Sufjan Stevens Biography
Last updated: 06/07/2012 12:00:00 PM
Sufjan Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in the chilly upper reaches of the Lower Peninsula. A self-taught musician, the young Sufjan pounded out elaborate Mozartian sonatas on a toy Casio, and by college became proficient on the oboe, recorder, banjo, guitar, vibraphone, bass, drums, piano, and other instruments too numerous to mention. Somewhere along the line he also started to sing, though at the time his friends didn't encourage it. He bought a 4-track tape cassette recorder and painstakingly composed 90-minute concept albums for The Nine Planets, The 12 Apostles, and The Four Humors. He read William Blake, William Wordsworth, and William Faulkner. At that time, in college, the world loomed large and daunting, and Sufjan's music came to sound like a medieval woodwind ensemble waving swords and torches at the twelve-headed dragon of death. During his last semester in college, Sufjan pruned, picked, and assembled a selection of these songs to produce the inaugural release "A Sun Came" on Asthmatic Kitty Records, a home label Sufjan initiated with his step-dad Lowell. A thousand copies were manufactured and shipped to a dark, dank closet somewhere in the vacuous black hole of the universe, where they shifted and snored in their sleep for several years to come.
Sufjan then moved to New York City and lived bohemian style, with three other college graduates, in the unfashionable financial district, commuting by bike to The New School for Social Research, where he was enrolled in the masters program for writers. There he met Jhumpa Lahiri, harassed Philip Gourevitch on the telephone, and tried unsuccessfully to complete an epic collection of stories and sketches about backwoods Midwestern kinsmen—Christian Fundamentalists, Amway salesmen, crystal healers— all set in a small rural town in Michigan. Hmmmm. No one seemed very interested. Sufjan went back to the 4-track, tired of "words, words, words," and set out to complete his most ambitious project to date: a collection of programmatic, symphonic songs for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. There were no lyrics, but more than a few cymbal swells, flourishes on the oboe, and ambient organ drones, all accompanied by computer-generated techno beats, and digital noise. The result was enterprising, but not quite flattering. He sent a few copies to press, which fell on confused ears. "…A hyper-modified Atari battling a souped-up Colecovision in a chess match/battle royal," one writer noted. Feeling inspired, Sufjan dropped off a copy at New York's favored record store, Other Music, only to find it in the used section, reduced price, two weeks later. Sufjan took this as a compliment. His label did not. Write songs, his step-dad insisted. Write something with words and melodies.
Sufjan went back to the books, mainly his own unwritten one. Taking bits and scraps of unfinished stories (character sketches, plot lines, penciled diagrams) Sufjan began to arrange his misshapen fiction into the bold mechanics of song, making friends with line breaks, meter, and rhyme scheme. These things led to melody, odd time signature, and a litany of jingle jangles on the drum kit, which had been taken out of storage once and for all. Here and there, on weekend trips, in quiet gasps of free time, Sufjan carried around his 8-track, recording songs in people's homes, in cinderblock basements, in barn houses and rehearsal rooms. The vibraphone in Massachusetts, the electric organ in New Jersey, his sister's husband's grand piano, upstate Michigan. Word by word, note by note, everything came together like one great cosmic shuffle, the Big Bang. The result was a lushly orchestrated road trip through the backwoods of The Great Lake State, from motor-city to the winter beaches of Lake Superior. Now this is more like it! his step-dad said. This sounds pretty good! They decided to release it to the public, to act like a real record label. They found a distributor, a publicist, a booking agent, a make-up artist, a mime. Things were looking good. People lent an eager ear. The critics lowered their knives and their critical brow. Other Music put it in New Releases, top shelf! Europeans weren't offended! Sufjan began to feel gallant and bold and confident about this great place called Planet Earth. This is just the beginning! he proclaimed over loudspeakers. This is just the tip of the iceberg! Galvanized by tourist brochures, road atlas maps, and the spirit of Walt Whitman, Sufjan began to intimate at other songs for other states, the American Dream, the national anthem, the continental rigmarole, the Delaware shuffle, Florida flamenco, California swing, all dramatized in song, the great epic symphony, in 50 movements, in 50 years! Lord help us!
Once the clang and clamor of patriotism subsided, Sufjan's musical inquiry fell fast on the Land of Lincoln, stirred, perhaps, by sentimental recollections of his rebellious young adulthood on Clark Street in Chicago, Wrigleyville, the beachfront parks, the homeless kids with their pets, the abandoned school house, where he slept on a desk. During the winter of 2004, Sufjan spent four months in isolation, reading books and biographies, memorizing the unfashionable poems of Carl Sandburg, laughing and shuddering through Saul Bellow's novels. He uncovered police blogs and books on tape. He solicited correspondence from old friends, Illinoisans once lost or estranged; he studied travel guides; he quizzed chat rooms; he made stuff up. All research, he decided, begins with your imagination and with your intuition, relying heavily on the convictions of the heart. During those long winter hand-clapping, piano-playing, drum-rolling months, Sufjan's heart began to expand, leaving its fist-shaped mark on a series of songs that not so much pay homage to the Prairie State, but rack and rend its characters through potato farms, steel factories, street fairs, marching parades, convoluted rivers, and centuries past and present. The result was something bold, flashy, and ripe with advertisement, like the Goodyear blimp, but not without Sufjan's tender rendering of the imagination. When all was said and done, Sufjan felt irrevocable changes taking place within his body, like a second puberty. His shoulders broadened, his mind quickened, his heart began to beat with quiet, patient thumps in a rhythm as fluid and faithful as the Chicago River.
And so on and so forth.
Sufjan's other interests include graphic design, painting, running, knitting, crocheting, weaving, quilting, cleaning, photography, haircutting, and dry wall installation. He collects stamps and wheat pennies. He cooks legendary omelets and can whip up a sushi feast at the drop of a sake glass. In high school he played second string guard on a district champion basketball team and created his own language, now spoken by only two other people. His brother Marzuki is a nationally recognized marathon runner, elite status. His sister Djohariah has the most complicated, most whimsical, most monumental laugh in all of mankind.