career as a member of Marzuki, a folk-rock band from Holland, Michigan. He also played (and continues to play) various instruments for Danielson Famile. While in school at Hope College, Stevens wrote and recorded his debut solo album, A Sun Came, which he released on Asthmatic Kitty Records, a record label he founded with his stepfather. He later moved to New York City, where he was enrolled in a writing program at the New School for Social Research.
While in New York, Stevens composed and recorded the music for his second album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, a song cycle based around the animals of the Chinese Zodiac that ventured into electronica.
Stevens followed this with the first album to be released as a part of his “Fifty States Project”, a collection of folk songs and instrumentals inspired by his home state of Michigan. The result, the expansive Michigan included odes to cities including Detroit and Flint, the Upper Peninsula, and vacation areas such as Tahquamenon Falls. Melded into the scenic descriptions and characters are his own declarations of faith, sorrow, love, and the regeneration of Michigan.
Following the release of Michigan, Stevens compiled a collection of songs recorded previously into a side project, the Christian-folk album Seven Swans, which was released in March 2004.
Next he released the second in the 50 states project, titled Illinois. Among the subjects explored on Illinois are the cities of Chicago, Decatur and Jacksonville; the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the state’s observance of a holiday in honor of Casimir Pulaski; the poet Carl Sandburg; and the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Over the 2005 winter holidays, Stevens recorded an album with Rosie Thomas and Denison Witmer playing banjo and providing vocals. In April 2006, Pitchfork erroneously announced that Stevens and Thomas were having a baby together, but were forced to print a retraction. Witmer and Thomas later admitted it was an April Fools’ prank. In December 2006, the collaborative recordings were digitally released by Nettwerk as a Rosie Thomas album titled These Friends of Mine. The album was released in physical form on March 13, 2007.
On September 11, 2006, in Nashville, Tennessee, Stevens debuted a new composition, a ten minute-plus piece titled “Majesty Snowbird”. On November 21, 2006, a five CD box set Songs for Christmas was released, which contains originals and Christmas standards recorded every year since 2001 (except 2004). Stevens undertook in the project initially as an exercise to make himself ‘appreciate’ Christmas more. The songs were the work of an annual collaboration between Stevens and different collaborators, including minister Vito Aiuto; the songs themselves were distributed to friends and family.
In April 2007, in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Stevens made unannounced appearances on Thomas’s tour in support of this album. In 2007 he did a Take-Away Show acoustic video session shot by Vincent Moon standing on a roof in Cincinnati. In 2007, he played shows sporadically, including playing at the Kennedy Center to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Stage concerts. He was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to create a “music and film work” titled The BQE, described as “a symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway”. It premiered at BAM’s Next Wave festival on November 1-3, 2007. Stevens has also worked as an essayist, contributing to Asthmatic Kitty Records’ “Sidebar” feature and Topic Magazine. He wrote the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a short story about his early childhood education and learning to read titled How I Trumped Rudolf Steiner and Overcame the Tribulations of Illiteracy, One Snickers Bar at a Time. That winter, he hosted an “Xmas Song Exchange Contest” in which winner Alec Duffy won exclusive rights to the original Stevens song “The Lonely Man of Winter.” The track has never been uploaded, and can now only be heard only by attending private listening parties at Duffy’s home in Brooklyn.
Stevens has contributed to the music of Denison Witmer, Soul Junk, Half-handed Cloud, Brother Danielson, Danielson Famile, Serena Maneesh, Castanets, Will Stratton, Shannon Stephens, Clare and the Reasons, and Liz Janes. In 2007 alone, Stevens played piano on The National’s album Boxer, produced and contributed many instrumental tracks to Rosie Thomas’s album These Friends of Mine, multiple instruments on Ben + Vesper’s album All This Could Kill You and oboe and vocals to David Garland’s new album Noise in You.
