Sufjan Stevens on His Offbeat Approach to Writing ‘Call Me by Your Name’ Songs: ‘Keep It Vague’

OscarWrap: “With music in film, it’s so easy to get it wrong,” says the indie icon and Oscar-nominated songwriter

This story on Sufjan Stevens first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

When Sufjan Stevens starts talking about how he’s excited to come to Los Angeles for the Oscars but he needs to go buy a tuxedo, your first thought might well be, Really? This is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and cult favorite who has veered from a planned set of 50 albums devoted to every state in the U.S. (since abandoned) to a five-CD set of Christmas music (delightful) to electronica, low-fi folk and symphonic works (always intriguing).

So he hardly seems the type to a) wear a tuxedo or b) care much about a big, glitzy event like the Oscars.

But Stevens seems legitimately delighted with his Best Original Song nomination for “Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” and with good reason. The song is a spare, beautiful and thoroughly mysterious ballad that fits perfectly with director Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous romance, as does a second song that he wrote for the movie, “Visions of Gideon,” and a version of his “Futile Devices” that Guadagnino also uses in the film.

“I think the reason it worked so well is that we both had an equal sense of admiration and trust with each other,” said Stevens, who had declined opportunities to write music for films in the past. “We allowed each other to work independently and autonomously, and we trusted that it would work out.”

Stevens wrote his two songs after reading the script by James Ivory and the book by André Aciman, but he had no idea how Guadagnino would use the songs in the film. “I wanted them to feel aesthetically and emotionally like independent works that could live on their own if they had to,” he said. “I didn’t want to correlate to the narrative too much — I wanted to keep it vague and universal, and I felt that I needed to convey a sense of transcendence and beauty in conjunction with a sense of loss.”

“Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” both share a kinship with Stevens’ last album, “Carrie & Lowell,” a sparse but heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on the death of his mother. Those songs were rooted in personal experience, but the songwriter said that it didn’t change the process much to write songs that would work in a fictional movie setting.

“It’s always very personal for me,” he said. “I tend to develop an approach that allows me to make myself complicit in the story of the song. I need to feel like I’ve done due diligence, so to speak, which is a matter of being really open and nonjudgmental and curious.”

Stevens said he had told himself to expect the worst before he saw the film for the first time. “I had set myself up for incredible disappointment,” he said, “because with music in film, it’s so easy to get it wrong. But it was pretty amazing.

“It’s a credit to Luca and his mastery of filmmaking craft that he was able to take these intense emotional musical moments and put them in the foreground in a way that feels real and fits with the emotional scheme of the film.”

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