Born c. 1975, in western MI. Addresses: Record company-- Asthmatic Kitty Records, P.O. Box 1282, Lander, WY 82520, website: http://www.asthmatickitty.com. Website--Sufjan Stevens Official Website: http://www.sufjan.com.
With a sense of ambition that rivals that of an overachieving honor student, Michigan native Sufjan Stevens became one of the leading folk revivalists when he released his breakthrough album Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State in 2003. Following the albums release, Stevens claimed that he planned to release albums dedicated to each of the 50 states in the Union. Aside from his lofty goal, however, Stevens manages to craft heartfelt compositions that capitalize on his softly sung tenor, his fragile and lightly strummed guitar lines, and his devout faith in God. But, the themes explored on Stevens' four full-length albums are universal, and because of this he has managed to achieve success that transcends any kind of religious beliefs.
Born in western Michigan in 1975, Stevens became intensely interested in music at a young age. Explaining his early interest to the online zine Delusions of Adequacy, he said he first realized the energy and excitement that he got from music when he entered a lip-syncing contest in middle school. He half-heartedly joked, "I did Peter Cetera's 'Glory of Love'---from The Karate Kid Part II---with choreography and make-up. I wore a red bow tie and pants with zippers on the cuffs. I didn't even get runner-up, it was so awful. I wasn't interested in art or aesthetics. I wanted to be a celebrity, smothered with reputation, smoke machine and all." More seriously, he explained, "I went to music school at Interlochen Arts Academy for a year when I was 14 to play oboe and study reed making. I cried everyday. I hated my oboe. It was the only instrument for which I took lessons, and now it's the only instrument I have no interest in playing (although I use it for overdubbing occasionally). About that time, I started learning the piano by ear, eavesdropping on my sister's lessons, or listening to recordings of Rachmaninoff. The piano seemed so much more mysterious than the oboe: it had internal organs, a series of interlocking hammers and strings, a lid. I started making up songs, variations on 'Chopsticks' or Bach minuets. When I went to college, I started learning guitar, bass guitar, drums, banjo. I bought a cheap kit (two toms, a snare, a kick) and practiced off beats and 5/4 rhythms. I played recorders for a folk band, then borrowed my sister's flute. If something was available---an accordion, a sitar, a harmonica---I'd spend enough time noodling to get something down on tape. I was promiscuous---each instrument was a new sordid affair."
The folk band Stevens spoke of was Marzuki, based out of Holland, Michigan. While studying as an undergraduate at Hope College, Stevens and the band released two albums, and gained a small following in western Michigan, Nashville and New York. In 1999, while still playing with Marzuki, Stevens opted to start recording his own music. The result of Stevens' first foray into songwriting was A Sun Came, released by Orchard Records in 2000. A review on the All Music Guide said, "Exploring a terrain that can only be called pan-ethnic folk, A Sun Came begins with Celtic overtones before traveling east in a global musical study. Indian, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, American folk, and instruments ranging from banjo and sitar to oboe and xylophone (most of which are played by Stevens)---it's all found here in some form or another, which would be a bit disorienting if not for Stevens' often personal lyrical turns and the wide-eyed indie rock vibe that permeates the songs no matter where they may roam."
Before A Sun Came was officially released, Stevens decided to move to New York City, where he studied in the creative writing program at the New School in New York. His interest in creative writing seemed to impact his work, as he told Pitchforkmedia.com, "I think they're very similar, writing fiction and writing music. They require different skills, and different ears, but there is a certain music to fiction, to the sentence---the rhythm of words put together. And I think it's the same in songwriting as well." Stevens' move to New York also helped Stevens' connections in the music industry, as his first tour for A Sun Came was with odd Christian-folk clan The Danielson Famile. Stevens began collaborating with the group, putting his talents as a multi-instrumentalist to the test, joining the band for various tour engagements.
In 2001, Stevens returned from the road to issue another solo album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, released on his own imprint, Asthmatic Kitty. A more electronic outing, the album pushed Stevens' profile up a bit higher. Based around the Chinese Zodiac, Michael Crumsho from Dusted Magazine said, "This is a great record because Stevens displays the commitment to trying to make things sound as weird and overindulgent as possible. And when it works, it does so with excellent results. The instruments all collide to produce melodies that are uplifting, catchy and memorable."
