Sufjan Stevens - Biography
Sufjan Stevens is a young American performer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and writer who, at a relatively young age, has already made a sizable impact on the independent rock world and has recently been embraced by more mainstream fans and media.
Sufjan Stevens was born on July 1, 1975 in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in Petoskey, a town in the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. He received his unusual first name from the founder of the inter-faith, non-religious spiritual community Subud, which his parents were members of when he was born. Sufjan is of pre-Islamic Persian origin and means “comes with a sword.” While in Petoskey, he attended the Harbor Light Christian School and later the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, where he learned to play multiple instruments, specializing in the oboe and English horn. After completing his studies at Interlochen, Stevens went on to attend Hope College in Holland, Michigan and joined up with fellow students Shannon Stephens, Jamie Kempkers, and Matthew Haseltine to form the indie folk band Marzuki, which was named after Sufjan’s brother, a noted long-distance runner. Marzuki built up a healthy local following during the mid ‘90s and produced two albums, Marzuki (1996) and No One Likes A Nervous Wreck (1998), both on MS Records.
While still in school at Hope, Stevens wrote, performed, and recorded his debut album, A Sun Came, released in 2000 on a label founded by Stevens and his stepfather called Asthmatic Kitty Records. A Sun Came was recorded on a 4-track recorder and features Stevens singing his own songs as well as playing over 14 different instruments. The album has a distinctive ethnic/folk feel and incorporates elements of various musical traditions, including Middle Eastern, Celtic, Far Eastern, and American folk music. The ambitious album gained generally favorable reviews and exposed Stevens’ prodigious musical talents to a wider audience outside of Michigan. During this time, Stevens also developed a friendship with Daniel Smith of the New Jersey-based indie/gospel band Danielson Famile and has since contributed to several of their albums. After completing his studies at Hope, Stevens moved to New York City and enrolled in a writing program at the New School for Social Research.
Once settled in New York, Stevens began work on what would become his second solo album, Enjoy Your Rabbit (Asthmatic Kitty), released in September of 2001. A vastly different album than his debut, Enjoy Your Rabbit is a mostly electronic instrumental album based on the symbols of the Chinese zodiac. The album garnered more praise for Stevens and made apparent that Stevens was a highly gifted and wide-ranging songwriter and instrumentalist. As if his first couple of albums were not ambitious enough, Stevens made plans to produce an album for each of America’s fifty states, starting with his home state of Michigan. His album Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State (Asthmatic Kitty), more commonly called Michigan, was released in 2003. Each song on the album relates to a particular town or region of Michigan and the lyrics mainly deal with the particular problems or concerns of those towns. From the opening “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” to “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)” to the upbeat and hopeful “Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!,” the theme is consistent. The album again shows Stevens’ gift for playing multiple instruments and his knack for writing songs that can be musically rich while still retaining an emotional warmth and a writer’s eye for detail. Michigan also features vocal contributions from members of the Danielson Famile.
Stevens followed up Michigan with the more stripped-down folk of Seven Swans, released in 2004 on the Danielson Famile’s Christian-oriented label Sounds Familyre. Seven Swans more blatantly addressed the bubbling Christian spirituality underpinning much of Stevens’ work, as most of the songs are based on writings from the Bible and the transfiguration of both Abraham and Jesus Christ. Much of Seven Swans features just Stevens’ melodious voice and his banjo, and the album gained numerous glowing reviews, further establishing Stevens as a major young talent in the indie rock and folk worlds. The album, produced by Daniel Smith, again involved vocal and percussion contributions from members of Danielson Famile. Stevens spent the latter part of 2004 researching and writing songs for his next album. In staying true to his pledge to produce albums about all of the fifty United States, Stevens’ next release was Illinois (2005 Asthmatic Kitty). The front cover features the motto “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To Come On Feel The Illinoise,” riffing on a familiar heavy metal song made popular by both Slade and Quiet Riot. The original cover artwork also depicted Superman flying over the Chicago skyline, but Asthmatic Kitty reportedly received a cease-and-desist order from Superman publisher DC Comics. Later versions of the album include the same artwork as the original, minus Superman. As on the earlier Michigan album, Stevens ties in many historical events, people, places, and regions of Illinois with songs that reflect individual stories of trial, faith, and redemption. The album includes references to a mind-boggling cast of historical figures including Carl Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and Kazimierz Pulaski to name just a few. Illinois also continues the sound and feel of Michigan in that it revisits the epic folk sound played by Stevens’ one-man orchestra. It remains the best reviewed album of his career. Stevens was now known not only in the folk and independent music scenes, but had been reviewed favorably in such mainstream publications as The New York Times, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone.
After performing a series of shows supporting Illinois, Stevens used 21 extra songs recorded during the making of the album to create his next collection, The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras From the Illinois Album (2006 Asthmatic Kitty). A press release that Stevens’ label posted on its website stated that Illinois was originally planned to be a double album of almost 50 songs, but the idea was scrapped. Due to the overwhelming success of the album, Stevens felt he owed his fans the rest of the songs written for the project, so in late 2005 he went back to the unfinished tracks. The cover artwork of The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras From the Illinois Album depicts a drawing of Stevens hanging from the title with a cape on, a sly reference to the original artwork of Illinois featuring Superman. The cover also features a drawing of a Chevrolet Avalanche to further the in-joke. The album debuted at number 71 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, went on to garner rave reviews. The song “No Man's Land” was featured during the closing credits of the 2006 hit film Little Miss Sunshine.
There has been much speculation as to what state Stevens would next honor. Hints have been dropped by Stevens that it could be Oregon, Rhode Island, Arkansas (he wrote a song about the rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker “Lord God Bird” found in Arkansas), or California. He has even hinted that he may not complete the 50 States project after all. The best bet would be an album about New York, as Stevens released The BQE (Asthmatic Kitty) in 2009 about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The BQE originated as a live show in 2007, which included an original film shot on Super 8 by Stevens that was projected behind him and a 36 piece orchestra made up of string, wind, and brass players, a small rock band, and hula hoopers. It was performed on three consecutive nights in November of 2007 in the 2,100 seat BAM Opera House and sold out without any advertising. After performing the piece, Stevens and the orchestra played an hour long set of some of Stevens’ other work.