You Like This Artist, You Just Don’t Know It Yet: Sufjan Stevens

sufjan-stevens.jpg“Its a Muslim name. I was sort of born into a Subud cult that has ties to Islam and Indonesia and Middle Eastern spiritualism. My parents were kind of trial-and-error when it came to religion.”
Sufjan Stevens (AV Club)
Sufjan Stevens is one of the leading musicians in the resurgence of indie and folk music. His extremely versatile style and seemingly unlimited songwriting imagination has vaulted his music to international acclaim, though his announced intent to release an album in all 50 states hasn’t been ignored either. His soft, melodic voice brings about similarities to Elliott Smith, but with a dozen more instruments behind him, all of which Sufjan plays himself when he records albums, using multi-tracking techniques to put them all together. This gives the music a different sound than most folk music or any music really, as guitars, banjos, pianos, trumpets, violins, and sometimes oboes (yes, oboes) flow together with lyrics combining elements of places such as Flint, Michigan with his own religious and personal experiences

Sufjan was born on July 1, 1975 in Petoskey, Michigan. His name is Armenian and means “comes with a sword.” He supposedly was named by the leader of Subud, a nonreligious, interfaith community where he was born. This environment growing up along with many different religious and family experiences has greatly impacted his own religious thinking and more importantly, his music. “The religious environment I grew up in was so varied, so inconsistent, and had so many faces. (Soft Revolution)” He considers himself a Christian, and while a lot of his music has to do with his spirituality, he has trouble expressing it, and usually tries to stay away from talking about it “I don’t like talking about that stuff in the public forum because, I think, certain themes and convictions are meant for personal conversation. (Comes with a Smile)” He lets his music speak for him, sometimes even doubtingly about the subject:

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

What makes his lyrics so diverse and interesting are how he mixes his deep religious base with the events, people, and places. He has done this primarily in his first two albums of his 50 state recording goal, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State (also known as Michigan) and Come on, Feel the Illinoise! (also known as Illinois). In the lines above from the song “Casimir Pulaski Day” he uses the odd Illinois holiday as the date in a deeply emotional and religious story about the death of a loved one. Its this kind of deep and thought-provoking music that has won him numerous awards, such as the 2006 PLUG Independent Music Award for Album Of The Year (Illinois), Best Album Art/Packaging (Illinois), and Male Artist Of The Year. Paste Magazine named Illinois as the editors’ choice for best album of 2005, and also received the 2005 Pantheon Award for albums selling 500,000 copies or more.

What further makes his music so unique is his multi instrumental talents. Most of his songs include a variety of odd instruments not normally used in popular music. He is most known for his banjo playing, but his musical repertoire also includes guitar, piano, drums, etc., the most unique being the English horn and oboe. He uses all these instruments in many of his songs, giving them an eclectic, “symphony-like” effect, setting him apart from other folk artists.

Sufjan is a truly gifted musician and songwriter, and it comes through in every single song he creates. His songs are so relaxing and soothing, yet your ears are so awakened by all the different sounds and melodies that it doesn’t put you to sleep. The lyrics delve into the crevices of our innermost thoughts and feelings on death, family, and religion, with the possibility to keep you up all night trying to understand it. Illinois is a must have for any fan of music. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

A Sun Came – 2000
Enjoy Your Rabbit – 2001
Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State – 2003
Seven Swans – 2004
C’mon, Feel The Illinois! – 2005
The Avalanche – 2006
Songs For Christmas – 2006

Cited Sources:
AV Club Interview

Soft Revolution

Comes with a Smile


2 Responses to “You Like This Artist, You Just Don’t Know It Yet: Sufjan Stevens”

  1. 1 Me too
    July 31, 2008 at 6:37 am

    I am about to blow Subud and in particular guitar maker Stephen Hills world apart.

  2. July 31, 2008 at 7:03 am

    pls send me any evidence re subud being dangerous – we have been severly abused by stephen hill and subud members in relation to him

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