Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine talk vulnerability in collaborating on 'A Beginners Mind'

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Interview with Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine
Mac Wilson talks to Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine about their new collaboration on 'A Beginner's Mind' (Illustration Courtesy of Daniel Anum Jasper | Graphic by MPR)
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Interview: Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine with Mac Wilson
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Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine join The Current's Mac Wilson to discuss their upcoming record, A Beginner's Mind, the scores of movies they watched as the record came together, and the vulnerability required in collaborative songwriting.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

MAC WILSON: I'm Mac Wilson from The Current from Minnesota Public Radio, and I have two special guests joining me today, Angelo de Augustine and Sufjan Stevens, welcome to the two of you.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Thanks for having us.

So you've worked together on a new record called A Beginner's Mind, and let's start at the big talking point for this record, let's talk movies. When I sit down and I do these conversations, a lot of the time we dive into the musical aspect of these things. But we have a real opportunity to chat movies here today, does that sound good? Chatting about that for a bit?

SUFJAN STEVENS: I think that's appropriate.

So as the story goes, you got to spend a month or so decamping and watching movies, and that sort of seems like the dream right now. Were you able to tell your friends, "Hey, I'm working," or was it like, "I'm literally going to go watch movies," what did you tell the people in your life when you were going off to set on this project?

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, we went off to make music together, and we had the time. My friend Bryce has this little farmhouse upstate that was available. He let us use it for a month, so we just kind of dragged some gear up there, and decided to make some music together. The movies kind of came afterward, because we were writing together and then watching films at night. It was really initially about making music together, and it's really important when you're an artist or a musician, or whatever, any kind of crafts person. You need to really be mindful about planning, and making time, obviously, to do your work. So it's totally normal for me to tell everyone in my life that I'm going to disappear for a while and work.

So Sufjan, what you're saying is that it was not the plan, like, "Hey, we're going to make a concept album where every song corresponds to a movie," you were planning on just making music together, then the movies theme sort of came in as you went along--that's what you're saying?

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, I think Angelo and I kind of understand each other on a creative level. We're both singer songwriters, who have a proclivity for folk songwriting, and I think we have similar approaches to how we write and work. So I just think that we discovered that and embrace that and decided to do something together in order to collaborate. The film stuff kind of came afterwards.

So as you were working out what movies you were going to watch, was this like a haul of DVDs that you happen to bring up there? Or did you just sort of scroll through the streaming services and choose on a on a day by day basis?

SUFJAN STEVENS: All streaming.

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: But I think a lot of these were films that we recommended to each other. A lot of these I actually hadn't seen before, and then some Sufjan hadn't seen before. Then there was also a number of films that we just connected on because we both really liked them when we were kids.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, I think the films had to have had some kind of impact on us, positively or negatively in order for it to be brought to the table.

Do you ever do the thing where you organize by a particular theme or director? Are you like, we're gonna watch every single John Carpenter film? Or by actor? It seems like what you're saying that it's themes of films that meant something to either of you at any given moment, but did you do you organize by a particular director or actor too?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: Genre, right? A little bit.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, I think the choosing the films is random, and then at some point, Angelo brought out the Excel spreadsheet and started to organize everything according to topic and genre and theme. We kind of approached it almost like students, like scholars and researchers. We definitely, we watched all the Hellraiser films, right?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: Yeah, we probably got up to five I think.

SUFJAN STEVENS: I think we did our homework on all this stuff.

I'm making a note of that. I'm writing it down. So I don't forget that you watched all five of that of the Hellraiser films. So you mentioned the Excel spreadsheet--is this something that you do outside of this project? I think of the director Steven Soderbergh, where he literally keeps a log of every single movie that he watches, no matter how many times. You'll read through it, he'll watch the same movie four times in three days, and he logs every single one of that. Do you have a similar devotion to that spreadsheet? Or was that just for this project?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: No, just like a binder. I had this big blue binder, like a three hole punch.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, it was an analog Excel spreadsheet. It wasn't the actual, like, on a computer. It was a huge binder with note taking and words, lists of words. At some point we were watching the films and taking notes and we'd stop the film and I would say, Write that down Angelo. Write down what that line of dialogue was." So we just ended up with like this weird manuscript of free associative psychobabble from from all these films.

So the resulting album that you came up with is A Beginner's Mind, and when a listener goes and listens to this album for the first time, is it your expectation that they know which movie each of these songs corresponds to from the beginning? Or would you expect somebody to just listen to the record and then go back in and research it as they see fit?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: No, I don't think you necessarily have to watch the movies to listen to the songs. I just think if you want to, there's no pressure.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, we decided at some point--at first we were just titling the songs the titles of the films. Then at some point as the songs develop, we realized that was not very useful or relevant or necessary. So we we came up with totally new titles and I think there was even a moment at some point when we finished the album when we were talking about promotion and press that we were wondering if we even needed to make mention of the films at all, because these songs are just--they're extrapolating a lot and there's a lot of revision and they're just using the films as kind of a springboard but they're really not based on the films themselves. They're just borrowing themes and ideas. So I don't think it really matters. I think it's fun. If you want to know you can dig in a little deeper, but you don't have to.

