Stevens performing at Pitchfork Music Festival, July 2016
|Born||July 1, 1975|
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Sufjan Stevens ( SOOF-yahn; born July 1, 1975) is an American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He has released a total of seven solo studio albums as well as multiple collaborative albums with other artists. Stevens has also received Academy Award and Grammy Award nominations.
His debut album A Sun Came was released in 1999 on the Asthmatic Kitty label, which he cofounded with his stepfather. He received wide recognition for his 2005 album Illinois, which hit number one on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart, and for the single "Chicago" from that album. Stevens later contributed to the soundtrack of the coming-of-age romantic drama film Call Me by Your Name (2017). He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and a Grammy Award nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media for the soundtrack's lead single, "Mystery of Love".
Stevens has released albums of varying styles, from the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit and the lo-fi folk of Seven Swans to the symphonic instrumentation of Illinois and Christmas-themed Songs for Christmas. Stevens makes use of a variety of instruments, often playing many of them himself on the same recording, and writes music in various time signatures. Stevens's music is also known for exploring various themes, notably religion and spirituality.
Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, and lived there until the age of nine, when his family moved to Petoskey, in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. He was raised by his father Rasjid and his stepmother Pat, only occasionally visiting his mother, Carrie, in Oregon after she married her second husband Lowell Brams. Brams later became the head of Stevens' record label Asthmatic Kitty. His brother Marzuki Stevens is a former professional road runner. Stevens is of Lithuanian and Greek descent.
Stevens attended the Detroit Waldorf School, Petoskey High School and Interlochen Arts Academy, and graduated from Harbor Light Christian School. He then attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and then earned an MFA from The New School in New York City.
Sufjan is a Persian name, meaning "comes with a sword". It predates Islam and most famously belonged to Abu Sufyan, a figure from early Islamic history. The name was given to Stevens by the founder of Subud, an inter-faith spiritual community to which his parents belonged when he was born.
Stevens began his musical career as a member of Marzuki, a folk-rock band from Holland, Michigan, as well as garage band Con Los Dudes. He also played (and continues to play) various instruments for Danielson Famile. While in his final semester at Hope College, Stevens wrote and recorded his debut solo album, A Sun Came, which he released on Asthmatic Kitty Records. He later moved to New York City, where he enrolled in a writing program at The New School for Social Research. During his time at the New School, Stevens developed a preoccupation with the short story form, which he believed would lead him to write a novel, but ultimately returned him to songwriting.
Stevens followed this with an album titled Michigan, a collection of folk songs and instrumentals. The album included odes to cities including Detroit and Flint, the Upper Peninsula, and vacation areas such as Tahquamenon Falls and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Melded into the scenic descriptions and characters are his own declarations of faith, sorrow, love, and the regeneration of Michigan. Beginning with the album, Stevens announced an intent to write an album for each of the 50 U.S. states, which he termed the Fifty States Project.
Following the release of Michigan, Stevens compiled a collection of songs recorded previously into a side project, the album Seven Swans, which was released in March 2004. Stevens did not leave his job in the children's book division at Time Warner until touring for Seven Swans.
Next, he released the second in the Fifty States project, titled Illinois. Among the subjects explored on Illinois are the cities of Chicago, Decatur and Jacksonville; the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the death of a friend on Casimir Pulaski Day, the poet Carl Sandburg, and the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Stevens had spent the second half of 2004 researching and writing material for the album. As with Michigan, Stevens used the state of Illinois as a leaping-off point for his more personal explorations of faith, family, love, and location. Though slated for release on July 5, 2005, the album was briefly delayed by legal issues regarding the use of Superman in the original album cover artwork. In the double vinyl release, a balloon sticker was placed over Superman on the cover art of the first 5,000 copies. The next printings had an empty space where the Superman image was, as with the CD release.
Illinois was widely acclaimed and was the highest-rated album of 2005 on the review aggregator website Metacritic based on glowing reviews from Pitchfork, The Onion A/V Club, Spin, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, KEXP, and The Guardian. The 2006 PLUG Independent Music Awards awarded Stevens with the Album of the Year, Best Album Art/Packaging, and Male Artist of the Year. Pitchfork, No Ripcord, and Paste magazine named Illinois as the editors' choice for best album of 2005, and Stevens received the 2005 Pantheon prize, awarded to noteworthy albums selling fewer than 500,000 copies, for Illinois.
