Djohariah Stevens

Posted in Folk, Indie, Rock, Singer-Songwiter by jurbanik on August 22, 2010

It seems that the final Stevens sibling has finally gotten her 15 (or more precisely, 17:02) minutes of fame. The morning of August 20, Sufjan released a new EP entitled ‘All Delighted People.’ The last track on this sprawling 60 minute EP is titled Djohariah, the name of Sufjan’s little known sister. The Stevens brothers have made big names for themselves – Sufjan has essentially indie god status while Marzuki is a marathoner who qualified for the 2008 Olympic trials after finishing 20th overall in the 2006 Boston Marathon.

As if this wasn’t enough, it seems as though the Stevens brothers are very close. Whether it be recording things in their tape recorder at a young age, as in the clip Godzuki from Sufjan below, appearing in press photos together, Sufjan recording some of his early albums at the school Marzuki worked at, or Sufjan naming the band he was part of at Hope College after his older brother (more on this after the jump), it seems the brothers are good friends. As for Djohariah, it is very hard to know.

Godzuki// A Sun Came!

It seems as though many people have forgotten about Sufjan’s earliest public project. While enrolled at Hope College in Holland, MI, Sufjan and a few friends took to making music. His band mates include current label-mate Shannon Stephens (no relation), cellist Jamie Kempers, and Matthew Haseltine – the brother of Jars of Clay front-man Dan Haseltine. This mountain of talent went on to release two albums to a pretty sizable western Michigan fan base under the moniker ‘Marzuki.’ I think it is fair to assume that the shared name between the band and Sufjan’s brother isn’t coincidence.

Sufjan and Marzuki

In this band, Sufjan plays assorted instruments including guitar, percussion, and the recorder (I’ll admit, I love his recorder parts). It’s a little different to hear Shannon providing the vocals, but she has a wonderful voice. It hadn’t reached its full smokey potential by that time – instead it almost reminds me of something gypsy-like, even at times being evocative of medieval fireside Bacchanalia. Regardless, its interesting to see the beginnings of Sufjan’s development as a musician.

Interesting to me, though, is that the band is so obviously tied to Marzuki himelf – the first song of their début features a silly dialogue “This… this is Marzuki, it’s a good song. I like it too, I hope you enjoy it; it’s really good,” uttered by what sounds like a young Marzuki and Sufjan. Perhaps this is where his musical roots took hold – making home recordings on a voice recorder at an early age with his brother. Beyond this, the near omnipresence of the recorder across both albums gives me some sense that Sufjan is holding on to his adolescence – while the instrument was popular in medieval times, it is now typically thought of as a teaching instrument. Certainly, in Sufjan’s masterful hands it becomes something far more than that, but it still seems possible that the recorder was his instrument of choice while playing around with his brother.

Mouse// Marzuki

Three Days// No One Likes A Nervous Wreck

Skip ahead twelve years, and we come to ‘All Delighted People.’ The almost 60 minute, 8 track EP came down on the world a few days ago without any warning. A lot has changed in terms of Sufjan’s compositional style since the days of Marzuki’s existence, but I for one think that this EP is one of Sufjan’s most beautiful works yet. Sure, the long tracks and lush orchestration may not appeal to everyone, but the emotions and messages evoked by the EP are far easier to relate to than the somewhat strange ones portrayed in some tracks on Michigan and Illinois.

In my opinion, the most beautiful and best track on the EP is the heartrending Djohariah. Named after Sufjan’s sister, who has remained all but unmentioned in his other music until now, the seventeen minute epic goes through an incredible transformation over its duration – there isn’t a single moment in the song that isn’t worth paying attention to.

Djohariah// All Delighted People

Sufjan’s bandcamp describes the sprawling song as a ’17-minute guitar jam-for-single-mothers,’ but it is really so much more than that. Sure, the actual lyrics don’t come until 12 minutes into the song, but the elegiac nature of the song is apparent almost from the first note. The bass line just screams ‘apology’ in the first few bars. As the lead guitar begins to solo, it takes on the role of a silenced, stifled creature. The western ‘twang’ of the muted electric is not common in Sufjan’s pieces, and the dynamic interplay between the choral ‘ooh/ahhs’ and the guitar suggest that it has something to say, but can’t get it out above the background noise. Most of the time, the guitar goes quiet when the chorus becomes loud – but in those intervals when it breaks free, it soars over the rest of the music, and shows off what it is capable of. Eventually the chorus takes over, mesmerizing the listener with chants of “Djohari Djohariah.” This chant introduces the character of Djohariah to the music, but giving nothing more to latch on to.

As the guitar reenters, it takes on a more alien sound, scratchy and electronic, more noise than raw emotion as before. Here, the chorus continues its chant of “Djohari Djohariah,” lending more power and transforming the meaning of the guitar. The weakening guitar is Djohariah, fighting a losing battle against everyone else’s voices. It yearns to be unique, but never achieves the triumphant glory it once had. At times it conforms to the swells of the chorus, at other points, it seems to completely lose control and move nowhere but in circles. Around 11 minutes, the guitar dies off completely. The tempo increases, and the chorus begins to morph how it says Djohariah’s name – instead of enunciating the last few syllables, it becomes a question, “are ya?” questioning where the guitar’s presence has gone.

