“Please get into Sufjan Stevens,” read a text message that I received from my best friend Claire a couple of years ago. I followed her advice – as I’ve learned is sensible – and was instantly hooked. His music seemed to speak to the deepest parts of my soul, in a way that, for me at least, no musician had done before. Even if I didn’t always fully understand what he was singing about – Stevens’ songs often border on poetry; he employs lyric as deftly as he does melody – I felt like he was speaking to me. Like we were having an intimate conversation – private, one-on-one. I know I’m not alone in feeling like this; I know lots of people who have a similar relationship to Stevens’ music, though his songs and albums sometimes feel like secrets that friends share among one another.
When I speak to Stevens (somewhat tremulously given his music’s impact on me), it becomes immediately clear that making music is something that is central – and essential – to his existence. Whether he’s writing songs about the US States (Michigan, Illinois), the Chinese zodiac (Enjoy Your Rabbit), the apocalyptic artwork of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson (The Age of Adz), the grief he experienced following the death of his mother (Carrie & Lowell), or the relationship between Elio and Oliver in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (Mystery of Love, Visions of Gideon), his music maintains that soul-piercing quality. It plummets the depths of the human experience, touching on themes including life, death, love, loss, religion, and spirituality.
At the core of his music-making process is a very noble – though he’d probably bristle at that word – pursuit, which he describes as “organising chaos into something that is pure and true and beautiful.” It’s a process that gives him purpose, he says. And it’s something he has in common with Angelo De Augustine, a fellow songwriter with whom Stevens has made an album. Based in Thousand Oaks, California, De Augustine is perhaps best known for his 2019 album Tomb, which was written following a breakup. Full of quietly beautiful songs, this record hits like a lullaby, exploring themes of loss and pain in a way that is reminiscent of Stevens himself. Introduced by a mutual friend, another songwriter Denison Witmer, the pair hit it off – they share a similar sense of humour, they say – and became friends. De Augustine later opened for Stevens, before deciding to write an album together.
To do this, they retreated to a cabin in the heart of the Catskills Mountains in upstate New York, owned by another musician friend Bryce David Dessner (from the band the National). Here, in bucolic paradise, the pair would have fires, eat and watch films, which they would then write about the next day. The result is a sweet and sincere 14-track album that riffs on movies as diverse as zombie horror Night of the Living Dead and cheerleader rom-com Bring It On Again, each of which they approached without any preconceived notions of what it was trying to say – hence the name of the album, A Beginner’s Mind.
Speaking to AnOther, Stevens is as smart and sensitive as you’d expect, but also self-aware, oscillating between being darkly funny and deeply profound – somehow without being pretentious. Also smart and sensitive, De Augustine is softly spoken, talking with a wisdom and depth that belies his 29 years. It’s easy to see why the two get on; obviously they share a love for songwriting, and approach the craft in a similar way, but they also look at the world in a similar way – one that is quite beautiful.
As their collaborative album A Beginner’s Mind is released, Stevens and De Augustine come together for a conversation for AnOther.
Ted Stansfield: What do you two have in common?
Sufjan Stevens: We’re both white male narcissists? [Laughs.].
Angelo De Augustine: [Laughs.]. Oh god.
SS: No, we’re actually antithetical to white male narcissism. Maybe that’s where we connect.
AD: I think we share an appreciation for words and songwriting on that very basic level. We’re both very fastidious and meticulous about every word. And every syllable, every melody line, every chord is important. I think we share that.
SS: I think you’re very thoughtful, very sensitive and intuitive about things; about the world and about art. That’s something I noticed right away, even though there’s some inexperience in you – which I actually think is kind of refreshing – you’re very thoughtful and perceptive. I’d like to think that I’m that way too. And I think we both approach our work with the same kind of seriousness, earnestness and attention to detail. So I think sensitivity.
TS: I get the sense that you both have quite rich internal lives, that you’re quite internal people. Is that right?
SS: I hope so. [Laughs.]. I feel like as I get older, I just get stupider and stupider. But I think there’s an innate sense of caring and empathy in you, Angelo, and in your work, that is really vital and important. But we both have these comedic outbreaks too – it’s not all like doom and gloom, and melancholy. We actually connected on each other’s sense of humour.
AD: Yeah, we actually have a really similar sense of humour.
SS: And we’re both self-deprecating. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.
TS: Sufjan, I’ve always been interested in the themes of religion and spirituality in your music. How has your spirituality evolved in recent times?
SS: It’s always evolving. It’s an ongoing relationship to the unknown. It’s complicated. And it’s something that I value. For me, it’s really important to understand that the world is something other than the physical; that there’s a metaphysical and a spiritual. A lot of my beliefs are pretty orthodox Christian beliefs, but I’m also really open to understanding things through the lens of the cosmic parallel reality, because the physical reality we live in is so corrupt, disjointed and oppressive. To just get through the day, I need to meditate and do all kinds of prayer and mindfulness routines. That’s really important to me. [My spirituality is] constantly changing, and it’s informed by so many different things. There’s a lot of spiritual language in this record.
AD: I think that a lot of that relationship for me is just trying to find some kind of truth within myself or the world around me. It manifests through music because music is such a hard thing to pin down – it doesn’t actually exist, it’s just waves that pass over our bodies or over our heads. The fact that it doesn’t exist makes it really interesting, I am really fascinated by that idea. Because like Sufjan said, the physical world is pretty dysfunctional and oppressive, so it can be helpful to have a practice where you’re focusing on things that aren’t right in front of you.
“A lot of my beliefs are pretty orthodox Christian beliefs, but I’m also really open to understanding things through the lens of the cosmic parallel reality, because the physical reality we live in is so corrupt, disjointed and oppressive” – Sufjan Stevens
TS: Can you tell me about this album?