He has contributed covers of Tim Buckley (“She Is”), Joni Mitchell (“Free Man in Paris”), Daniel Johnston (“Worried Shoes”), John Fahey (“Variation on ‘Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park”), The Innocence Mission (“The Lakes of Canada”), Bob Dylan (“Ring Them Bells”) and The Beatles (“What Goes On”) to various tribute albums. His versions of “Free Man in Paris” and “What Goes On” are notable for only retaining the lyrics of the original, as Stevens has taken his own interpretation on the melody and arrangement. His rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” has a similar rearranged melody and arrangement as well as a whole new verse.
His song “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” was featured in the 2006 British comedy-drama Driving Lessons, starring Harry Potter’s Julie Walters and Rupert Grint.
In April 2009, Stevens uploaded a song about director Sofia Coppola online. This song was written while Stevens was in college, from a series of songs about names.
” A few weeks later, our dog got hit by a snowplow and I forgot all about the problem of names. Until college, when I learned to play the guitar, and, as an exercise, started writing songs (very poorly executed) in the same way that Henry Ford produced the automobile: assembly-line-style. I wrote songs for the days of the week (poor Monday!). Songs for the planets (poor Pluto!). Songs for the Apostles (poor Judas!). And, finally, when all else failed, I started a series of songs for names. Each piece was a rhetorical, philosophical, musical rumination on all the possible names I had entertained years before when my parents had given me the one chance to change my own. Oh fates! I sang these songs in the privacy of my dorm room, behind closed doors, pillows and cushions stuffed in the air vents so no one would hear. And then I almost failed Latin class, my grades plummeted, my social life dissolved into ping pong tournaments in the residence halls, and, gradually, my interest in music (or anything divine, creative, fruitful, enriching) completely waned. I turned to beer. And cigarettes. And TV sitcoms. And candy bars. Oh well! A perfectly good youth wasted on junk food! That is, until a few months ago, when I came across some of the old name songs, stuffed onto tape cassettes, 4-track recorders, forgotten boxes, forgotten shelves, forgotten hard drives. It was like finding an old diary, or a high school yearbook, senior picture with lens flare and pockmarks, slightly cute and embarrassing. What was I thinking? ”
In September 2009, Stevens began performing four new songs while on his Fall tour, “All Delighted People”, “Impossible Souls”, “There’s Too Much Love” and “Age of Adz”. It was also announced that Stevens would be releasing an album with his step father, Lowell Brams, entitled Music For Insomnia. The album is due December 8, 2009.
The Fifty States Project
Original album cover of Illinois featuring depiction of Superman
Beginning with Michigan, Stevens announced an intent to write an album for each of the fifty U.S. states, although in interviews he wavers between utter sincerity and self-deprecating irony when describing the idea.
Stevens spent the second half of 2004 researching and writing material for the second of these projects, this time focusing his efforts on Illinois. As with Michigan, Stevens used the state of Illinois as a leaping-off point for his more personal explorations of faith, family, love, and location. Though slated for general release on July 5, 2005, the album was briefly delayed by legal issues regarding the use of Superman in the original album cover artwork. In the double vinyl release, a balloon sticker has been placed over Superman on the cover art of the first 5,000 copies. The next printings had an empty space where the Superman image was, as with the CD release.
The widely acclaimed Illinois was the highest-rated album of 2005 on the Metacritic review aggregator site, based on glowing reviews from Pitchfork, The Onion A/V Club, Spin, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, KEXP, and The Guardian. The 2006 PLUG Independent Music Awards awarded Stevens with the Album Of The Year, Best Album Art/Packaging, and Male Artist Of The Year. Pitchfork Media, No Ripcord, and Paste Magazine named Illinois as the editors’ choice for best album of 2005 and Stevens received the 2005 Pantheon prize, awarded to noteworthy albums selling fewer than 500,000 copies, for Illinois. In April 2006, Stevens announced that 21 pieces of music he had culled from the Illinois recording sessions would be incorporated into a new album, called The Avalanche, which was released on July 11, 2006.
They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhhh!
from Illinois (2005)
The next states to be taken on in the project have been reported as Oregon and Rhode Island. In late 2005 and early 2006 Stevens played a new instrumental track titled “The Maple River”. There are various Maple Rivers in the U.S., so the particular river mentioned in the title of the song could suggest plans for Minnesota, Iowa, North or South Dakota. There is also evidence to suggest the possibility of a New York album. Not only is Stevens’s current residence in New York City, but at the footnote of his writing piece titled “Friend Rock”, Stevens stated that he was reading a biography on Robert Moses, who is a notable New Yorker. In late 2007, Stevens debuted several new songs about New York, including “BQE”, a track about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, one of many urban developments designed and spearheaded by Robert Moses.