Finally, Sufjan’s vocals break free from the chorus, initially coming off as pessimistic: “I know you won’t get very far.” Sufjans modifies this insult after a short pause, blaming this lack of success on the “back seat driver carpetbagger” who stole Djohariah’s heart. The song gets very specific to Djohariah, rather than single mothers in general – she spends her money on a car in a twisted plot line that I still haven’t been able to unravel. Sufjan then proclaims that Djohariah doesn’t need the man who left her for dead in her life and that he is a “heart grabber back stabber double cheater wife beater.” Whether this laundry list of horrible things is actually the truth or just something lyrical is besides the point – the level of devastation is very salient and apparent. Either way, I wish to extend my apologies to Djohariah.

It is at this point that Sufjan changes his tone to an encouraging one: Djohariah works hard a single mother, and shouldn’t listen to the neighbors because they don’ t know what is best for her. Sufjan tells her to not be ashamed “For the woman is, woman is the glorious victorious/ The mother of the heart of the world.” This chorus transforms, and eventually a female voice joins Sufjan in repeating “Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!/ For your world is yours, world is yours.” All in all, the song seems extremely personal. It seems as though it is addressed right to Djohariah, and I’m almost tempted to think that much of this EP is an attempt at making amends with her for something. Perhaps Sufjan feels as though he didn’t help her enough in her time of need, as she raised a daughter as a single mother, or perhaps he simply wants to encourage her to make a name for herself.

So much of me wants to believe that the female singing at the end is Djohariah – that she joins in with Sufjan, rising again and becoming the dominant voice as the EP comes to a close, but I really can’t do any more than hope.


11 Responses

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  1. teepoo said, on August 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    thats probably one of the most in depth track reviews I’ve ever read. I went back and listened to the song again after reading this, and it made me like it more. I’ve probably been the only person in the world that wasn’t really a big fan of the album when I first listened to it.

    • jurbanik said, on August 23, 2010 at 12:01 am

      I may or may not have gone a little too in depth with it 😀 But I almost cried once I realized what was really going on in the track, so I felt like I should at least do a little bit of justice to it.

      With respect to being the only person not to like it, I’d respectfully disagree. After my initial surge of excitement, I went through a phase of doubt about it. Honestly, it was only after a few listens that I began to respect the tracks. At that point, I went back and listened to The BQE, Seven Swans, and Enjoy Your Rabbit, and I started to understand where he was going with some of this stuff. It was sort of a reciprocally beneficial listen – I used to dislike the second half of the BQE and all of Enjoy Your Rabbit, and now I can at least appreciate them.

      At the same time, a lot of other people are disliking it. Just check out this article: … not the most respectable source, but still.

    • Caleb said, on August 25, 2010 at 8:39 pm

      I wasn’t a huge fan either when I first listened to it either. It’s the same with every Sufjan album for me, but after the second listen I always become a huge fan of it.

      • jurbanik said, on August 27, 2010 at 12:37 am

        Caleb, thanks a bunch for the comment. I can’t say that I can relate completely to the ‘always need to listen twice’ mentality when it comes to Sufjan – I fell in love with Illinois halfway through the first listen.

        In other news, did you hear about the new album yet?

  2. What Have We Done? « malleus&incus said, on August 23, 2010 at 1:25 am

    […] Posted in Pop by jurbanik on August 23, 2010 Quick post to compensate for my way too verbose Djohariah analysis (though linking to Sufjan from this post just feels somewhat […]

  3. Rob Chiavelli said, on August 31, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Thank you for an outstanding review of what I agree is the most beautiful song on the album, (this is indeed an album). I was drawn to the new direction Sufjan was working out last year in the videos that hit youtube. I saw something special brewing. Early this morning it occurred to me to check if he had anything new out, and what a treat I found in “All Delighted People”. What’s more, we get another album next month with the epic, “Impossible Soul” clocking in at something like 23 minutes. Another beautiful masterpiece. Sufjan’s music is simply captivating. By the way, where did you come up with the Marzuki recordings?

    • jurbanik said, on August 31, 2010 at 5:23 pm

      Hey Rob,
      Glad you appreciated the review. I’m surprised that a fan such as yourself didn’t find out about ADP earlier – you’ve been missing out. I’m incredibly excited for Impossible Soul closing out the album (and seeing it performed live in november, hopefully), but I’m still a bit sad that he hasn’t found a place for Majesty Snowbird. To be honest, I’ve been trying to avoid the youtube recordings in case the songs have transformed a lot/ to get better quality. I’m so pumped for Sept 28th.

      As far as Marzuki goes… just look around on the web a little – not too hard to find.


  4. Fred said, on August 31, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I think the song “Sister” on Seven Swans is also about Sufjan’s sister. As I said elsewhere, apparently when Sufjan thinks of his sister, he thinks of sprawling, disjointed guitar solos with repeated chanted vocals leading to a relatively subdued denouement.

    • jurbanik said, on August 31, 2010 at 5:27 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I realized that I hadn’t even put the two together after someone tweeted me the same. I would agree that sister is about Djohariah, but I’m not completely sure what to take from it. The lyrics about the fish stone and such are very cryptic. All I could take from that song is that they’re not very close. One of my twitter buddies referred to “Sister” as chapter 1 and “Djohariah” as chapter 2 – we’re learning more about her and their relationship with each song.

  5. stpete said, on October 29, 2010 at 12:46 am

    i believe he has two sisters and one stepsister.

  6. jae said, on November 17, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I ignored this song for a while, put off by the 17-minute length. Then I actually listened to the whole thing through headphones and was blown away. To hear him show such immense love, encouragement and support of his sister…the lyrics made actually made me cry. An incredibly gifted artist who makes amazingly epic yet personal songs.

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