There are few performers more eclectic or prolific than Sufjan Stevens. The Detroit-born singer-songwriter has bounced between disciplines to record everything from acoustic folk to expansive electronica, solo and in collaboration with other artists. And his best-known songs, like “Chicago” and “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” have soundtracked everything from Little Miss Sunshine to This is Us. So it was no surprise that Luca Guadagnino thought of Stevens when he wanted a song for the soundtrack to Call Me by Your Name. Says Guadagino: “I wanted to envelop the movie in the voice of Sufjan Stevens.”
And yet Stevens has never before contributed original songs to a feature film. “I’ve always been resistant to work in film,” he says. “I think it’s because I’m always a little suspicious of the role of music in cinema. But Luca is an exception, because he’s one of those rare directors who uses music and sound so fiercely and with such mastery that you cannot imagine the films without the music.”
So Stevens broke with his own rule, and went further by providing not one but two songs for the soundtrack to Call Me by Your Name. The first, “Mystery of Love”, is the backdrop for the budding romance between Timothée Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver. “Oh, to see without my eyes/The first time that you kissed me,” he sings. “Boundless by the time I cried/I built your walls around me.”
“Visions of Gideon” comes in at the end, as Elio reflects on the heartbreak of his journey. Guadagino holds the shot on Chalamet, playing the credits as the young man sits, in pain. “I have loved you for the last time,” Stevens sings, bookending the relationship.
Call Me by Your Name started life as a novel. Had you read it when Luca approached you?
I hadn’t read it. He sent it to me to read before he sent the script, and I loved it. When he sent the script, I had some problems with it because there was a voiceover. Did he tell you this?
He said he had struggled with the inner monologue, because it is so primary to the novel.
Right. They had retained the monologue from the older Elio, and he initially asked me to be the voice of the older Elio; to contribute that voiceover. He also asked if I wanted to appear in the movie as a bard, performing the song, almost as a break in the narrative. I got back to him and I said, “I think this voiceover is a mistake, and I think the interruption of me singing the song is a mistake.” I think he was just thinking out loud. I don’t know if he was really committed to the idea. So I said, “I’ll write you some songs, but that’s all I think you need from me.” And he agreed. When I saw the first edit, he said, “You were right, this doesn’t need a monologue or an interruption.”
The film uses a remixed version of one of your earlier songs, too: “Futile Devices”. It could have been written for this film. Was that your idea or Luca’s?
That was his idea. He was entranced from the very beginning with the idea of using that song. I think it’s just serendipity that the nature and content of the material fits so well into the film. It was a lucky accident.
I wrote two new songs for the film, and when I wrote them I hadn’t seen any footage, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to use them at all. I just handed them over and had to trust that he would know what to do. And, of course, having seen all his films, and how masterful he is with music, there was no question in my mind he would be responsible about it.
Indeed, Timothée was actually listening to “Visions of Gideon” in an earpiece while filming the final sequence of the film. Along with “Mystery of Love” the two songs are bookends to this relationship. Was that by design?
Another happy accident. I feel like the universe is in charge here, or maybe it’s testament to Luca’s mastery as a director that he is so good at conducting other artists to get the best out of them. I don’t know how he does it but he’s a real prophet in that way. I think he’s an essentialist, but he’s also so technically astute. He has a very keen eye for truth, and you never really question his vision or authority. He’s also a great scholar, and a great film scholar, but you never feel like his knowledge gets in the way of his work.
There are references to Oregon in “Mystery of Love”, as there were throughout your album Carrie & Lowell, which was written for your mother and step-father. Did these two new songs emerge out of the same emotional space as Carrie & Lowell?
For sure. In fact, when I first talked to Luca, I was on tour for Carrie & Lowell. As I was sketching these songs, I was on that tour, and so they are somehow remotely related to that world. I wasn’t quite able to conjure the Northern Italian landscape, so I was still working in that kind of New World landscape. It’s funny, because I felt like this sort of American intruder, as this American graduate student [Oliver] becomes in the story. You know how Elio calls Oliver the usurper? I feel like all of Luca’s films have a kind of foreign intruder coming into a landscape that isn’t their own.
Were the references to Oregon your subtle way of continuing your 50 States Project [Stevens once said he wanted to record an album for each of the 50 States—he stopped after two, Michigan and Illinois] or is that dead?
Yeah, I suppose that’s dead to me now. My work is always immersed in American geography, and I don’t think that will ever go away, because I was born and bred here. Oregon is specific to Carrie & Lowell because that’s where Carrie and Lowell lived while they were married. We were raised by my father, and when Carrie married Lowell, that was when she was at her most stable, and we could visit her. So we spent summers there in the early ’80s, in Eugene, OR. That’s where the references to Oregon come from for that record.
Carrie & Lowell emerged out of grief from your mother’s death. Did these songs come from the same emotional extremes? We all know the pleasure and pain of a first love.
Agreed. The process of writing Carrie & Lowell was devastating. And it really offered no catharsis or resolution or reconciliation for me.
Did you hope it would?
I didn’t know. Previously I was in the habit of using music as a salve, or as a means of understanding certain situations and certain relationships and experiences. And this time, it just did nothing for me. The actual tour itself, and sharing the music—assembling the show with a community of musicians and bringing it to these theaters and to the public—all of that was really restorative for me. The personal became public, in a way that allowed me to relinquish the terror of the experience.
I think the material for this movie came out of that as well, and I was able to feel like I could move beyond the devastation.
The tour, which you made into a concert film, was a confronting experience; you really invited the audience to share your pain, and relate it to their own.
It’s a real testament to the power and authority of music. And thank God that we have these gifts for communicating, because otherwise we might not survive. This film, and how it moves people—this notion of the universality of love and loss—it speaks to the power of art. It’s so important—vital, now, in this day and age—that we experience these things, and that we allow ourselves to be changed and challenged and entertained and educated by art. It feels like so much of life and society and civilization is just corrupt.
We have to remind ourselves that we’re full of life, full of beauty, and that we’re creative beings with a lot to share, and a lot to give each other. So much of the world is intent on dividing humanity. Categorizing. Creating factions. It’s so frustrating, because we’re all the same, you know; we’re all living, breathing human beings with deep feelings. We all have hearts, minds and souls. It’s a shame we can’t do more to consolidate with one another, and to find truth and life in each other.
There are references to birds in “Mystery of Love” and throughout your work. Why are they such a fertile source of inspiration for you?
Maybe they’re a symbol of freedom; absolute freedom. Sometimes I feel so trapped by gravity [laughs]. I’ve always been obsessed with the sacred and with the profound, and I think birds are these divine creatures, because they can escalate to the heavens. In these physical bodies, trapped to the ground, I just feel like we have to reckon with the reality of the world and our mortality. For me, birds feel like symbols of absolute freedom and transcendence.
Your music also points to endless curiosity; you cross genres and take different approaches, and the only constant is you. Why is that important?
I think I’m fundamentally essentialist in the way that I’m so interested in sensation and experience and discovery, and how these things can uncover a new world of sound and sight. That’s kind of how it initiates the creative drive in me. My music is actually quite formal, and based on traditional forms of songwriting. The sounds themselves are based on that sort of desire for discovery and something new. I think it’s important to stay open to new things, and stay curious. I don’t know, I think I’m always interested in writing the perfect song, and sailing towards that. Rather than be disappointed by not doing that, or feeling disillusioned by that, I just continue onward, steadfast, trying to make it work.
Do you think the perfect song is out there, then?
Yeah, I’m waiting for it to descend upon me like some religious experience.