Sufjan Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in the chilly upper reaches of the Lower Peninsula. A self-taught musician, the young Sufjan pounded out elaborate Mozartian sonatas on a toy Casio, and by college became proficient on the oboe, recorder, banjo, guitar, vibraphone, bass, drums, piano, and other instruments too numerous to mention. Somewhere along the line he also started to sing, though at the time his friends didn't encourage it. He bought a 4-track tape cassette recorder and painstakingly composed 90-minute concept albums for The Nine Planets, The 12 Apostles, and The Four Humors. He read William Blake, William Wordsworth, and William Faulkner. At that time, in college, the world loomed large and daunting, and Sufjan's music came to sound like a medieval woodwind ensemble waving swords and torches at the twelve-headed dragon of death. During his last semester in college, Sufjan pruned, picked, and assembled a selection of these songs to produce the inaugural release "A Sun Came" on Asthmatic Kitty Records, a home label Sufjan initiated with his step-dad Lowell. A thousand copies were manufactured and shipped to a dark, dank closet somewhere in the vacuous black hole of the universe, where they shifted and snored in their sleep for several years to come.
Sufjan then moved to New York City and lived bohemian style, with three other college graduates, in the unfashionable financial district, commuting by bike to The New School for Social Research, where he was enrolled in the masters program for writers. There he met Jhumpa Lahiri, harassed Philip Gourevitch on the telephone, and tried unsuccessfully to complete an epic collection of stories and sketches about backwoods Midwestern kinsmen-Christian Fundamentalists, Amway salesmen, crystal healers- all set in a small rural town in Michigan. Hmmmm. No one seemed very interested. Sufjan went back to the 4-track, tired of "words, words, words," and set out to complete his most ambitious project to date: a collection of programmatic, symphonic songs for the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. There were no lyrics, but more than a few cymbal swells, flourishes on the oboe, and ambient organ drones, all accompanied by computer-generated techno beats, and digital noise. The result was enterprising, but not quite flattering. He sent a few copies to press, which fell on confused ears. "A hyper-modified Atari battling a souped-up Colecovision in a chess match/battle royal," one writer noted. Feeling inspired, Sufjan dropped off a copy at New York's favored record store, Other Music, only to find it in the used section, reduced price, two weeks later. Sufjan took this as a compliment. His label did not. Write songs, his step-dad insisted. Write something with words and melodies.