The comparison that jumped in my mind when I was listening to the record is some of the some of the Mountain Goats albums, John Darnielle, how he has themes to so many of his albums. He had the one where every song title was a verse from the Bible, like that was pretty self evident. You would see that, and then you'd look up the verse and then you'd go, "Oh okay, I can see how the song may not necessarily be all that," but you can definitely see where there's the influence of that. We chatted around the time that the Goths album came out, and he was sure to stress: this isn't an album about Goths, it's just sort of a subtext to it. So I'm seeing a similar vibe from what you're saying about the films.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, I think it's important to just understand the process in songwriting is quite haphazard, and kind of reckless and rambling, and often built upon happy accidents. It's often just a useful tool for an artist or songwriter, to impose a kind of theme or a scheme or conceit. That's really just to create parameters to provide a focus point. I think that's really what Mountain Goats are doing, and that's what I do in a lot of my music. And that's clearly what we're doing with this project. The movies are kind of an inspiration, but the songs themselves manifest clearly their own consciousnesses and narratives and scenarios, they're their own thing. That's what makes it so cool.

So both of you have recorded on your own, and I would say, Sufjan, that you've collaborated with many, many folks over the years. But Angelo this, from what I see, is one of your very first collaborations proper. So how did that change the process that you have made music to this point, working with another individual, essentially co-credited?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: Yeah, it actually was my very first time ever writing songs with somebody else. I feel like I learned a lot about collaboration, not having known about it, just kind of experiencing it as it's happening. But I feel like I learned so much about recording and about arranging, and just working with somebody else, and sharing a vision and a goal and trying to meet that together. And say, if one person wasn't into a certain idea, you'd scrap it. The idea is the collaboration and it's to make it so that both parties are happy with the results of what you're making. I think that's an interesting lesson to learn. It's not something that I'm used to doing because I'm used to working alone, and I think Sufjan is usually used to working alone. But we have a mutual respect and admiration for each other's work, as well as being friends, and that helps a lot when you when you get into a situation where you have to be vulnerable with writing songs. Because I think when you write songs there has to be a trust there. It would be difficult if you were thrown into a room with someone that you didn't know, and you had to come up with something. We didn't put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come up with anything, specifically. So I think that actually helped us to just free ourselves to be creative.

Now I'm going to ask this question from Sufjan's side, because Sufjan you've collaborated with many folks over the years, both credited on a record and otherwise. So how did the the process of working with Angelo compared to some of the some of the folks that you've worked with in the past?

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, a lot of my former collaborations were very clearly defined in terms of responsibility. So I collaborate with a choreographer, I make the music and they make the dance. Or I write the lyrics and other people write the music. Or I make a soundtrack to a film and then the director makes the film. With this collaboration it was much more immersive because we were in the weeds together and writing in the same room--time and space together, so it's a lot more intimate and that's kind of new to me. I was in a band in college and we did a little bit of that, but that was like 500 years ago. So that's kind of a distant history for me. But I have a little bit of memory about that and it gets really messy really quickly because you're problem solving and working together in the same room, and it's not pretty, it doesn't feel good to make to make art. It's always a little bit painful, and painstaking. So with Angelo, I think we kind of had a shared understanding of each other's burdens and understanding of each other's journey because we were in the weeds together, and we were kind of willing to slug it out. So we just got real particular and fastidious about everything--about performances, melodies, lyrics and language and chord progressions, all that stuff--you kind of had to hold each other accountable. So it was kind of great, because it's pretty rare that you get to do that with someone that you like, and trust. So I think it was a very special experience.

One of the names that comes up behind the making of this record, it's actually who you say that it's dedicated to, is the film director Jonathan Demme, to the point where I'm thinking back at some point in my life, I've interviewed a musician and I forget who it is. But they at that point, they mentioned the influence of Jonathan Demme, and how much they loved his work. So I gotta ask if you've seen the internet meme, it came out, I think, last year where it says, "Jonathan Demme film characters on Zoom," and it's got the signature thing where everybody is looking directly into the camera. Have you seen that one?

SUFJAN STEVENS: No, but that was his signature for a while, right? He would put the camera right in front of the character and they would speak directly to you. He was so great, I had met him a few times, I didn't know him well, but I had met him in passing. And I'm a huge fan of his work, and I know that his work is very influenced by music, and he was a huge music lover so I have great respect for him. He was a fan of my music and had gone to some of my shows. So I wanted to kind of just memorialize him through this project. I think his work is really interesting, because of how varied it is. It's all over the place. He did romantic comedies, he did horror, he did social political dramas, and then he moved on to more arty films, and then he moved on to documentaries--he kind of was all over the place. I think that's what I really admire about him is the vastness of his work. I think he was also one of the most liberal minded and open hearted directors of his generation. So I think that's kind of why we decided to dedicate the album to him.

