50 things I learned about songwriting from Sufjan Stevens (while I was waiting for the albums to the other 48 states).

Sufjan Stevens has been filling up our media box recently.  Twitters, facebook, emails, etc.  He’s going on tour. He’s released a new E.P.  He’s releasing a brand new album later this fall.  (Where the heck is my 3rd state album…that’s all I really want Sufjan!?)  So I thought while we are all enjoying the new music I would post some thoughts on what I’ve learned from Sufjan Stevens about songwriting and loving my community.  Okay, I didn’t quite get to 50 but i did a couple better than 2.  I  hope that along the way some of these reflections might prove fruitful for we seek to live our art in the context of worship leading for the local church.

1. We should write music that both celebrates and parses our community.

I think we’ve come to the point where we need less worship music that celebrates the great generalizations of God.  We need less songs that sing scriptures systematic theology and more songs that simply sing God’s story back to him.  Because if we don’t have the story right, then the system is going to be faulty.  In other words we need worship music that helps our church’s interpret and internalize the events of redemptive history.  On a micro-level we even need songs that celebrate the events of our own particular church.  What songs have you written recently that sketch out a redemptive moment in your church?

Sufjan Stevens is from Michigan – the first of his 50 states album.  To listen and study this album is to experience a masterpiece of sociology, and anthropology, and ethnomusicology.  In other words…the good human stuff that every pastor should dredge up when pastoring an embodied and localized people. It’s good stuff primarily because it’s real.  It lifts up the struggles and depressions and celebrates the unique and triumphant. Listening to the track open “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” or the ode to detroit always inspires.

The closing track on “Michigan” is “Vito’s Ordination Song”.  Vito and Sufjan are both graduates of Hope College in Michigan.  They get reconnected when they both end up in New York City.  Sufjan would visit Vito (who is a great poet) and ask him to write some music.  Eventually Sufjan produced an album of these humble gems called ‘The Welcome Wagon.”

2. The Bible is full of amazing stories that should inspire our songs more often than not.

It always strikes me that most contemporary worship music is actually rather abstract…meandering between lofty generalizations of praise and safely distanced references to our sin and unworthiness.

When one listens through the album ‘Seven Swans’ we are struck by the rich presence of biblical narrative.  Sufjan touches text from Genesis to Revelation.  In ‘Abraham’ he works his own interpretation of the story in Gen 22.  ‘He woke me up again’ is a view of 1 Sam. 3.  The Transfiguration recounts the awkward meeting in Matthew 17.  And the album title itself ‘Seven Swans’ echoes the images in Revelation.  Alot of my friends are writing great music to old hymn texts.  I love these songs and I cherish many of them in my own church.  But I’m also looking forward to the day when these old texts point them back to their own communities and God helps them to write a new song. These folks are getting really close I think.  You can read/listen to a recent attempt of ours here.

3. A great song can serve a number of different musical styles.

This might seem obvious but in various settings of the church this is a fierce battle. Hymns must be led by a proper organ, or at least from a decent piano.  To accompany them with drums and guitars is base.   A rockin contemporary song needs amps and electrical guitars.  It would be lame to use a choir and a piano.

Between the album Illinois and The Avalanche Sufjan gives us some playful enumerations of his hit song “Chicago”.  The ‘acoustic’ version, the ‘Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version,’ and the ‘Multiple Personality Disorder Version.’  To me this is a reminder that there is both possibility and freedom to use a song that is part of the church’s musical canon but still shape it in a way that makes it ‘sing’ for my own local church.  This is cherishing the church both universal and ‘catholic’ as well as local and ‘indigenous.’

4. A songwriter can commit the art to ‘place’ and still not lose their ‘popular’ relevance.

Every time I read or hear about a worship leader who is working at a local church until their new worship album ‘makes it’ makes me both depressed and bemused.  Depressed because I don’t think God calls as many of us as are out there on the road as are, and bemused because these musicians have no idea what a great place the church is to work, write, and create.  Sometimes in darker moments I think that if pastors spent half of the time promoting the gospel as musicians spent promoting their new album Jesus would be back already.

Secondly, too many of the worship songs I hear nowadays are totally devoid of the reeking fabric of community.  How can the church continue to thrive when so many of its songs are written by musicians who aren’t living on the bread and wine of entrenched community? When does talent fall short because of the deficit of faces, and names, and grandchildren?

Sufjan’s two ‘states’ albums were ‘Michigan’ and ‘Illinois.’  Both places where he had spent a good deal of time.  Both albums reverberate with the earth, and flesh, and life of someone who knows and loves the places and people and stories that give life to a local culture.

5. A songwriter should develop the skill of supporting artists and musicians within their gravitational field.

One of my good friends is an artist on Asthmatic Kitty Records. One of the things I have enjoyed most about this is appreciating how Sufjan has encouraged, challenged and incorporated his friends within his vast musical enterprises.   Some of these are strange inventions (Half-handed cloud, or the fabulous DM Stith, others are amazing records like “Done Gone Fire” from Liz Janes (all recorded with 2 Sm57’s and a Roland 8-track), Bring Me the Workhouse from My Brightest Diamond, and ‘The Welcome Wagon” from Vito and Monique Aiuto.

These are a few thoughts.  Sufjan’s work begs thesis quantity and quality.  in fact i’m wondering when i’ll see a masters dissertation on his work.  anyhow, this is just a blog and i tried to keep tersity in mind…despite the gravity of his extended song titles.

too harsh?  insightful?  inane? what’d I miss?

Asthmatic Kitty Records

Sufjan on Bandcamp

3 thoughts on “50 things I learned about songwriting from Sufjan Stevens (while I was waiting for the albums to the other 48 states).

  1. I’ve not hear of Stevens until this blog, but I’ll check him out.

    I love the info and insight you give in this post. Top notch.

    I love your blog because of posts like this. It is a really, really refreshing blog that deserves much attention. You offer some really solid advice in the realm of worship and church music.

    Thanks!

  2. Pingback: There is A Fountain Filled with Blood (Remake of the Fortnight) | Bread for Beggars

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