In April 2006, Stevens announced that 21 pieces of music he had culled from the Illinois recording sessions would be incorporated into a new album, called The Avalanche, which was released on July 11, 2006. On September 11, 2006, in Nashville, Tennessee, Stevens debuted a new composition, a ten-minute-plus piece titled "Majesty Snowbird". On November 21, 2006, a five CD box set Songs for Christmas was released, which contains originals and Christmas standards recorded every year since 2001 (except 2004). Stevens undertook in the project initially as an exercise to make himself 'appreciate' Christmas more. The songs were the work of an annual collaboration between Stevens and different collaborators, including minister Vito Aiuto; the songs themselves were distributed to friends and family.
Although Stevens' subsequent work was sometimes speculated to tie into future "States" projects, and Stevens himself would make occasional statements alluding to the future of the project, Stevens later admitted that the project had been a "promotional gimmick" and not one he had seriously intended to complete. In November 2009, Stevens admitted to Exclaim! magazine, in regard to the fact that he recently called his fifty-state project a joke, that "I don't really have as much faith in my work as I used to, but I think that's healthy. I think it's allowed me to be less precious about how I work and write. And maybe it's okay for us to take it less seriously."
Over the 2005 winter holidays, Stevens recorded an album with Rosie Thomas and Denison Witmer playing banjo and providing vocals. In April 2006, Pitchfork erroneously announced that Stevens and Thomas were having a baby together, and were forced to print a retraction. Witmer and Thomas later admitted it was an April Fools' prank. In December 2006, the collaborative recordings were digitally released by Nettwerk as a Rosie Thomas album titled These Friends of Mine. The album was released in physical form on March 13, 2007.
On May 31, 2007, Asthmatic Kitty announced that Stevens would be premiering a new project titled The BQE in early November 2007. The project, dubbed a "symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City's infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway", was manifested in a live show. The BQE featured an original film by Stevens (shot in Super 8 film and standard 16 mm), while Stevens and a backing orchestra provided the live soundtrack. The performance used 36 performers which included a small band, a wind and brass ensemble, string players, horn players, and hula hoopers. There were no lyrics to the music. The BQE was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their Next Wave Festival and performed on three consecutive nights from November 1-3, 2007.
The performance sold out the 2,109 seat BAM Opera House without any advertising. After three weeks of rehearsing the piece with the three dozen musicians involved, he presented the 30-minute composition. The BQE was followed by an additional one hour of concert by Stevens and his orchestra. The BQE won the 2008 Brendan Gill Prize. In April 2007, in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Stevens made unannounced appearances on Thomas's tour in support of this album. In 2007, he did a Take-Away Show acoustic video session shot by Vincent Moon standing on a roof in Cincinnati. In 2007, he played shows sporadically, including playing at the Kennedy Center to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Stage concerts. He was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to create a "music and film work" titled The BQE, described as "a symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City's infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway". It premiered at BAM's Next Wave festival on November 1-3, 2007.
Stevens has also worked as an essayist, contributing to Asthmatic Kitty Records' "Sidebar" feature and Topic Magazine. He wrote the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a short story about his early childhood education and learning to read titled How I Trumped Rudolf Steiner and Overcame the Tribulations of Illiteracy, One Snickers Bar at a Time. That winter, he hosted an "Xmas Song Exchange Contest" in which winner Alec Duffy won exclusive rights to the original Stevens song "Lonely Man of Winter." The track could only be heard by attending private listening parties at Duffy's home in Brooklyn and at places around the world until 2018, when Duffy negotiated with Athsmatic Kitty Records to release the song with all proceeds going towards Duffy's organization JACK.
Stevens has contributed to the music of Denison Witmer, Soul-Junk, Half-handed Cloud, Brother Danielson, Danielson Famile, Serena-Maneesh, Castanets, Will Stratton, Shannon Stephens, Clare & the Reasons, Little Scream, and Liz Janes. In 2007 alone, Stevens played piano on The National's album Boxer, produced and contributed many instrumental tracks to Rosie Thomas's album These Friends of Mine, multiple instruments on Ben + Vesper's album All This Could Kill You and oboe and vocals to David Garland's 2007 album Noise in You.
