|Sufjan Stevens is said to be one of the greatest songwriters of his time. With seven albums over a span of 15 years, he has constantly reinvented his sound through innovative ways.
Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, where he was raised by his father Rasjid and his stepmother. He only saw his mother Carrie intermittently, who passed away in 2012, after a difficult life where she suffered from depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism. She left when Sufjan was only a year old, leaving him and his three siblings in their father’s custody. When Stevens was 5, Carrie married Lowell Brams. He later became the head of Stevens’ record label Asthmatic Kitty. Although they were only married for a few years, some of his music harkens back to this time period in his life. His album Carrie & Lowell released in 2015, predominantly reflects on the relationship he had with his mother and what he longed for. Though Brams and Stevens are not blood related, the former has acted as a father figure for Stevens throughout his life.
He grew up playing a variety of instruments, including piano, oboe and the English horn. Stevens attended the prestigious Michigan high school Interlochen Center for the Arts, where he studied a variety of creative and musical arts. After high school, he went to Hope College where he rounded off his mutli-instrumentalist capabilities by learning the guitar and the banjo. He earned a masters of fine arts from The New School in New York City.
Sufjan began his music career as a member of the folk-rock band Marzuki, but left to pursue and record his debut solo album A Sun Came which was released in 2000. This album included an eclectic blend of genres like Indian, Celtic, Middle Eastern and American folk music that impressed critics and Stevens continued on his singing/songwriting path. He followed up with his sophomore album Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001). However, his albums Michigan (2003) and Illinois (2005) are what really gave him exposure.
Michigan was a love letter to his home state, with odes to Detroit, the Upper Peninsula and many more. He then announced his 50 state project, or writing an album that pays homage to all 50 states, while highlighting their idiosyncrasies and histories. The project didn’t last, and years later Stevens reflected back, “The whole premise was such a joke,” he told Paste, “and I think maybe I took it too seriously. I started to feel like I was becoming a cliché of myself.”
He released Seven Swans in 2004 which was highly respected, and then followed with the album Illinois. This album contains raw and emotional songs that explore the cities of Chicago, Decatur and Jacksonville. It also includes a song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy and a haunting tune about the death of a friend on Casimir Pulaski Day. In 2010 he released The Age of Adz, an album that changed up his sound, including more electronics augmented by orchestration. Sufjan was praised for the album’s intimacy, but others were skeptical about the new sound and style.
Carrie & Lowell
Steven’s seventh album was released through Asthmatic Kitty in March 2015. This album was stripped down, with some songs were recorded on an IPhone in his Brooklyn home where you can hear the hum of his air conditioner in the background. The thematic nature of the songs weaves through the ins and outs of Stevens’ relationship with his mother. But the album is more than nostalgic. He sings of all the emotions that came before, during and after her death, uncensored. “With this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe,” he says to Pitchfork . “It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death - to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”
The way in which Sufjan chronicles his relationship with his mother through life and death has underlying waves of optimism. “I really think you can manage pain and suffering by living in fullness and being true to yourself and all those seemingly vapid platitudes, says Stevens.” Don’t miss out on seeing Sufjan Stevens live.