Sufjan Stevens has kept me company for many important moments in my life. Since I first discovered him in 2006, he had become the only consistent artist in my music library.
This was back when I made Winamp skins to suit my “personality,” or whatever I was going for as a teenager, and when I heavily relied on the file sharing program Kazaa to keep me up to date with the indie music coming out of the other side of the world.
The internet was already a big part of my life. I lived in a small town about an hour outside of Manila, Philippines and very little mattered more to me than my Livejournal community and my mp3 collection.
I still remember the moment I heard him for the first time.
I was at a friend’s apartment in the city one afternoon, inside his room overlooking the busy streets. He was smoking near the window while I looked at pictures on the computer. The place reeked of a mixture of cigarettes and the cheap perfume he used to cover it up. Suddenly a silent, folk track came on and we stopped what we were doing to listen.
I’d swim across Lake Michigan
I’d sell my shoes
I’d give my body to be back again
In the rest of the room
There was no reason for me to feel as connected to his music as I did at that moment. Michigan meant nothing to me. All I knew was that it was a place somewhere in America.
I asked my friend about this soft voiced folk singer playing through his computer. He sounded like he was whispering almost. “He’s great, isn’t he?” I agreed and we continued to listen in silence.
I had feelings for this person at the time although he had no idea. He despised himself too much and it was tiring, but he had great taste in art and music. We barely saw eye to eye when it came to the real stuff (family, relationships, school, even food sometimes), but our conversations flowed like Diet Coke once we shifted to Sufjan, Sigur Ros, Fleet Foxes, and our awareness of our respective pretenses.
I was a girl from the province studying in the city and in those days, people made fun of promdis (slang for from the province). I was slightly ashamed of my roots and I hid behind my pop culture interests like they were armor. On the other hand, he was a tortured and talented artist trying filled with intense hatred. He hated his family and kept to himself. He often described himself as a disgrace. My friendship with him made me realize I inherited my mother’s tendency to stick with people we felt sorry for. He had things in himself I wish I had, but he was more miserable than anyone I had ever met.
I persevered to maintain a friendship for years until it felt too futile and dumb.
Years later, I attended my first Sufjan Stevens show in New York City, during my short stint at film school. He was the first person that I thought of. He was in Manila, trying to navigate the crazy labyrinth of college life. He had also started seeing someone, a man who seemed nice. We spoke on Skype for the first time in years and it was awkward. But he was more open than ever and his new relationship obviously liberated him.
Still, despite our best intentions, what was once a really close relationship faded fairly quickly. These days, our interactions rarely extend outside of polite Christmas or birthday greetings online.
I do think about him though, more often that I should. Every time “To Be Alone With You” comes on, I think about that smokey room decorated with cigarette butts and empty Coke bottles.
Most of all, I think about my friend and how he helped me discover great things in the short amount of time he was in my life.