He has contributed covers of Tim Buckley ("She Is"), Joni Mitchell ("Free Man in Paris"), Daniel Johnston ("Worried Shoes"), John Fahey ("Variation on 'Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park"), The Innocence Mission ("The Lakes of Canada"), Bob Dylan ("Ring Them Bells"), Drake ("Hotline Bling"),Prince ("Kiss") and The Beatles ("What Goes On") to various tribute albums. His versions of "Free Man in Paris" and "What Goes On" are notable for only retaining the lyrics of the original, as Stevens has taken his own interpretation on the melody and arrangement. His rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has a similar rearranged melody and arrangement as well as a whole new verse.
His songs "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders" and "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" were featured in the 2006 British comedy-drama Driving Lessons, starring Harry Potters Julie Walters and Rupert Grint. In 2008, he produced Welcome to The Welcome Wagon, the debut album of Brooklyn-based husband and wife duo Vito and Monique Aiuto, The Welcome Wagon.
In February 2009, Stevens contributed "You Are the Blood" to the AIDS benefit album Dark Was the Night produced by the Red Hot Organization. In April 2009, Stevens uploaded a song about director Sofia Coppola online. This song was written while Stevens was in college, from a series of songs about names.
A few weeks later, our dog got hit by a snowplow and I forgot all about the problem of names. Until college, when I learned to play the guitar, and, as an exercise, started writing songs (very poorly executed) in the same way that Henry Ford produced the automobile: assembly-line-style. I wrote songs for the days of the week (poor Monday!). Songs for the planets (poor Pluto!). Songs for the Apostles (poor Judas!). And, finally, when all else failed, I started a series of songs for names. [...] Each piece was a rhetorical, philosophical, musical rumination on all the possible names I had entertained years before when my parents had given me the one chance to change my own. Oh fates! I sang these songs in the privacy of my dorm room, behind closed doors, pillows and cushions stuffed in the air vents so no one would hear. And then I almost failed Latin class, my grades plummeted, my social life dissolved into ping pong tournaments in the residence halls, and, gradually, my interest in music (or anything divine, creative, fruitful, enriching) completely waned. I turned to beer. And cigarettes. And TV sitcoms. And candy bars. Oh well! A perfectly good youth wasted on junk food! That is, until a few months ago, when I came across some of the old name songs, stuffed onto tape cassettes, 4-track recorders, forgotten boxes, forgotten shelves, forgotten hard drives. It was like finding an old diary, or a high school yearbook, senior picture with lens flare and pockmarks, slightly cute and embarrassing. What was I thinking?
In September 2009, Stevens began performing four new songs while on his Fall tour, "All Delighted People", "Impossible Soul", "Too Much" and "Age of Adz". That year Stevens contributed to an album with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, entitled Music For Insomnia. The album was released December 8, 2009. On October 6, 2009, Stevens' label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, released an album of versions of his 2001 album Enjoy Your Rabbit rearranged for strings and performed by the Osso String Quartet, entitled Run Rabbit Run.
In 2010, Stevens was featured on The National's album High Violet, released in May, and sang backing vocals for the band on the Late Show with David Letterman. Following the release of High Violet, band frontman Matt Berninger mentioned that Stevens was recording a new album in the band's studio and that The National would appear on some of the tracks. In early August, Stevens announced North American tour dates across dozens of cities. On August 20, 2010, Stevens suddenly and unexpectedly released a new collection of tracks, the All Delighted People EP, for digital download. The EP is built around two versions of the title track, "All Delighted People." The EP surprisingly rose to #27 on the Billboard 200 albums solely through its digital sales. On August 26, Asthmatic Kitty announced that Stevens would release his newest full-length album, The Age of Adz, on October 12.NPR streamed the album until it was released on October 12, 2010.
The two albums featured a wide range of arrangements, from orchestral to electronic. Song lengths were also extended; the track "Djohariah" from All Delighted People is 17 minutes long, while "Impossible Soul" from The Age of Adz is 25 minutes long. The albums also feature many styles from disco to folk.
Stevens has stated in interviews that in 2009 and 2010 he suffered from a mysterious debilitating virus infection that affected his nervous system. He experienced chronic pain and was forced to stop working on music for several months. He said: "The Age of Adz, is, in some ways, a result of that process of working through health issues and getting much more in touch with my physical self. That's why I think the record's really obsessed with sensation and has a hysterical melodrama to it."
