Posts Tagged ‘Sufjan Stevens’

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Sufjan Stevens has shared a new song, “Tonya Harding”, dedicated to “one of the greatest figure skaters of her time.” In an accompanying essay, Stevens writes, “Tonya shines bright in the pantheon of American history simply because she never stopped trying her hardest. She fought classism, sexism, physical abuse and public rebuke to become an incomparable American legend.”

The song is not associated with the new Harding biopic I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan.

Sufjan is reminding us what popular music can do, reminding us that art can tackle any topic it wishes, delivering even a poignant five-minute “biopic” of a disgraced American figure skating champion because why not. Pop music is not supposed to do portraiture, but who made them rules? The Tonya Harding story challenges us all to look hard at our own sexism and classism.

TONYA HARDING, MY STAR 
by Sufjan 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. She was one of the greatest figure skaters of her time, and the first American woman to perform a triple axle in an international competition. She was an unlikely skating star, having been raised working class in Portland, Oregon. Being a poor outsider, her rise to fame in the skating rink was seen, by some, as a blemish on a sport that favored sophistication and style. Tonya’s skating technique was feisty, fierce, and full of athleticism, and her flamboyant outfits were often hand-made by her mother (who was abusive and overbearing). (They couldn’t afford Vera Wang.) And then there was the Nancy Kerrigan incident. In January 1994, Tonya’s then-boyfriend Jeff Gillooly hired an assailant, Shane Stant, to break fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Cobo Arena in Detroit, so that she would be unable to compete at the upcoming Winter Olympics. The after-math of the attack was recorded on camera and ultimately set off a media frenzy (and an FBI investigation). Gillooly and Stan were eventually found guilty, and Tonya pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution, and was subsequently banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Nancy Kerrigan recovered from her injury and won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. Tonya Harding finished eighth.

But that’s not even half the story. When Tonya and Gillooly got married, they filmed themselves having sex on their wedding night and produced one of the first-ever celebrity sex tapes (which they sold to Penthouse for $200,000 each). Tonya also had a brief career as a boxer, and is most famous for her bout with former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones (whose sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton precipitated his impeachment in 1998). Tonya was also (very briefly) in a band called the Golden Blades (they were allegedly booed off the stage during their first and only performance). She also raced vintage automobiles (setting a record by driving a Ford Model A over 97 miles per hours on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah). And in 1996 Tonya used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive an 81-year-old woman who collapsed at a bar in Portland while playing video poker. That’s a lot to accomplish before the age of 30! 

Tonya Harding’s dramatic rise and fall was fiercely followed by the media, and she very quickly became the brunt of jokes, the subject of tabloid headlines and public outcry. She was a reality TV star before such a thing even existed. But she was also simply un-categorical: America’s sweetheart with a dark twist. But I believe this is what made her so interesting, and a true American hero. In the face of outrage and defeat, Tonya bolstered shameless resolve and succeeded again and again with all manners of re-invention and self-determination. Tonya shines bright in the pantheon of American history simply because she never stopped trying her hardest. She fought classism, sexism, physical abuse and public rebuke to become an incomparable American legend.

I admit, early drafts of this song contained more than a few puns, punch lines and light-hearted jabs—sex tapes and celebrity boxing make for an entertaining narrative arc. But the more I edited, and the more I meditated, and the more I considered the wholeness of the person of Tonya Harding, I began to feel a conviction to write something with dignity and grace, to pull back the ridiculous tabloid fodder and take stock of the real story of this strange and magnificent America hero. At the end of the day, Tonya Harding was just an ordinary woman with extraordinary talent and a tireless work ethic who set out to do her very best. She did that and more. I hope the same can be said of us all. – Sufjan Stevens

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Sufjan Stevens has shared a self-directed video for ‘The Greatest Gift’, a new track taken from his forthcoming mixtape of the same name, coming tomorrow via Asthmatic Kitty.
The Greatest Gift is a mixtape of outtakes, demos and remixes from Stevens‘ acclaimed 2015 album “Carrie & Lowell”. As well as demos and alternate versions of songs from the original album, the mixtape features four previously unreleased new songs, official outtakes from Carrie & Lowell.
The mixtape also includes a few alternate or demo versions of songs from the original album, including a ‘fingerpicking’ version of ‘Drawn to the Blood’ and a guitar demo version of ‘John My Beloved’, which Stevens recorded on his phone. The digital release also contains an iPhone demo of the song ‘Carrie & Lowell’.

Sufjan Stevens - <em>Carrie & Lowell</em> (Asthmatic Kitty)

Before the year was even two weeks old in 2015, we were greeted with the wonderful, news that Sufjan Stevens had an album on the way, a return to his “folk roots.” It was about time! After a run of three classics in three years — 2003’s Michigan, 2004’s Seven Swans, and 2005’s IllinoisStevens wandered around the wilderness for a decade, reporting back only with sporadic news . It was easy to imagine we’d lost him forever.