Two years later, Stevens began his 50 States Project, setting the seemingly impossible goal to release albums named after all 50 states. In 2003, Stevens released Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State for Asthmatic Kitty. First seen as a novelty, the record was virtually ignored, even panned by influential webzine Pitchfork. But, the zine reconsidered, giving the album another chance, saying, "The record is stacked with impressive space for Stevens' shimmering geography, and it manages a melancholy beauty; Michigan is a frost-bound tone poem in which average people live out their victories and defeats with a shadowy, dignified grace."
Stevens was now a critical darling, and anticipation for his next record was high. Thankfully for his fans and critics, Stevens returned shortly with Seven Swans, released in 2004 by Sounds Familyre, the label run by the Danielson Familie's Daniel Smith. Stevens worked with Smith on Seven Swans, telling Pitchfork, "It was a collaborative project; I was bringing to the table sketches of songs that had been previously written. And then Daniel Smith was recording them, engineering them, and processing them somehow, figuring out arrangements with me. He had a certain kind of vision, and I had a certain kind of vision, and the whole project was about accommodating both of our visions, finding the commonness between different views---and it was uncomfortable at first, but it became more of a relational thing, and less of a creative thing, by the end."
The result was a highly orchestrated affair, with Stevens's delicate voice and finger picked banjo flanked by strings, piano and other musical ornaments. The album also marked Stevens' first strong declaration of his faith in his songs. Christianitytoday.com said, "Stevens recounts two Bible stories almost by-the-book. 'Abraham' is a minimalist, poetic ode to the patriarch and his odyssey of faith, with references to a 'raised arm,' '[wood] on your son,' and instructions from God to 'take instead the ram.' 'The Transfiguration' is self-evident about its subject matter, and Stevens goes to great lengths to describe it as fully as possible; from Jesus' trip up the mount with his disciples and his glorious appearance alongside Moses and Elijah, to Peter's impetuous reaction and God's response from above, he leaves no detail out."
Though Stevens' fans embraced Seven Swans, many were curious as to if he would make good on his promise to deliver the other 49 albums in his 50 States Project. In 2005, their prayers were answered, when Stevens released Illinois (sometimes called Illinoise) on Asthmatic Kitty. Prefixmagazine.com said, "Musically, Illinois is full of revelations. Most notable is Steven's monopolization of the studio work. Although guest musicians were brought in during the recording process, Stevens took all of the recording, engineering and production duties upon himself. The result is an eclectic mix of songs, alternately triumphant and soaring or subdued and meditative. Sparing no expense with the arrangements, Stevens employs a drummer, trumpeter, a string quartet, and personally plays more than twenty different instruments on the album. He also makes strides in his vocal range, with an emerging falsetto. Backed by his Illinoisemaker Choir, the harmonies hit will give you goose bumps." Illinois appeared on countless "Best of" lists at the end of 2005, including lists by such publication as Rolling Stone and Spin, as well as smaller publications like Filter and Magnet.
by Ryan Allen
Sufjan Stevens's Career
Played various instruments as a child; played in a group called Marzuki while at college in western Michigan; released solo album A Sun Came, 2000; released Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001; began "50 States Project" with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, 2003; released critically acclaimed Illinois, 2005.
- Selected discography
- A Sun Came Orchard, 2000.
- Enjoy Your Rabbit Asthmatic Kitty, 2001.
- Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State Asthmatic Kitty, 2003.
- Seven Swans Sounds Familyre, 2004.
- Illinois Asthmatic Kitty, 2005.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 19, 2004; July 8, 2005.
- "Illinois Review," Prefix Mag, http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/cds/S/Sufjan-Stevens/Illinois/1486 (January 12, 2006).
- "Seven Swans," Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/glimpses/2004/sevenswans.html (January 12, 2006).
- "Review: Greetings from Michigan," Pitchforkmedia, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/s/stevens_sufjan/michigan.shtml (January 14, 2006).
- "Dusted Reviews: Sufjan Stevens," Dusted Magazine, http://www.dustedmagazine.com/reviews/149 (January 14, 2006).
- "Sufjan Stevens," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 2, 2006).
- "Sufjan Stevens," Delusions of Adequacy, http://www.adequacy.net/int/sufjan/index.shtml (January 2, 2006).
- "Sufjan Stevens," betterPropaganda" http://betterpropaganda.com/artist_page.asp?id=809 (February 2, 2006).
- "Sufjan Stevens: Pitchfork Interview," Pitchforkmedia, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/s/stevens_sufjan-04/ (January 12, 2006).