On October 12, 2010, Stevens began his North American tour in Montreal, featuring virtually all new material. The tour lasted just over a month and ended on November 15, 2010 in New York City. Stevens toured Australia and New Zealand in early 2011, featured as part of the Sydney Festival, and appeared on-stage with The National during the last of three sold-out Auckland shows. He also toured Europe and the United Kingdom in April and May 2011, playing there for the first time in five years. His shows mostly consisted of new material, but he did play many older tracks from Seven Swans and Illinois. Stevens ended the Age of Adz tour with two shows in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York.
On February 27, 2012, it was announced Stevens would release a collaborative EP called Beak & Claw, on March 20, with artists Son Lux and Serengeti under the name S / S / S on the Anticon record label.
Stevens released a 7" with close friend Rosie Thomas for Record Store Day 2012, entitled Hit & Run Vol. 1. He also collaborated with choreographer Justin Peck on two ballets for the New York City Ballet: Year of the Rabbit (2012) and Everywhere We Go (2014), both to great critical acclaim.
Stevens, along with fellow Brooklyn musicians Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, began performing their classical project Planetarium, a song-cycle based around the planets in our solar system in countries such as England, The Netherlands, Australia and France from March to July 2012.
On October 2, 2012, it was announced that Stevens would release a second set of Christmas albums, Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10, on November 13, 2012.Silver & Gold contains 58 songs, allowing for a total of 100 when combined with his first set of Christmas albums, Songs for Christmas. To support this new release, Stevens performed in 24 cities around the United States for his 2012 tour titled, "The Sirfjam Stephanapolous Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Spectacular Music Pageant Variety Show Disaster." On December 11, 2012, Stevens released Chopped and Scrooged, a Christmas-themed hip-hop mixtape featuring music from Silver & Gold.
As a part of Joyful Noise's 2013 Flexi Disc Series, Stevens and Cat Martino, of Stranger Cat, recorded the single "Take the Time". Martino has contributed to many of Stevens' past projects including The Age of Adz.
On January 12, 2015, Asthmatic Kitty Records announced that Stevens would release a new album called Carrie & Lowell. Stevens shared the first single from the album, "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross", on February 16, 2015.
Carrie & Lowell was released on March 31, 2015. The album met with critical acclaim on release, receiving a 9.3 from Pitchfork under "best new music", and an initial score of 90 from Metacritic. UK retailer HMV named it the best album of 2015. The album follows the nuances and trials of life with Stevens' mother, Carrie, who was diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic, was addicted to drugs, and abandoned him when he was a year old; it also includes Stevens' stepfather, Lowell Brams. Stevens also stated that the songwriting for the album was incited by his process of grieving and coming to terms with his and his mother's relationship following his mother's death due to stomach cancer in 2012.
On January 26, 2015, Asthmatic Kitty Records announced a tour of North America, which began in April 2015, to coincide with the new album. Stevens also headlined the End of the Road Festival in the United Kingdom in September. On July 21, a second set of U.S. tour dates, which took place in October and November 2015, was announced.
In 2011, Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned composer Nico Muhly to write a piece. He collaborated with Stevens and Bryce Dessner (of The National) to write a piece about the Solar System, which was first performed in Amsterdam in April 2012. On March 28, 2017, NPR's All Songs Considered reported that Stevens would team up with Muhly, Dessner, and James McAlister to produce a "Planetarium Project" album. The first single, "Saturn", was released in March 2017 around the announcement that a space-themed Planetarium album would be released June 9, 2017, on 4AD. NPR described the album as a "collaboration between four brilliant musicians, with lyrics from Sufjan Stevens revolving around mythology, astrology, science, astronomy and the intricacies of human consciousness." The second single, "Mercury", was released on April 25, 2017.
On April 28, 2017, a live album and concert film, Carrie & Lowell Live was released, featuring new interpretations, re-workings and expansions of the songs from Carrie & Lowell. In addition to the live album, Stevens announced another Carrie & Lowell companion piece, The Greatest Gift, which was released on November 24. It includes four unreleased songs from the album sessions, as well as several remixes and a demo.
