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Greenbelt: music

18 December 2006

by Jude Adam

I’D LIKE to introduce you to an artist who has delighted me more than any other in the last three years: Sufjan Stevens — Christian, poet, prolific songwriter, and (I don’t say this lightly) genius.

“Hang on. . . Who? Suff-Jan? What kind of name is that?” It’s a good question. Sufjan, pronounced Soof-yahn, is, according to the man himself, “a charming, militaristic Muslim name” of Persian origin, meaning “he comes with a sword”.

Born in Detroit, Mr Stevens showed musical talent from a young age — learning to play almost every instrument you could name, from piano to percussion. He created the record label “Asthmatic Kitty” with his step-father, in order to put out his debut album — a college project called A Sun Came, on which he played everything himself.

He never really intended to be a musician, and, moving to New York for a writer’s graduate programme, determined to write a novel. It was only frustration that pushed him back towards music. In working up a set of short stories about his home state, Stevens became fascinated with tales of towns and people. Shifting them around into lyrics he delivered Michigan in 2003 — the album that brought him into the sight of critics and fans.

I first came across Sufjan when Greenbelt’s programme manager gave me a copy of his 2004 album Seven Swans, suggesting we try and book him to play at the festival. We’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) ever since.

What was it that caught my attention? Sufjan has a unique quality made up of so many contributing factors that I don’t know where to start.

His soft voice, intelligent and emotive lyrics, crazy song titles (e.g. a 47-second instrumental track called “A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons”), and simple yet fantastic musicianship, are mixed with a real and heartfelt faith that has managed to disarm the most sceptical of music critics. It took my feet out from under me.

When Illinois was released early last year (the second of a rumoured set of 50 albums based on each US state) I listened to almost nothing else for three months.

The collection Christmas Songs started off as a pick-me-up project in the wake of 9/11: “A musical benediction to a tumultuous year”, Stevens writes in the sleeve notes. He recorded seven ramshackle and charming songs — a mix of carols and originals — with a group of friends in his kitchen. Then, packaging them up with stickers and drawings, he sent them out to friends and family. In 2006 we get all five volumes (he missed 2004 due to recording Illinois) including this years’ 11-song wonderfully produced compilation.

The mix of spiritual and silly is perfect. Stevens explains: “Christmas music. . . intersects a supernatural phenomenon (the incarnation of God) with the sentimental mush of our mortal lives (presents, toys, Christmas tree ornaments, snow globes, cranberry sauce), leaving in its wake a feeling that can only be described as “that warm fuzzy feeling”. My favourites include “Oh Holy Night”, which builds in such a way as to reduce me to tears every time, “Lo! How A Rose E’er Blooming”, played on multiple pianos, and the self-penned “Get Behind Me, Santa!”, which includes the lyric: “I’m just another regular guy, With superpowers and a penchant for the Yuletide.”

You can download the album on iTunes — but this is one package you want to hold: there are stickers, a songbook with lyrics and chords (including instructions such as “repeat with a look of Christmas joy on your face”), a cartoon strip and video, and short stories. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest record shop to make sure you have it for next year.

“Dear Santa Sufjan, my dearest wish is that you play our festival in 2007. I’ve been a good girl. . . promise.”

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