Sufjan Stevens

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Sufjan Stevens
Stevens in concert at the Pabst Theater in 2006.
Stevens in concert at the Pabst Theater in 2006.
Background information
Born July 1, 1975 (1975-07-01) (age 33)
Origin Petoskey, Michigan, United States
Genre(s) Baroque pop, alternative
Occupation(s) Musician, singer-songwriter
Instrument(s) Vocals
Bass guitar
French Horn
Years active 1999–present
Label(s) Asthmatic Kitty
Sounds Familyre
Associated acts Marzuki, My Brightest Diamond, Danielson Famile

Sufjan Stevens (pronounced /ˈsuːfjɑːn/, born July 1, 1975) is an American singer-songwriter and musician from Petoskey, 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,[2] 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[3] and aesthetically compared to the minimalism of Steve Reich.[4] Stevens' music often has spiritual themes, and many songs (most notably on Seven Swans) draw inspiration from Bible stories.

Stevens has garnered much interest from the press for his "Fifty States Project",[5][6][7] 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.[8] In interviews, Stevens has alluded to many different states as his next project, including Oregon, California and New Jersey.[9]


[edit] Early life

Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up there until he was nine. His family then moved north to Petoskey.[10] In Petoskey he attended Harbor Light Christian School as well as the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. He attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan and received an MFA from The New School in New York City.[11]

Sufjan is a Arabic name[12] 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.[13] The name "Sufjan" means "comes with a sword."[14] 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 "symphony-like" sound.

Stevens currently lives in the Brooklyn borough of New York City in the neighborhood of Kensington,[15] where he makes up the Asthmatic Kitty Records staff of the Brooklyn office.[16] His brother Marzuki Stevens is a nationally recognized marathon runner.[17]

[edit] Career

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.[18][19][20] Witmer and Thomas later admitted it was an April Fools' prank.[21] 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".[22][23] 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.[24] 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.[25] In 2007, he played shows sporadically, including playing at the Kennedy Center to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Stage concerts.[26] 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".[27] It premiered at BAM's Next Wave festival on November 1-3, 2007.[28] Stevens has also worked as an essayist, contributing to Asthmatic Kitty Records' "Sidebar" feature and Topic Magazine.[29] 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.[30][31] 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." [32]

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.[33]

[edit] 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.[34]

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.[35] 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.[36] 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,[37] which was released on July 11, 2006.

The next states to be taken on in the project have been reported as Oregon and Rhode Island.[38] 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 or, already completed state, Michigan. 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.[39] 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.[40] Stevens also recorded "The Lord God Bird"[41] about the ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovered 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.[42] 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."[43]

[edit] The BQE

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 16mm), 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.[44] After three weeks of rehearsing the piece with the three dozen musicians[45] 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.[46]

[edit] Spiritual themes

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."[47]

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.[48] The title of "All the Trees of the Fields Will Clap Their Hands" is a quote from Isaiah 55:12.[49]

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."[50]

[edit] Discography

[edit] Studio albums

Year Album Billboard Hot 200 US Heatseekers US Independent US Digital US Internet Canada
2000 A Sun Came
2001 Enjoy Your Rabbit
2003 Michigan
2004 Seven Swans
2005 Illinois
121 1 4 172 23
2006 The Avalanche 71 4 6 93
2006 Songs for Christmas 122 3 17

[edit] Notes

  • A Sun Came was re-released on July 20, 2004.
  • Enjoy Your Rabbit was re-released June 8, 2004.
  • Michigan was released on vinyl on September 20, 2004.
  • Illinois was released on vinyl on November 21, 2005.
  • The Avalanche is also known as The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album.
  • As of July 2006, Stevens can no longer appear on the Top Heatseekers chart, as The Avalanche appeared in the Billboard Top 100.

[edit] Singles

[edit] Compilation appearances

[edit] Collaborations

[edit] Miscellaneous releases

  • Michigan Outtakes (first available as free mp3 download on Stevens' website; now included on the vinyl version of Michigan)[52]
  • "The Lord God Bird" (National Public Radio website, July 6, 2005)
  • Songs for Christmas, Vol VI: subtitle missing (Dec 2006, unreleased to the general public)
  • Songs for Christmas, Vol VII: subtitle missing (Dec 2007, unreleased to the general public)
  • Songs for Christmas, Vol VIII: Astral Inter Planet Space Captain Christmas Infinity Voyage (Dec 2008, unreleased to the general public)

