Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Sufjan Stevens & Making "Mystery Of Love"
Notoriously reclusive and yet unflinchingly candid, Sufjan Stevens has always been a bit of a music industry enigma. The 43-year-old singer-songwriter is now known for his whispering folk music and explorations into electronica, but his career began back in 1995 when he started writing music while attending college. A few years later, he created the independent record label Asthmatic Kitty with a group of friends in Michigan and released his debut solo album. Things only sped up from there.
"Like many of the GRAMMY nominees who came before him, Stevens has an extensive body of work that he’s been crafting over two decades. He rolled out eight solo albums, 13 EPs, three compilation albums, two mixtapes, one collaborative album, one live album, a few scores, and over a dozen standalone singles. Despite this, his first-ever GRAMMY nomination comes as a surprise—not because many believe it’s long-overdue, but because it's for his first-ever commission for a feature film.
While plenty of Stevens' songs have soundtracked films before—perhaps most notably was the use of his 2005 hit "Chicago" in "Little Miss Sunshine"—and he’s technically written classical compositions for independent films like "ROUND-UP" and "THE BQE," the work he penned for "Call Me By Your Name" was an unlikely first in his career. That's why Stevens' nomination for Best Song Written for Visual Media with "Mystery of Love," one of two original songs he wrote and recorded specifically for "Call Me By Your Name," is so thrilling.
Starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, "Call Me By Your Name" presents a gay coming-of-age story between two men with a tough age divide standing between them. The film is earnest and ripe, and "Mystery of Love" mirrors the film’s complex emotions eloquently. Stevens whisper-sings calmly over the soft plucking of acoustic guitar and warm piano notes, making "Mystery of Love" a familiar Sufjan Stevens song in that it’s a forlorn love song. But over a scene of the two characters hiking outdoors, the song feels enormous, illuminating both the natural beauty around them the unsaid emotions that pool behind their eyes.
Director Luca Guadagnino knew it may be tough to convince Stevens to contribute given he notoriously rejects film commission offers. So when Guadagnino reached out in 2016 before even shooting the film, he did so carefully. Initially, he asked Stevens to contribute a few songs, provide a voiceover for one of the characters, and appear in the movie as a bard. Stevens turned down the majority of the offering, telling Guadagnino, “I’ll write you some songs, but that’s all I think you need from me.” It turns out he was right—and Guadagnino admitted as much to him.
"I've always been resistant to work in film,” Stevens told Deadline. "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."
According to the film’s music supervisor, Robin Urdang—who is nominated alongside Guadagnino for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media for the "Call Me By Your Name" soundtrack—the process was simple. A conference call with Stevens took place to discuss the details of what music they were looking for and what the film was about. He read the book by André Aciman and then the script by James Ivory. Then, only a few weeks later, two demos of songs that Guadagnino loved were delivered to her inbox. "Mystery of Love" had been written.
"The first time I heard it, I thought it was emotive, introspective, and just very simple in a beautiful way. It was pure,” says Urdang. "When I saw it in the scene, I just melted and, needless to say, got teary-eyed. I don’t think any other songwriter or song would have been as compelling and perfect as this song. Both of his songs, 'Mystery of Love’ and ‘Visions of Gideon,’ were like putting in the last two pieces of a gorgeous puzzle. I’m not sure how else to describe it.”
Sufjan Stevens performing "The Mystery Of Love" at the 2018 Academy Awards
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
"We were in my living room [the first time we heard it]. It was me, Walter, Armie and Timothée. And I remember it was blissfulness and emotion,” Guadagnino told Billboard. “We were doing a movie that was a piece of life, of our lives, intertwined. And then we heard this music, and the depths of our commitment to the movie, I think, grew significantly more. And we became enveloped into this magic. We kept listening to the songs for like an afternoon.”
Stevens told The Wrap wanted his contributions to feel “aesthetically and emotionally like independent works that could live on their own.” Penning the songs while on tour behind his album Carrie & Lowell helped. The distance kept him willfully ignorant of the film's inner workings while keeping him burrowed in reflections about love and loss onstage. That’s why “Mystery of Love” manages to juggle both.
"Luca designed this project around a more general aesthetic affiliation with me and my music, and what it means to him,” Stevens told the Los Angeles Times. “He wasn’t just thinking about specific content, he was thinking about all of my songs. When I saw a first screening, he said, ‘I just want you to know that a lot of this project is an homage to your work and to you.’ I don't know, maybe he says things like that to everybody. But it struck me that there was an essence to my repertoire that was inspiring or influencing him. I don’t think I'm his muse — Lord knows it’s Tilda Swinton.”
"Since the film’s release, Stevens' music got swept up in a whirlwind of praise. In January of 2018, "Mystery of Love" debuted at number 47 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, marking his first and only appearance on the chart. Suddenly, the song was nominated for an Oscar. He performed it live at the Academy Awards with St. Vincent, Moses Sumney, Chris Thile and others backing him up. The following day, the song’s on-demand audio streams increased by 60 percent. A musician known for leading a private life off-record was suddenly appearing everywhere: Deadline, Vanity Fair, Variety. Sufjan Stevens had entered a new level of fame despite already being an indie rock staple for years.
"I’m just so moved that the film's love story spoke to so many people and I’m super happy for Sufjan's involvement,” adds Urdang. “Without it, [this movie] would not have been the same."
Watch the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, Feb. 10 on CBS.