When “Carrie & Lowell” arrived in early 2015, though, we realized it wasn’t a return to anything. Like so many soldiers, convicts, and mystics, Stevens had been irretrievably altered in his time away. The guy who made Illinois was gone. On that record, Stevens occasionally tackled subjects such as substance abuse and mental illness and mortality (all three in the same song on “John Wayne Gacy”),

On Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens is directly singing about his own mother’s drug addiction, her schizophrenia, her death from stomach cancer. He’s singing about his own terror and sadness and loss — his own childhood, his own grief. There’s no glockenspiel, no grand concept; there’s little more than a finger-picked acoustic guitar and a whispering, quivering voice. And that voice doesn’t just sound haunted; it sounds like a fucking ghost. Listen to Carrie & Lowell on headphones, it doesn’t feel like Stevens is singing to you; it feels like he’s singing inside you.

It’s a discomfiting experience. Stevens’ most obvious musical touchstone here is Elliott Smith — another damaged person who wrestled with demons his whole life — but Carrie & Lowell is somehow even more devastating than any of Smith’s records. That’s partly because Stevens‘ soft voice is so prominent in the mix. Elliott Smith buried his vocals in layers, tangled them in knots; you can listen to an Elliott Smith record and just get lost in the loveliness of the sound if you don’t want to think about the ferocious pain conveyed in the words. Carrie & Lowell refuses you that option: You get trapped in the loveliness of the sound.

But Carrie & Lowell isn’t a morbid record, like the moments of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, it is meditative, honest, and open. It claws at the world. It fights back at the darkness. It rips you to shreds and moves you to tears, but it’s not asking you to dwell on death — it is forcing you to experience life. And when I immerse myself in Carrie & Lowell, I’m engaging with every single verse, but here, now, I will engage only with this one, which closes “Eugene”:

“What’s left is only bittersweet/ For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me/ Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away/ What’s the point of singing songs/ If they’ll never even hear you?”

Carrie & Lowell captures a life full of bittersweetness — several lives, really. And in the music, all those voices, the living and the dead, are reflected, amplified.

The best is not behind Sufjan Stevens. He has never been better than this, never really even been close. He can push the world away and walk off into the woods if he wants . Not anymore. Carrie & Lowell forces us to hear everything, to feel everything.  Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell was released a few years ago, and while some records lose their luster over time, this one remains stunningly, painfully intimate to this day. The record details Stevens’ troubled relationship with his mother, and also marks his return to a more traditional folk sound. Full of intricate guitar picking and ghostly vocals, listening to Carrie & Lowell is like bearing witness to one person’s beautifully rendered emotional wreckage.

Carrie & Lowell was a huge addition to Sufjan Stevens’s catalog in 2015, so it’s no surprise that he’s revisiting the record to compile the outtakes, remixes and demos. Aptly named The Greatest Gift, Stevens’s new compilation will be out November. 24th, and lead single “Wallowa Lake Monster” ripples into a medley of breathy vocalizations and echoes of whomping horns and tinkling synths and keys, making up seven minutes of ethereal contemplation.

Planetarium is an album co-composed by four musicians: Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan Stevens.  Flanked by a string quartet and a consort of seven trombones, this unique collaborative ensemble has assembled an expansive song cycle that explores the Sun, the Moon, the planets and other celestial bodies of our solar system (and beyond) through soundscape, song, science and myth.

The subject of the album is not just the wilderness of outer space, but the interior space of human consciousness and how it engages with divinity, depravity, society and self—what does it mean to be human?  This existential question rings clear from the opening lyric: “What’s right and what’s wrong?”  The 75 minutes of music that follow provide a complex thesis: to be human is to be a total mess.  The result of this creative alliance is a musical and aesthetic journey as far-reaching as its subject: from lush piano ballads to prog-rock political anthems, curious electronic back-beats to classical cadenzas, the vast musical styles seek to explore the diversity and mystery of our cosmos.

Planetarium is a concept album that occasionally gives way to ambient interludes and majestic brass chorales, buttressed by a percussive drive that keeps the momentum skyward.  In spite of all the experimentation in sound and style, Sufjan’s vocals provide a clear and coherent center of gravity.  The album includes some of his most diverse vocal performances to date (from soft hush to guttural scream), and whether he’s singing through effects pedals, vocoders, auto-tune or not, his voice delivers an ambitious flight map through the cosmos.

The project started when the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Nico Muhly to create a new piece for their audience, and Nico immediately thought of his friends Bryce and Sufjan.