In January 2017, it was announced that Stevens would contribute original songs written and recorded by himself for the coming-of-age romantic drama film Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino and based on André Aciman's novel of the same name. The film was released on November 24, 2017, by Sony Pictures Classics. The soundtrack of the film features two new songs and a remix of an existing song by Stevens: "Visions of Gideon", which has been described as containing "lush orchestrations" and "staccato-heavy piano refrains," "Mystery of Love", which was featured in the film's trailer as well as the film itself, and an "ethereal piano arrangement" of The Age of Adz track "Futile Devices". The film received critical acclaim following its release, holding an approval rating of 95% based on 311 reviews, with an average rating of 8.7/10, on Rotten Tomatoes. In his review of the film, Consequence of Sound writer Dominick Suzanne-Mayer praised Stevens's work as a composer on the film, noting that he "has a perfect ear for the film's portrayal of a summer that's getting shorter by the day." In January 2018, "Mystery of Love" earned a nomination for the year's Academy Award for Best Original Song. Later in the year, the song received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media.
In December 2017, Stevens released two versions of "Tonya Harding," a song about the figure skater Tonya Harding. The song's video shows a clip of the eponymous skater performing at the 1991 US Figure Skating Championships. Two days later, the single was offered for digital download and streaming, to be followed later by a cassette and vinyl release, in two versions, the one featured in the video (subtitled "in D major") and a piano-only arrangement ("in Eb major"); in a short essay, Stevens revealed his intention to write a song about Harding since 1991. According to Stevens, "I've been trying to write a Tonya Harding song since I first saw her skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1991. She's a complicated subject for a song partly because the hard facts of her life are so strange, disputable, heroic, unprecedented, and indelibly American." Stevens later revealed that the song was offered to the producers to the biographical film I, Tonya, which was released in the same period, but that they decided not to include it in the film.
In October 2018, Stevens performed and recorded with pop music artist Angelo De Augustine a collaborative duo of the latter's "Time" single. On May 29, 2019, Stevens released two new songs, entitled "Love Yourself" and "With My Whole Heart," respectively, which were released in celebration of Pride Month. The official release of the singles included a demo version of "Love Yourself" from 1996, performed by Stevens, as well as a brief instrumental reprise of "Love Yourself". Alongside the release of the songs, it was also announced that 7" vinyl records of the songs would be released June 28, 2019. A pride-themed T-Shirt designed by Stevens also debuted alongside the singles. It was also confirmed later that a portion of the proceeds from the songs and shirts would go to the Ali Forney Center in Brooklyn and the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, two organizations which aim to help LGBT+ youth. In October 2019, Stevens released an album entitled The Decalogue with pianist Timo Andres. It is based on a ballet of the same name by Justin Peck, composed by Stevens.
In February of 2020, it was announced that Stevens would release a collaborative album entitled "Aporia" with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, on March 27 of that year. 
Stevens' sound has been most generally associated with genres such as indie folk, alternative rock, indie rock, indie pop, baroque pop, chamber pop, folk pop, avant-garde folk, lo-fi folk, and electronica.
Despite many of his songs having spiritual allusions, Stevens does not identify as a contemporary Christian music artist or frequently discuss religion with the press. He told The Village Voice, "I don't think music media is the real forum for theological discussions. I think I've said things and sung about things that probably weren't appropriate for this kind of form. And I just feel like it's not my work or my place to be making claims and statements, because I often think it's misunderstood."
During a 2004 interview with Adrian Pannett for Comes with a Smile magazine, when asked how important faith was to his music, he responded, "I don't like talking about that stuff in the public forum because, I think, certain themes and convictions are meant for personal conversation." In a 2006 interview, he said, "It's not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being."
As of 2010, Stevens lived in Kensington, Brooklyn in New York City, where he is a member of the Brooklyn staff of Asthmatic Kitty Records. He is a Christian. Stevens also stated in 2005 that he attended an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church.
A multi-instrumentalist, Stevens is known for his use of the banjo, but also plays guitar, piano, drums, woodwinds, and several other instruments, often playing all of these on his albums through the use of multitrack recording. While in school, he studied the oboe and English horn, which he also plays on his albums. Stevens did not learn to play the guitar until his time at Hope College.
|2006||PLUG Independent Music Awards||Album of the Year||Illinois||Won|
|Male Artist of the Year||Himself||Won|
|2018||Gold Derby Awards||Best Song||"Visions of Gideon"||Nominated|
|"Mystery of Love"||Won|
|Academy Awards||Best Original Song||Nominated|
|Critics' Choice Awards||Best Song||Nominated|
|2019||Grammy Awards||Best Song Written for Visual Media||Nominated|