Stevens made brief mention to a possible collaboration with Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Rafter on an album about California. Stevens also recorded “The Lord God Bird” about the reported sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, in Arkansas (known as the ‘lord god’ or ‘great god’ bird because of its breathtaking appearance). This was in connection with a National Public Radio piece in which “independent radio producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister were curious about how Stevens writes his songs.”
“Sufjan Stevens is not going to write a record for each of the 50 states after all” was the original text included on the online liner notes for their Mews Too: An Asthmatic Kitty Compilation disc released on February 7, 2006. This statement was possibly included as a joke, as the text has since been removed and the current liner notes related to Stevens reads, “18. Sufjan Stevens can fold a fitted-sheet (he once worked as a professional folder in a commercial laundromat).”
In an article published on February 24, 2008, in New York Magazine, Stevens implied that New Jersey could be the target of his next state project. After he gave a brief quote about the New Jersey Turnpike, he was asked, “So is this the next musical project?” Sufjan joked, “New Jersey, the musical—an ode to the turnpike.”
On May 31, 2007, Asthmatic Kitty announced that Stevens would be premiering a new project titled The BQE in early November 2007. The project, dubbed a “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway”, was manifested in a live show. The BQE featured an original film by Stevens (shot in Super 8 mm film and standard 16 mm), while Stevens and a backing orchestra provided the live soundtrack. The performance used 36 performers which included a small band, a wind and brass ensemble, string players, horn players, and hula hoopers. There were no lyrics to the music. The BQE was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their Next Wave Festival and performed on three consecutive nights from November 1–3, 2007.
The performance sold out the 2,109 seat BAM Opera House without any advertising. After three weeks of rehearsing the piece with the three dozen musicians involved, he presented the 30-minute composition. The BQE was followed by an additional one hour of concert by Stevens and his orchestra. The BQE won the 2008 Brendan Gill Prize.
On July 21, 2009 it was announced that the multimedia package would be released on October 20, 2009. It will consist of a CD of the show’s soundtrack, a DVD of Brooklyn-Queen Expressway footage that accompanied the original performance (not a film of the performance itself), a 40-page booklet with liner notes and photos, and a stereoscopic 3D View-Master reel. There will also be a limited edition version that features the soundtrack on 180-gram vinyl and a 40-page BQE-themed comic book starring the show’s hula hooping wonder women, the Hooper Heroes.
Run Rabbit Run
Stevens has recently released news via his record label website that he is working on new material and that he will appear at All Tomorrow’s Parties New York, which is a music festival in New York. His new material will be rearranged versions of his old album Enjoy Your Rabbit for strings, performed by the Osso String Quartet, and will be entitled Run Rabbit Run. The album was released on October 6th, 2009.
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Many of his songs have spiritual allusions. He says he does not try to make music for the sake of preaching. “I don’t think music media is the real forum for theological discussions,” says Stevens. “I think I’ve said things and sung about things that probably weren’t appropriate for this kind of forum. And I just feel like it’s not my work or my place to be making claims and statements, because I often think it’s misunderstood.”
Such themes are most notable on his album Seven Swans, the songs “Abraham”, “Seven Swans”, “To Be Alone with You”, “He Woke Me Up Again”, “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” and “The Transfiguration” directly address Christianity. In “Abraham”, Stevens recounts the Old Testament story in the Book of Genesis. The lyrics of “The Transfiguration” follow the Biblical accounts of Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9: 1-8, and Luke 9:28-36. The title of “All the Trees of the Fields Will Clap Their Hands” is a quote from Isaiah 55:12.
During a 2004 interview with Adrian Pannett for Comes with a Smile magazine, when asked how important faith was to his music, he responded, “I don’t like talking about that stuff in the public forum because, I think, certain themes and convictions are meant for personal conversation.”
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