Watch Point Break, write a song
If you know Sufjan Stevens, you know he’s fond of a concept.
A list of things that have inspired his albums: the Chinese zodiac; the states of Illinois and Michigan; the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; the Solar System.
He’s also fond of working with mates of varying stripes: Bryce Dessner, Rosie Thomas, Danielson, the New York City Ballet and the filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (which got him an Academy Award nod for Call Me By Your Name).
Now, in 2021, we have another new Sufjan collab, built around a new theme.
A Beginner’s Mind is a collection of songs by Sufjan and Angelo De Augustine, a Californian singer-songwriter with a strikingly similar hushed vocal delivery who has put records out on Sufjan’s Asthmatic Kitty label.
The title is a reference to Shoshin, a Zen Buddhist term meaning to be open to the world and to the possibility of learning.
If that’s the guiding principle, the more direct inspiration is movies. The pair watched a whole lot of them and used them as a springboard for their writing.
“It was an interesting challenge because a lot of these films that the songs are based on are pretty iconic,” Sufjan told Zan Rowe for the Take 5 podcast.
The title track, built from a simple piano melody and Angelo’s lofty vocals, takes its cues from Point Break, the 1991 surfer-gang film starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze.
“It’s an action film on steroids,” Sufjan says.
“It’s such a masculine film. There’s just so much testosterone and aggression and antagonism and violence. And it’s just constantly moving and full of entropy and energy.
“I love that it was directed by a woman [Kathryn Bigelow]. That’s kind of why we decided to choose that film.”
Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, Silence of the Lambs and Bring It On Again (the sequel to the original cheerleading film) also inspired the pair. In other words: the only things these movies have in common might be their relationship to this record.
“As we were watching the films, a lot of times we would be jotting things down,” Angelo says.
“And then we would have this kind of manuscript of gibberish that we will refer to.”
Sufjan says: “We wanted to diverge from the source material pretty quickly.
“We would just take snippets, little bits and bobs and phrases, and dialogue, or descriptions and stuff, and then we would very quickly free associate and create all these tangents so that, in some ways, the song would no longer resemble the original film.”
For example, on the title track, Angelo talks about the ‘Bodhi Tree‘ – the place where Buddha attained enlightenment but also a reference to Swayze’s character Bodhi.
Other lines — ‘shotgun shell‘, ‘an ex-President‘, ‘two dead in the ambulance‘ — reference scenes or imagery from the film.
Cut and spliced in this way, the direct link is removed.
The pair wanted to honour the source material, some of which, Sufjan says, has aged badly. (The critic Nadine Smith questioned the focus on Buffalo Bill and the use of the term autogynephilia in the song ‘Cimmerian Shade’.)
If this project sounds like an odd one, Angelo reminds us that writing songs is always a mysterious process.
“You’re shaping something, and then you’re also letting it be what it is … You’re making sure that you’re not controlling it so much that it loses all of its life,” he says.
“It’s a really delicate balance.”
Sufjan and Angelo met when the younger artist was still a teenager — he remembers because he couldn’t get into a bar.
Sufjan ended up releasing Angelo’s record Swim Inside The Moon on Asthmatic Kitty, the label he runs with his step-father.
They started writing A Beginner’s Mind in New York City before moving upstate to a friend’s farmhouse for a month.
“I thought there was kind of an immediate chemistry between us and a mutual kind of understanding and trust and respect for each other’s work,” Sufjan says.
“We also found out that we had similar ways of working and writing. And so it felt really natural to start collaborating.”
A Beginner’s Mind is out now. Listen and subscribe to the Take 5 podcast.
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