[edit] As producer

[edit] Samples

[edit] References

  1. ^ "Sufjan Stevens' artist profile". Asthmatic Kitty Records. Retrieved on 2008-10-23. 
  2. ^ "Michigan review The Guardian".,,1246644,00.html. Retrieved on 2008-05-02. 
  3. ^ Pattison, Louis. "Avalanche Review". Retrieved on 2006-11-29. "Part psychedelic bluegrass, part extra-terrestrial electronic ambience, and part tribal percussion-fest" 
  4. ^ Gill, Andy. "Illinois Review". Uncut. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. "All rendered in a weird, pan-stylistic blend of, minimalism and American brass band music" 
  5. ^ "50 States Project Washington Post". Retrieved on 2008-05-02. 
  6. ^ "50 States Project: California next? NME". Retrieved on 2008-05-02. 
  7. ^ "Stevens picks next state Stereogum". Retrieved on 2008-05-02. 
  8. ^ "Sufjan Stevens Interview The Guardian".,,1601630,00.html. Retrieved on 2008-05-02. 
  9. ^ "50 States Project Washington Post". Retrieved on 2008-05-02. 
  10. ^ Retrieved on 2009-02-21.
  11. ^ Retrieved on 2009-03-30.
  12. ^ Harrington, Richard (September 23, 2005). ""Sufjan Stevens's Musical States of Mind"". Washington Post. Retrieved on 2006-08-27. 
  13. ^ Odland, Jeffrey (May 12, 2004). ""Junkmedia: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens"". Junk Media. Retrieved on 2006-08-27. 
  14. ^ Satran, Pamela. ""Nameberry - Baby Name Sufjan: Meaning, Origin, And Popularity"". Nameberry. Retrieved on 2008-12-04. 
  15. ^ Guarino, Mark (July 2006). "Sufjan Stevens: Wonder Boy". Harp Magazine. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  16. ^ "About Us". Asthmatic Kitty Records. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  17. ^ "Sufjan Stevens". Asthmatic Kitty Records. Retrieved on 2007-12-22. 
  18. ^ "Sufjan Stevens Hypothetical Tracklists". April 13, 2006. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  19. ^ "Sufjan E-Mails Smack Down". Filter Magazine. April 13, 2006. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  20. ^ Crock, Jason (May 15, 2006). "Interview: Sufjan Stevens". Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  21. ^ "April Fools". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  22. ^ "Sufjan Stevens, Paramount Theatre; Austin, TX 09-16-2006". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  23. ^ "Video/MP3: Sufjan Stevens: "Majesty Snowbird" (Live)". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  24. ^ "Songs For Christmas". Ashmtatic Kitty Records. November 21, 2006. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  25. ^,3128
  26. ^ "Live: Sufjan Stevens; Kennedy Center, Washington D.C., 5 February 2007". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  27. ^ BQE: Helpers, hula hoops, and birds, Asthmatic Kitty Records news release, 2007-11-01. Accessed 2008-08-23.
  28. ^ "Sufjan Goes High Art for Brooklyn Academy of Music". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  29. ^ "Sufjan Stevens Pens Personal Essay for Topic Magazine". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  30. ^ "Sufjan Pens Eggers' Nonrequired Collection Intro". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  31. ^ Dave Eggers and Sufjan Stevens, The best American nonrequired reading 2007, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin (2007). ISBN 0-61890281-3.
  32. ^ "Listening to Sufjan's "The Lonely Man of Winter" in Crown Heights". Village Voice. Retrieved on 2009-02-09. 
  33. ^ "Star Spangled Banner". Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  34. ^ "Illinois now available on vinyl". Asthmatic Kitty Records. Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  35. ^ "Best of 2005". Metacritic. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  36. ^ Music News - Sufjan Stevens nabs Pantheon
  37. ^ Cohen, Jonathan (April 7, 2006). "Stevens revisits 'Illinois'". Monsters and Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  38. ^ Dahlen, Chris (July 13, 2005). ""Art of the States"". SF Weekly. Retrieved on 2006-08-27. 
  39. ^ Asthmatic Kitty Records : Sidebar
  40. ^ "Interview: Questions for Rafter". Asthmatic Kitty Records. February 15, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-02-16. 
  41. ^ "Brinkley, Ark., Embraces 'The Lord God Bird'". National Public Radio. July 6, 2005. Retrieved on 2006-08-27. 
  42. ^ "Asthmatic Kitty Records : Various Artists > Mews Too: An Asthmatic Kitty Compilation". Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  43. ^ Sufjan Stevens Plans Ode to New Jersey Turnpike - New York Magazine
  44. ^ A look at the future - Sandow
  45. ^ Asthmatic Kitty Records : Sidebar
  46. ^ Sufjan Wins Prestigious Prize for His "BQE" Thing
  47. ^ Sylvester, Nick (August 8, 2005). "Without a Prayer". The Village Voice.,sylvester,66665,22.html. Retrieved on 2006-08-27. 
  48. ^ "Keyword Search = Transfiguration". Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  49. ^ "Isaiah 55:12 (New Living Translation)".;&version=51;. Retrieved on 2006-11-29. 
  50. ^ "Comes With A Smile - Number 15 - Summer 2004". All Good Naysayers, Speak up!. Retrieved on 2007-06-16. 
  51. ^ Stosuy, Brandon (June/July 2007). "Cue the bugle turbulent (the 2007 Believer music issue CD)". The Believer. Retrieved on 2008-04-04. 
  52. ^ Asthmatic Kitty Records : Sufjan Stevens > Michigan

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

[edit] Video

NAME Stevens, Sufjan
SHORT DESCRIPTION singer-songwriter
DATE OF BIRTH July 1, 1975
PLACE OF BIRTH Detroit, Michigan
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