I wanted to ask about a reference, it's the closing track to the record "Lacrimae"--is that a reference to The Tree Of Life?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: No, I don't think so. That was just a song that I had floating around, then Sufjan brought it to my attention that there's actually this movie called Lacrimae Rerum, which is a short film. I think we watched it together. But it was a song that I previously had, and actually, I discovered that word "lacrimal" from the Aeneid, the Greek play.

Yeah, 'cause one of the famous sequences in Tree Of Life, it's the "Lacrimosa", that sequence in the middle of the film where they zoom out and they show the heavens. So that was my guess for where it came from. You mentioned the short film that you were talking about, so the influences of these films--if somebody wants to look it up, are you going to anthologize all of them corresponding to songs? Will it be in the liner notes, or will we have to sort of put it together on our own?

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: I feel like they revealed that. I think to label put that out. They put up like a sheet that says all the films and all the song titles, but I could be wrong.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, maybe it was revealed--maybe we spelled it out in a press release? But if you don't know then maybe not. Maybe it hasn't been revealed yet. Are there any songs in this album where you have no clue whatsoever what the source film is?

There were there were quite a few actually. The ones where you released the artwork for it, and there were some that were mentioned in the press kit. But I mean, some of them like, "This Is The Thing," that one was was fairly self evident. But "Lacrimae" that was another one where I really had to dive in, so I'm pleasantly in the dark on some of them and some of them I'm like, "Okay, this is the Bring It On Again song."

SUFJAN STEVENS: I mean, Terrence Malick is as good a guess as any for that because his films are just--they're so liturgical and spiritual so that makes total sense. I think it's also okay if these songs don't resemble the films and if there's other interpretations and explanations for the songs. I think that's kind of the fun of it, because the songs kind of, you know, they create their own reality, and they go on their own journey. And I think intentionality is way overrated, especially on a project like this. So when I hear something like that, like I'm feeling Terrence Malick from that song, I'm like, "Yeah, I'm feeling that too."

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: Yeah, I embrace that, too, because that's the most beautiful thing about music is that people can come up with their own interpretations and impose it on whatever they want in their own life. Everybody can play that their own little movie in their mind, which I think is really nice.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, we don't own these songs. We might have authorship, but that doesn't mean we possess them, and we certainly can't expect to contain them according to their source material. It's like, this is art, and art has a consciousness of its own. And let's hope it speaks to people on their own terms.

Well, here's my parting image for you. We were talking about Terrence Malick, the story where they spent years making the Thin Red Line to the point where he locked himself in his editing studio and he watched the movie on mute and he just listened to Green Day while he was editing it. So I mean, it's funny how life goes.

SUFJAN STEVENS: I mean, all those Terrence Malick films should have a mute button, right? [laughs] They're just so beautiful. They're so beautiful.

Somebody went through and they they re-edited Saving Private Ryan, where they took every man out of the film, and it's something like 45 seconds long. And it's like, if you did that with any other Terrence Malick film, it would be quite long and it would probably win awards on its own. So yeah, there's definitely merits that you could find in those.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Yeah, he's one of those directors that I have a love/hate relationship with because it's they're so philosophical, so beautiful. Then also so annoying, sometimes. Arduous, you know? And asking a lot, you know? Those films are asking a lot of their viewers, which I think is the point.

I think the toughest thing to do is to watch a Malick movie for the first time because you kind of know what you're in for--you use the word arduous, that's what it is on the first time, and then once you've kind of wrapped your head around it then you can enjoy them to various extents from there but yeah, that first time can be arduous sometimes and intimidating.

SUFJAN STEVENS: I mean, yeah, God bless him. He's doing something no one else is doing. I remember when I saw Thin Red Line. I went home and watched Thin Blue Line because I just wanted to be entertained with a very basic crime documentary. You know Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris?

Errol Morris, yeah.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Terrence Malick. For every Terrence Malick, you should watch Errol Morris.

I remember the first time I watched Tree Of Life it's like--I watched The Tree Of Life and Boyhood on back to back nights and I'm like, I gotta shake this up with some really escapist movie after this, because that's pretty philosophical.

SUFJAN STEVENS: You're a glutton for punishment.

We are chatting with Angelo De Augustine and Sufjan Stevens about the new record A Beginner's Mind. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today.

SUFJAN STEVENS: Oh, thanks for having us.

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: Thank you.

Thank you for taking the time to chat about your record. it'll inspire a lot of good music listening, and hopefully some movie watching too. Take care of the two of you.

SUFJAN STEVENS: You too, be well.

ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: Thank you too.

External Links

Sufjan Stevens - official website
Angelo De Augustine - official website

Credits

Guests - Sufjan Stevens, Angelo De Augustine
Host - Mac Wilson
Producers - Derrick Stevens, Jesse Wiza

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