Sufjan Stevens: The Story Behind the Relunctant Indie Icon by Cameron Lawrence

This article is excerpted from a story in the latest issue of RELEVANT magazine. You can click here to subscribe and get the full version of this article in issue 22 of RELEVANT.

Relationships remain a core value in Sufjan Stevens’ work as an artist. The Michigan-bred singer/songwriter, who only five albums and six years into his career as a recording artist has achieved near-idol status in indie circles, makes community a priority in his career.

While on the road, he makes sure to bring his friends along, and if you’ve seen his ensemble, that’s no small few. “When I’m touring, I bring a lot of people with me, because it’s important for me to be surrounded by my friends and good people, and to create a social environment.”

By contrast, Stevens’ creative process is initially isolated from creative community. Typically, it’s not until he brings his material to the studio, which also is often a solitary experience, or when he prepares to tour that the creative process involves others. He describes writing songs as a sacred and unique experience, believing music exists somewhere in the supernatural realm—even before its incarnation in the physical realm of sound waves, frequencies and eardrums. The songwriter, then, somehow captures the song from the supernatural and reconfigures into music, which according to Stevens, is somewhat artificial. The song, he says, is a controlled musical environment.

Stevens exudes reverence for music and the craft of songwriting. “As I’m writing alone in my room, there’s a weird communion with the art form. Initially you’re throwing around chord progressions and experimenting with melody. You begin shaping, sort of accidentally, words out of sounds. That’s a pretty special, sacred, divine experience.”

Stevens explains that the act of songwriting, in some way, mimics the act of God creating the earth. “In Judeo-Christian theology, the world is created through words,” he says. “And that’s how I perceive what I’m doing musically. I’m just sort of mimicking, or modeling, that endeavor.”

In addition to being a formally trained oboist, Stevens plays most of the instruments on his records. When asked where creative community comes into the picture, and whether or not it’s a necessary element, he’s conflicted.

“Those are difficult things to reconcile, because I initially work in isolation and tend to write and record by myself,” he says. “That’s always been the case. The social dynamic of performing with other people, and recording with other people is really important, but it’s a bit of a challenge for me. I tend to be a workaholic and a micromanager, and a bit of an egomaniac in how I orchestrate everything. Even down to the drum parts I tend to micromanage every single nuance. Generally the musicians know they are being hired to perform according to my demands.”

While Stevens is widely accepted by people of all kinds, perhaps no one group has latched onto him more than indie-rock-minded Christians, and rightfully so. He’s among a handful of artists—the Danielson Famile, The Innocence Mission, Denison Witmer, Woven Hand and Half-handed Cloud, to name a few—that have sidestepped the Christian music industry while still using music to share or explain their Christian beliefs and backgrounds. He’s also among the few embraced by a community of journalists, musicians and fans who don’t share his faith and didn’t compromise his own faith to get there. Because of the unique position he holds, seemingly standing between two worlds, for some he’s a leader and an inspiration. And still there are others who misconstrue his identity and purpose or misinterpret his motives.

“I can’t honestly say how I’ve been misconstrued, because I can’t gauge the mind of the listener,” he says. “But I do know there’s a tendency to simplify and to categorize. I’ve been categorized as a particular kind of artist, a folk musician and a Christian. And these terms are used to possess and categorize and simplify what I’m doing. But they’re also out of my hands. I’m not concerned with how I’m received or how I’m misconstrued, because that’s really the work of the listener and his or her responsibility.”

While Stevens believes that people oversimplify or misinterpret what he’s saying, he understands that his lyrical honesty and vulnerability are the cause. And he’s not about to change that.

“I don’t ever want to be responsible for or engage with a particular subject in my music in a way that is dishonoring it,” he says. “And I can’t tell if I’ve done that or not. I still don’t know. I do know that I kind of walk that line, and I tend to disclose things about myself that are really important and personal. For me, it’s part of my conviction. It’s necessary for me to do that sometimes to achieve a kind of greater revelation and understanding of who I am and what I’m doing. It’s an instinct that, on some level, I want to share with people.”

Cameron Lawrence lives and writes in Atlanta, Ga.

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