‘Mercury’ by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister. Taken from the album ‘Planetarium’, released 9th June on 4AD Records:

“I’d known Sufjan for years,” says Nico, “and Bryce and I had been in each other’s business” — but, says Bryce, “we’d never worked on something this ambitious together.”  Each of the four brought their discrete and complementary strengths to the project.  Nico’s experience with composing music for cathedral choirs and symphony orchestras provided the framework for the piece, while Bryce brought his own sense of composition and orchestral color.

“Of the three of us, Bryce is the most virtuosic at his instrument,” said Nico.  A studied and accomplished classical musician, Bryce was also fluent in Nico’s unique musical language, and added a layer of rhythmic complexity to the songs.”

Sufjan became the driver behind the “song” part of the song cycle.  (Bryce: “I think ‘seven trombones’ was enough to lure Sufjan into it.”)  Sufjan also brought lyrics, and with them, the larger ideas around which Planetarium revolves: mythology and astrology, the ancient concept that stars and planets of the night sky represent gods, heroes and monsters.  As the project evolved, the group expanded the idea to encompass science and astronomy.

Sufjan also introduced frequent collaborator James McAlister to Bryce and Nico, and James brought the beats—drums, percussion and electronic sequencing.

In addition to the previously announced Paris show, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister will perform music from ‘Planetarium’ live at three special US concerts this summer. Listen to new track ‘Mercury’,

Asthmatic Kitty Records is pleased to announce “Carrie & Lowell Live”, an audio and visual document of Sufjan’s November 9th, 2015 performance at North Charleston Performing Arts Center in South Carolina. It is available on YouTube and Vimeo and as an audio download (and streaming) on most digital platforms starting April 28th, 2017.
Released in March 2015, Carrie & Lowell is perhaps Sufjan’s bleakest album, tracing the songwriter’s struggle with grief and depression following the sudden death of his mother. To promote the album, Sufjan set out on an extensive worldwide tour, playing almost 100 concerts performing almost exclusively songs from the new record.

The show, which was designed by Marc Janowitz, incorporated an expansive lighting display and cathedral-like LED columns featuring home videos shot by Sufjan’s maternal grandfather, Nick Marabeas. Much of this vintage footage highlights family birthdays, graduations, and weddings of Carrie and her siblings from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, lending the performances the emotional arc of a memorial, celebrating Carrie’s life and meditating on her death with a sweeping transcendence that gave testament to Sufjan’s central thesis of mourning: that in spite of death, we must go on living in fullness and joy.

The live show featured many new interpretations, re-workings and expansions of the songs from Carrie & Lowell, itself a spare album. On stage, acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and piano were augmented by drums and percussion, electronics, and a motley of synthesizers to create an expansive sonic environment that moved from intimate to psychedelic without sacrificing the solemn nature of the material.

Carrie & Lowell Live captures Sufjan at his most vulnerable and persuasive, and it features a proficient, multiple-instrumentalist crew of musicians, including Dawn Landes (vocals, guitar, guitalin, piano, synthesizer, vocoder, percussion), Casey Foubert (vocals, guitar, lap steel, bass, piano, ukulele, synthesizer), Steve Moore (vocals, synthesizer, bass synth, trombone, Casiotone, piano) and James McAlister (drums, percussion, electronics, synthesizer, piano). The live show ends with an expansive 12-minute improvisational jam that looks (and feels) like nothing less than a born-again experience.

Carrie & Lowell Live was shot and produced by We Are Films, edited by Keith Bradshaw and Deborah Johnson, mixed by Casey Foubert, and mastered by TW Walsh.

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released April 28th, 2017
Performed live at:
The North Charleston Performing Arts Center
Charleston, South Carolina
November 9th, 2015

Performed by:
Casey Foubert
Dawn Landes
James McAlister
Steve Moore
Sufjan Stevens

A very special 10th anniversary edition of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.

In 2005 Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, his fourth album and the second in his 50-state project. Sufjan fans with long memories might recall a minor hiccup in our release of Illinois as it related to the inclusion of a certain Metropolis-born man of steel.

While we do love balloons, we’ve always missed the imminent presence Big Blue brought to the album’s cover art, short-lived though it was. But things are very different in 2015 than they were in 2005, and different times call for different heroes.

So today, exactly ten years after we released the double LP of Illinois, we’re proud to announce a special 10th anniversary edition of the LP that includes Chicago-born Blue Marvel on the cover.

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (Special 10th Anniversary Blue Marvel Edition)

The double LP will include an “Antimatter Blue” and “Cape White” vinyl colors. The audio for the special edition comes from a 2014 remastered version of Illinois. We commissioned children’s book artist and the original Illinois cover artist Divya Srinivasan to portray Blue Marvel in the style of the original art. We’re pressing 10,000 double LPs of this edition. And we might include an extra surprise so stay tuned.

