Published in The Music, January 2016
After a long year on the road, Sufjan Stevens felt an urgent need to domesticate. “I’ve been sewing,” he smiles. “I inherited this old sewing machine that was my great grandmother’s and I’ve had it for years.” He carried mounds of fabric back to his Brooklyn home and set about making shirts and pants. “I made curtains too, for my windows. They’re made from Dutch wax fabric, these beautiful African prints, and they’re this bold, bright, yellow colour. Vibrancy, that’s what I’m interested in right now.”
Stevens played nearly 100 shows in 2015, supporting an album that is anything but vibrant. Recorded in the wake of his mother’s death, Carrie & Lowell is a heartbreaking record of conflicted grief. Stevens was estranged from his mother, who suffered from mental illness and alcoholism. She was an inconstant figure in his life, abandoning her son when he was in nappies then reaching out to him when she remarried, at the urging of her new husband, Lowell Brams. Carrie & Lowell sifts through these memories from the side of the grave. It is an attempt to make sense of suffering through a window of faded polaroids.
The intimacy of Carrie & Lowell takes your breath away. “I’ve never been one to shy away from the realness of things,” Stevens says. “I knew I need to get at the core of this loss, and a lot of it had to do specifically with Carrie and her illness, and her suffering through life. I felt complicit in that and she was complicit in my own suffering. There was a really tragic dynamic between us and I didn’t want to talk about it generally or metaphorically, I had to talk about it and sing about it with concrete details.” The result feels hopelessly raw, crushingly vulnerable to listeners, but for Stevens it is a distant echo of his feelings. They are diluted in rhyme, melody, allusions and metaphors. “It’s no longer personal,” he says.
This was a problem for the singer, who eschews bullshit. The older he gets, the more feverish Stevens is about authenticity, his guiding star. But if he missed something in the making of Carrie & Lowell, he found it on the road.
“In spite of the record, in spite of the songs manifesting, in spite of having survived that grief, I still felt like the music fell short of the experience,” Stevens remembers, “[But] when we started playing the songs live, I began to encounter the music differently. I felt an entirely new perspective on the experience of suffering. It kind of taught me something about our desire to interpret and explain and make sense of tragedy. It taught me that it’s not always necessary… It’s disingenuous to anthropomorphise misery or give it some kind of moral summary, as if life is a series of homilies about the wisdom of suffering.
“As I was playing the music I was really thinking the world is chaos, human nature is chaos, we project order as a defence mechanism to create meaning, to make sense of things, but all of that is really unnecessary. What I really wanted to do was just live in the moment and live abundantly, and really celebrate life. As I’ve been singing songs about death day after day after day, I’ve been really feeling motivated, in spite of the presence of death in the room, to live fully, with eyes wide open; to eradicate metaphor, to eradicate meaning and to just be spiritually and emotionally present in the moment; to not worry so much about the tragedies of yesterday or the speculative tragedies of tomorrow.”
Stevens played the Sydney Opera House last May as part of Vivid LIVE, just months after Carrie & Lowell‘s release. Projected onto a screen at the back of the stage were home movies from his childhood; scraps of sun-bleached innocence, poignantly lost; a mother who was and is a ghost. But as the films played, the Concert Hall was filled with spectacular fragmented silver light, these beautiful radiant bursts. And Stevens, on stage, was smiling, though the songs could make you weep.
“The show is designed to have a catharsis,” he explains. “Music is such a joyful, spiritual force and when it moves around the room, it lifts people up. Even though the content is dark and the narrative is about suffering, there’s a kind of sequence of events that takes place, and there are stages of grief, and in the end you come to fullness of understanding about what death really means.”
Death can lead to joy, Stevens says. It doesn’t have to consume you. With bright yellow curtains hanging in his window, Stevens has let it go.