Primer: Sufjan Stevens

Press Photo by Denny Renshaw

You have definitely heard of Sufjan Stevens. If not, you may have read about him somewhere or heard a friend talk about him (while incorrectly pronouncing his first name, maybe). He is a little confusing to get into for the new listener. He made his name as a soft spoken indie folk rocker with a delicate voice who sings about serial murderers and sometimes God. Over the years, he has reinvented himself and his music in ways that made even the biggest fans feel somewhat alienated (This isn’t the Sufjan we knew and loved!) while still as mesmerized as ever (But he’s still so good!). Almost every album he’s done works like a novel with songs as chapters showcasing his exceptional songwriting, love for both grand and quiet arrangements, thing for themed projects, and major banjo skills.

Most of his releases are centered around major concepts with an electric album about the Chinese Zodiac animals (Enjoy Your Rabbit), the bogus Fifty States Project (Michigan and Illinois), five EPs about Christmas (Songs for Christmas), an album about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (The BQE), and an album about schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson (The Age of Adz). Currently, he’s been touring outside of the US with the show Planetarium along with The National’s Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly playing songs named after each of the planets (including Pluto! Yay!). There is also the live show aspect to him that is an entirely different story. He has performed dressed as a cheerleader, with different kinds of wings on, with neon-colored, glow-in-the-dark tape on his face and body, and with his more conventional baseball cap.

His experimentation has not been exclusive to his sound. He has also been using different styles of singing after admitting in an interview that he has reached a point of boredom with his voice. This has led to his eventual use of the much-panned auto-tune device in his last album. It was such a big deviation from his previous material and it was clear to me that he wanted to get out of the indie folk stereotype in which he has been boxed in. The only remnant of his acoustic past in the album is the single Futile Devices. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take that long for me (and I guess, everyone else) to fall in love with his new sound. Underneath all the electronic effects is still the same charismatic Sufjan that’s just hard to resist. It wasn’t until I caught a show during his Age of Adz tour though that I really began to appreciate the tracks on their own, especially the epic twenty-minute, five-part Impossible Soul that perfectly concludes the album. He tells you over and over again in the song, “Don’t be distracted.” And you should really try not to be because it is worth listening to in its entirety.

Here are a few essential details about Sufjan: He grew up in a very religious household in the Midwest, getting his unique name from a spiritual community to which his parents belonged. He was given an option to legally change his name to a more conventional one, but decided to keep it. He can play as many as fourteen instruments, but the banjo is what he’s more known for. He has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and he’s an excellent dancer. He loves collaborating with people. He has worked with Rosie Thomas, The National, The Roots, Daniel Johnston, and a number of Asthmatic Kitty artists. Most recently, he released an EP as part of s/s/s with Son Lux and Serengeti.

Ready? Now launch the primer on Spotify and see for yourself! Don’t have Spotify? Here’s the playlist!

Some of my favorite things are beef jerky, bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, pistachios (aka the nut of the gods), my husband's face, and coffee.