Synopsis: Sufjan Stevens
As a child growing up in Michigan (Detroit, then later the northern part of the Lower Peninsula) Sufjan Stevens took oboe lessons—which he hated—and taught himself piano by mimicking his sister's lessons. This musical self-instruction continued in college—he favored creativity over proficiency with any instrument. He started a folk-rock band, Marzuki, for which he played the recorder. He also prolifically wrote solo material—90-minute concept albums, recorded on 4-track tapes. It was also at college that Sufjan—who had never liked the drama surrounding his family's celebration of the holiday—decided that Christmas was a social construct. He swore off celebrating it, and made a point of spending the holiday season away from his family. This would become important later. In his final semester of college, Sufjan collected an album's worth of his songs and decided to release them to the public. He teamed up with his stepfather to create a record label, and in 1999, Asthmatic Kitty records released a thousand copies of Sufjan Stevens' A Sun Came. The album was a thoroughly confusing hodgepodge of folk and rock and folk-rock and Middle-Eastern influences, and it was promptly ignored by the public. After graduating, Sufjan moved to New York City. He began, but didn't finish, a series of short stories about rural Michigan. At a music festival, he became acquainted with Daniel Smith, which led to Sufjan being asked to play in Smith's avant-garde Gospel ensemble The Danielson Famile. At the time, this was just at live shows, but he has since appeared on Danielson albums as an adopted member of the family. Returning to songwriting, Sufjan composed Enjoy Your Rabbit, a song cycle about the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Even in light of his previous experimentation, this was a stylistic departure—an experimental electronic album with influences from Minimalism and Post-Rock, incorporating glitchy synthesizers, acoustic instruments distorted until they sounded electronic, and occasional wordless singing or spoken-word Mandarin Chinese. The album was released in 2001. At Christmastime that same year, Sufjan accidentally burnt a spatula in his apartment, the smell of which led directly to an epiphany regarding Christ's birth and the True Meaning Of Christmas. Sufjan was moved to make amends with his family, and for this, he turned to music. In two weeks, he recorded a brief collection of Christmas songs, burned the thing on CD-R's, and mailed them off to his kin as gifts. This became a Christmas tradition. The public's response to Enjoy Your Rabbit was just as tepid as that for his first album. At one point, Suf noticed his local record shop had a copy in the Local Artists section; a week later, that same copy had made it all the way to the Used Music section. Sufjan took this as a compliment; his stepdad took it as a sign that Suf needed to go back to writing music with melodies and lyrics. So Suf teamed up with his friend Daniel Smith to record Seven Swans, a collection of folk-ish music which spotlighted Sufjan's Christian faith and his love for the banjo. Daniel Smith recorded and produced the album—this was the first (and so far, only) album that Sufjan didn't record and produce by himself. In the midst of these sessions, lightning struck. Concurrently with his Daniel Smith recordings, Sufjan wrote, recorded, and released a series of songs about his home state. He combined the folk music of Seven Swans, the Post-Rock leanings of Enjoy Your Rabbit, the characters from his unpublished Michigan stories, and nearly every musical instrument in his arsenal; the result was Michigan, an album that was lauded by critics and made Sufjan a darling of the indie music scene. In the aftermath, Sufjan declared that Michigan was just the first in a series: that he intended to record an album for all 50 of the United States. Sufjan himself couldn't decide whether this ridiculous claim was facetious or completely serious. In the midst of the hubbub, Seven Swans was finally released on Daniel Smith's record label, Sounds Familyre. It further cemented Sufjan's reputation as a songwriter, and sparked entirely too much internet discussion of the nature of "Christian Music" and the intersection of faith and art. It was also sometime hereabouts that Sufjan's Christmas EPs started leaking to the internet. Sufjan's next musical target was Michigan's neighbor: Illinois. He started researching and writing songs, treating it as a gargantuan undertaking: His initial plan was to make Illinois a double album, but this idea was abandoned pretty early. Even so, the finished product was Sufjan's most ambitious project yet, like Michigan cranked Up to Eleven: More songs! More instruments! More singers and vocal countermelodies! More bombastic instrumentation and time signature changes! More words in the song titles! And for that matter, more record sales and more critical praise—Illinois was one of the best-reviewed albums of 2005, and made several year-end "Best Of" lists. In the aftermath of Illinois, Sufjan got tired of the style he had typecast himself into. As a means of closing the door on that period, he decide to air his dirty laundry and release all the B-sides and abandoned song ideas from the Illinois sessions. The resulting collection The Avalanche was welcomed by fans, but the Hype Backlash also started to get more vocal about this time as well. That same December saw the official release of Songs for Christmas, the first five of Sufjan's Christmas EPs. These were released as box set with lots of extras, so the fans would have some incentive to pay for the songs they could already get on the internet for free. In 2007, Sufjan composed The B.Q.E., a six-part symphony (performed by a full orchestra) and film about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The live performance was well-received (winning the 2008 Brendan Gill prize) but the process of writing and recording the music caused Sufjan to have an existential crisis, questioning everything he knew about songwriting—and whether there was even any value in recording music at all. Consequently, the studio recording of The B.Q.E. was shelved for about a year, and not released until 2009. In the wake of this funk, there was no news from Sufjan regarding any new albums, and his musical output was limited to appearances on compilation albums, and reworking old material: The 2009 album Run Rabbit Run was a new version of Enjoy Your Rabbit, rearranged to be performed by the Osso string quartet. This break from songwriting was unintentionally extended when Suf was laid low by a viral nervous system infection. It took him several months to recover and begin working on new music. Since word of this illness only reached the fandom well afterwards, many wondered if Suf's silence indicated that he had retired from songwriting. The silence came to an end in August 2010, when Sufjan released, without any prior announcement, a new EP, All Delighted People. It was a reprise of the state-album sound, taken in a more ethereal, free-form direction. Fans and critics couldn't decide if this was a logical next step, or a sign that Sufjan had finally run out of ideas. However, within a week the EP was completely overshadowed by the announcement of a new LP: The Age Of Adz, released October 2010, turned out to be as much of a musical departure as Michigan was seven years prior. It mixed glitchy, vintage-sounding electronica with orchestral arrangements, and forced both into pop song structure; or, as the official website described it, "Enjoy Your Rabbit meets The B.Q.E. But with songs." Lyrically, the album had no overarching concept, the songs instead focusing on introspection or universal themes like love and death. At the time Sufjan wrote the album, his recent illness weighed heavily on his mind; this was reflected in the morbid and melodramatic tone that a number of songs took. Since his return to the public eye, Sufjan has stated that he has no intention of quitting songwriting in the foreseeable future. His next album Carrie & Lowell named after respectively his mother and stepfather is due for release on March 31, 2015.