SS: Most of it came out of a month-long residency that Angelo and I had in upstate New York. We were in the same space together, and it was really special. And there was just a lot of just beautiful, serendipitous worlds that we were creating, through songwriting. So I feel like this record is a communion of two people coming together and collaborating together … It was very bucolic, you know. We were having fires and cooking together.
AD: Yeah, we had fires every night. That was really nice.
SS: And we watched films every night too. And then the next day, we would try to integrate some of the ideas in the films into songs. We would write separately in the morning, through the afternoon, and then get together later. And I had a Pro Tool setup upstairs, and we would share ideas and collaborate. And if I had writer’s block, or was stuck on something, I could pass it on to Angelo and he could take it over.
AD: Yeah, and that happened both ways, too. And then we also had some songs that were fully written together, like Reach Out.
TS: How easy do you both find it to write music?
AD: It varies. [Laughs.].
SS: It’s a lot of work and can be incredibly tedious actually. This music is built on a conventional kind of old school folk music idiom; there’s these formulas that we can follow that help us along but it can be really complicated, especially when you’re using source material. Cinema can be really difficult to appropriate without it feeling or coming off as campy. It’s about trying to find truth and beauty in it, and everything should resonate as true. So it’s really difficult work. We approached it almost like technicians. Sometimes it felt like we were in writing workshops.
AD: I brought this big blue binder with me and we took notes. It was like camp or doing a book report to some extent, but then you also have the elusive unknown, which seeps in too, which is probably the most exciting part to me: when something magic happens that you didn’t will to happen.
SS: Yeah, you always have to be open for accidents waiting to happen, which can be like little gems. But leading up to all that, it’s brainstorming, it’s mood boarding, it’s like Excel spreadsheets, reading the dictionary, RhymeZone.com, and Wikipedia ...
AD: [Laughs.]. Looking at IMDb ...
SS: We investigated pretty deeply. We did our research.
TS: So is it an enjoyable process?
SS: It’s our job. We punch in and punch out just like everyone else. [Laughs.].
TS: What is the most pleasurable part for you both? Is it the songwriting or is it the performing, for instance?
AD: Songwriting got me into this whole thing. Because when I was pretty young, I started writing songs ... I was able to create this world of my own, within these songs. That is an addictive thing to do, it can make you feel like you have purpose in the world. And in that sense, it’s meaningful to me. It’s something that I cherish.
SS: Songwriting is the basis of everything I do. I’m constantly in search of writing a good song. I’m always challenged by that. But on a more abstract level, what I really enjoy is organising chaos into something that is pure and true and beautiful. Because sound itself, without any kind of organisational principles, can be pretty rude and disruptive. And I’m really sensitive to sound, I like peace and quiet. So a big part of my job is taking sounds and organising them into a harmonic order. And then just being open. And in constant pursuit of discovering something new, something beautiful.
“Because when I was pretty young, I started writing songs ... I was able to create this world of my own, within these songs. That is an addictive thing to do, it can make you feel like you have purpose in the world” – Angelo De Augustine
“My interest is in sensuality, I think ... The sounds themselves can leave such an impression on our bodies and our minds. Even before I begin to project text, narrative or meaning” – Sufjan Stevens
TS: Where do you think that comes from, your desire to create something that is pure and true and beautiful?
SS: I don’t know, it feels somewhat carnal, like a very deep, almost physical or physiological instinct. Because then maybe it relates to how I perceive the world and how I receive the world, which, to me, I interpret as being chaotic, disruptive, complicated and lacking order. I think it gives me a sense of purpose and pride, to take the information and organise it in a way that’s very orderly and that can have a palliative kind of effect ... But I think the primary instinct when I started making music is just ... My interest is in sensuality, I think.
TS: What do you mean by that? Can you elaborate?
SS: The sounds themselves can leave such an impression on our bodies and our minds. Even before I begin to project text, narrative or meaning.
TS: So which films did you especially enjoy watching and writing about?
AD: The Silence of the Lambs. That was one of my favourite ones. I was able to feel some sort of personal connection to that movie or the characters in it. I was imagining this scenario, where the serial killer Buffalo Bill and the director Jonathan Demme could have a conversation with each other. I was imagining that conversation and if they could come to some sort of reconciliation.
SS: The first movie that I ever saw that left a lasting impression on me was The Thing. Because I watched it when I was seven. It’s still one of my favourite films to this day. But we didn’t choose any film that we didn’t love. We had to be entirely invested in the work before deciding to write a song about it.
AD: It just had to be the right film. And I don’t really know what that means, necessarily. Because these films are kind of all over the map. If you look at them on a page, you have some that people regard as classics like All About Eve, The Thing, or The Silence of the Lambs. And you have others like Bring It On Again or Point Break, which are great in their own way, just maybe not regarded as classics. I liked that we had variety and what we chose in terms of that high art, low art thing. I enjoy that duality.
TS: Finally, what brings you hope?
SS: I’m so much older than you, Angelo. And I’m so jaded. Maybe you could answer that better than I can.
AD: Just trying to wake up every day and do my best. That’s all we can really do. And I guess what brings me hope is staying true to myself and being some sort of positive force for good if I can. In my own small way, in my own life – I feel like everybody can do that. And [that] I can have a ripple effect and that can create hope.
SJS: That’s beautiful, Angelo. I mean, I hope and pray that I can be a light in the darkness. That’s always been my daily objective. But it’s difficult. But I try to pray myself beyond the white noise of the world around me. And I think music gives me a sense of hope and purpose.
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine’s album A Beginner’s Mind is out on 24 September 2021, via Asthmatic Kitty.