Sufjan Stevens, D’Angelo and other New Zealand Festival highlights

ARTS, Music
img_sufjanstevensA few picks from the forthcoming New Zealand Festival for 2016.

Sufjan Stevens, the 40-year-old American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, is behind the indie-folk classics Illinois and Seven Swans. His piercing lyrics run parallel to intricate compositions. 2015’s Carrie and Lowell rightly topped many ‘Best Of’ lists. With delicate instrumentation and poignant, honest wordplay, Stevens explores the terrible trauma he felt losing his mother to cancer in 2012.

The sounds he evokes his experience with are minimal and fragile. He rations string instruments, piano, and electronic sound beds with brutally heartfelt lyrics. He speaks of his mother in hospital, he reminisces on childhood memories and looks back in hindsight on grief, in all its overbearing influence. And while grief may be at the core of the record, Stevens successfully translates this into wonderment rather than sorrow.

In highlight track ‘Fourth of July’, he recounts a conversation with his mother in hospital: “make the most of your life, while it is light, while it is rife,” she urges. It’s an emotional piece, but the sadness is subdued by that distinctively soft voice, at times almost a whisper, and that eerie piano. “There’s only a shadow of me, in a matter of speaking I’m dead”, he speaks in ‘John My Beloved’, though it’s a statement asserted with a triumphant tone, not a defeated one. Much of the record plays out like this, with an underlying subtle confidence outshining the subject matter.

Stevens originally hoped writing this album would be a cathartic release, a way to organize and make sense of his then chaotic world. It wasn’t until performing the material and sharing it with audiences that he felt released from it. The Michael Fowler Centre is in for a treat.

Filled to breaking point with old funk, neo-gospel and soul, scuzzy guitars, and sultry R&B, D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Black Messiah is a modern juggernaut. Originally penned for 2015, D’Angelo pushed for an earlier release in December 2014 due to social and political unrest a la Ferguson. The album had already been a decade in the making, with the “R&B Jesus” drip-feeding the odd live performance and scratchy demo. To release the album like this speaks volumes of the message Michael Eugene Archer intended to make.

Not every song here is politically charged, but those that do pack the biggest punch. ‘1000 Deaths’ tackles fear and war and bites like barbed wire; an incessant, near industrial chug cascades into an acid-freak guitar outro. Elsewhere on ‘The Charade’, D’Angelo examines the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, shouting “all we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we got outlined in chalk.” The vintage funk and sex appeal is still there, reigning strong in ‘Sugah Daddy’, jiving with handclaps and keys, jittering with guitars and brass. The experimentation and sentiment continues with ‘Really Love’, as D’Angelo croons for a lover over an infectious Spanish guitar.

You can pick the DNA of Funkadelic, Prince, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, and with the sheer amount of ideas—musically, socially, politically—it does beg for repeated listens. The raw production and free-flowing composition hark back to the pre-digital era, all the while encouraging the message of restlessness.

Black Messiah is not one man,” read the liner notes. “It’s a feeling, that collectively, we are all that leader.” Decades after 1995’s Brown Sugar and 2000’s Voodoo, it seems the neo-soul champion is coming to Wellington with some important opinions and truths to voice.

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Writers Week

Mallory Ortberg
“I felt really bad when [Christopher Hitchens] died because I wanted to make him laugh and just admit that women were funny because of me. Now I want to drag him up out of his grave and tell jokes at him and reanimate his decayed body… his is the only male approval I seek.” “Would it be better if I went out and tried to start some shit?” (Thomas Phillips, interview, 2016)

Anna Smaill
“I feel like I structure my memory and the way I understand my experiences through writing. I’d be lost without the written word. I’m scared of being without the ability to read or write.” Anna Smaill on The Chimes (Jihee Junn, interview, 2015)

Miranda July
“When I was in high school, independent film in the modern sense was just starting: She’s Gotta Have It and Sex, Lies and Videotape. I was like a million other kids reading articles about how you only needed a credit card to make a movie. That, along with Jane Campion’s short films, which I also saw at that time, were the key things that made me think I could do this.” Miranda July on The Future (Brannavan Gnanalingam, interview, 2011)

Richard Dawkins
“Dawkins’s lack of sophistication when it comes to religion is shocking—shocking for a man who claims to be a scientist—and so I find it’s always best not to waste one’s breath with extremists of any kind.” Why bother with this boor? Instead suggest Etgar Keret’s inventiveness and energy, Mallory Ortberg’s humour and sense, and Andrew O’Hagan’s magisterial Assengeistas smackdown. An Interview with Reza Aslan (Alexander Bisley, interview, 2014)


The Kiss Inside, Douglas Wright
“It is in these images that Savage has interpreted Wright’s vision and created something new. By capturing the movement of the dance, he has allowed us to stop and look again at the essence of what the performance is about.” The Ears Have Spoken: Black Milk (David Straight, review, 2011)

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)—Kneehigh Theatre with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse
“From the variety of reading I had done on the show, I’d got the impression that it was going to cure my heart of the woes many 20-year-old girls suffer. Frivolity, however, dissipated the tragic dimension of the story, leaving me sans profound epiphany—only a passing crush.” Tristan & Yseult (Catherine Bisley, review, 2006)


The Chills
“So I thought: “Okay, if you think you’re a songwriter then that’s the challenge: to try and make it actually work.” And I think, [knocks on table] touch wood, I got it, and a lot of people seem to think that it works.” From Soft Bomb to Silver Bullets (Jihee Junn, interview, 2015)

“On one of my last visits to the tree-lined path to Lovers Leap and the chasm (that path featured in the ‘Pink Frost’ video), I passed by a stranger who said “Oh, back again!” So I realised that the area had become associated, in some people’s minds, with that particular video.” Southern Comfort (Alexander Bisley, interview, 2012)

The Phoenix Foundation
“It is undoubtedly a progression for them, a new direction even, but such is the consistency and strength of the songwriting and performance, it still sounds like no one other than the Phoenix Foundation.” Fandango (Andy Palmer, review, 2013)

“I think our strength is possibly more in our range, like we do quite a lot of different sounding shit. I still see it in a weird way what we do as pop, but the way the Beatles did pop once they’d sort of stopped touring?” Buda and I: Luke Buda (Alexander Bisley, interview, 2013)

The New Zealand Festival for 2016 runs from February 26 to March 20 in Wellington.