Big thanks to everyone at Marvel for giving us permission to feature Blue MarvelBlue Marvel, who made his first appearance in the Marvel Universe in November 2008 in Adam: Legend of of the Blue Marvel #1, is a rising star in the Marvel universe. Here is Blue Marvel’s official biography:

In the 1960s Adam Brashear was a young man who served his country as a U.S. Marine. When he discovered his super-powers, he fashioned a secret identity with which to protect his country; the Blue Marvel! He served as a hero for years, and was one of the most popular heroes of his time. Yet Adam had a secret, he was an African-American, a fact not lost on the government. As a precaution against so much power in the hands of a black man, they took steps to control him, even going so far as to plant a Spy for him to date. His career as the Blue Marvel ended after he faced the Anti-Man, with his ethnicity revealed, Adam was pressured by the government to retire.

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On the fourth of July in 2005, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, a record that made him a household name, at least among a particular set of indie rock fans and music critics.

More than 10 years on, Asthmatic Kitty Records is releasing Illinois (Special 10th Anniversary Blue Marvel Edition). The titling is typical of Stevens’ coy send-ups of consumer tropes but the benefits, as always, are very serious. Today, he released an early demo of the song “Chicago,” which would go on to become a centerpiece of the finished album; it’s a rare glimpse of a great song still gestating.

The demo of “Chicago” begins with a flourish. Multi-tracked acoustics drive the song, tenser and less ecstatic than the finished version’s arcing vibraphones and washing drums. The demo leaves the focus squarely on Stevens’ vocal and his lyrics, and the instrumental builds steadily to a triumphant vocal melody that he excised by the time he released his finished version. The string section, which gives the finished song its holy sound, is the most notable instrumental absence on the demo.

“Chicago” happens to be one of a set of totemic songs from the early 2000s that each build on a similar, mythic chord progression. Like Coldplay’s “Clocks” (note the similarity here) and Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “Chicago” taps into a sense of wonder and quest. All three ride their chord progression from start to finish with little variation. But let this demo be a reminder of what Stevens can do that almost no one else can: hold the world at arm’s length, the better to fall in love with it again.

Sufjan Stevens, June 4, 2015, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California

Sufjan Stevens has never been known for his dissonance. Though he’s flexed wiry post-punk muscles in the past, and has never shied away from angularity, he built his considerable reputation on coherent stacks of pillowy sounds.

That should change. Just as he has for the duration of his Carrie & Lowell tour, Stevens ended his Thursday night set with album closer “Blue Bucket of Gold.” It’s a beautiful, gentle song on record, a dedication of faith and resilience in the face of death. Live, Stevens and his five-piece band draw the song to a near hush. Two stationary disco balls hide behind the stage’s massive video boards, their light refracted and still. Then, as the group builds away from this moment of incredible stillness, the stage lights begin to pop and flash in every color and the video board goes strobe and the band are suddenly playing at Hecker-like levels of volume and dissonance. It’s death, imagined, and it’s not a horrible thing or a scary thing. It’s tragic and mournful. And it’s incredibly moving in a way that music this abstract rarely is.

 

“Blue Bucket of Gold” was the thematic cap of Stevens’ very emotional set at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He played the entirety of this year’s Carrie & Lowell, and at several moments he was so overcome with emotion that he was nearly unable to sing: he flubbed notes and had to catch himself in “Eugene,” and he stopped playing entirely for a suspenseful second in the middle of “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.”

Sufjan Stevens – ‘Carrie & Lowell’

But the catharsis that came with the Carrie & Lowell songs seemed to loosen him up, too. He was funnier and more easygoing than he had been earlier on the tour, taking the long way around to a joke about Top Gun before launching into the Seven Swans track “Sister.” He even poked fun at his own preoccupation with death and suffering. And then he went and broke our hearts anyway.

Set List

[Set 1]

“Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)”
“Death With Dignity”
“Should Have Known Better”
“Drawn to the Blood”
“All of Me Wants All of You”
“Eugene”
“John My Beloved”
“The Only Thing”
“Fourth of July”
“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
“Carrie & Lowell”
“The Owl and the Tanager”
“For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”
“Heirloom”
“To Be Alone With You”
“Futile Devices”
“Sister”
“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”
“Blue Bucket of Gold”

[Encore]
“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
“Chicago”

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Carrie & Lowell album Tour Exclusive 7″ Vinyl To support his critically acclaimed new album, Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens has just shared a non-album track “Exploding Whale.” Available exclusively as a 7” vinyl to be sold at various stops along Stevens’ upcoming tour, the track is availble here.