Stevens resists discussing his life in a way that might compromise what he believes in. "My faith informs what I'm doing. It's really the core of what I'm doing in a lot of ways," he says. "But the language of faith is a problem for me, and I try to avoid it at all costs. You could say that I have a mind for eternal things, for supernatural things, and things of mystery. I'm more comfortable with using those terms because they can be used without controlling or stigmatizing anyone."
More on that in a moment. First it should be noted that Stevens, his faith and his particular way of expressing it are not all that odd these days. A growing number of young singer-songwriters are using a similar tool set--quiet voices, acoustic instruments and a fondness for mystery. The most prominent among them are Iron & Wine (a.k.a. Sam Beam), Antony and the Johnsons, Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Bright Eyes (a.k.a. Conor Oberst). This isn't the latest local scene; these artists are from Manhattan and Omaha, Miami and Nevada City, Calif. Some have been performing for years, some are just starting their careers, yet all have surfaced in the mainstream press in the past year.
Unlike many critical darlings, these artists are also making a commercial splash. Bright Eyes' "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" has sold 300,000 copies, perhaps on pace to join an elite group of gold-certified indie releases, signifying a half-million sales. Iron & Wine's latest album for Sub Pop, the label that championed grunge in the early '90s, has sold more than 100,000 copies. Stevens' success is particularly impressive, given its context. He still records for his own Asthmatic Kitty label, which he runs with the help of his stepfather and a friend. It's probably the largest entertainment company in Lander, Wyo. (population 7,000), but that's a long way from Los Angeles, so it was a shock when his latest album, "Illinois," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart in July.
Most of these artists have been lumped into the so-called "avant-folk" or "freak-folk" genre, or, as it's known in the United Kingdom, "the new weird America," a phrase cribbed from "Invisible Republic," Greil Marcus' acclaimed 1997 book on Bob Dylan's "secret" basement tapes. (Marcus referred to the American folk music of the '20s and '30s that informed these recordings as "old, weird America," and recent editions of the book have been retitled as such.) I prefer the more descriptive and less loaded term "quiet music," because while these artists are uniformly subdued, few hew to the standards of ol' timey American folk. Sure, Stevens likes banjo and clean guitars, but his technique recalls that of contemporary classical musicians such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, or the French-British avant-pop band Stereolab. Newsom, a harp prodigy, and Beam, a guitarist, both have an affection for the plinking melodies and polyrhythms of Mali. Finally, there is an artfulness to this music, a self-conscious pretension, that belies the back-to-basics formula of previous folk revivals.
At their most obvious, though, these artists do subscribe to folk's long-established role as a medium of protest. Take Oberst's song "When the President Talks to God," which he performed on "The Tonight Show" in early May, decked out in a red Western-style shirt and big black cowboy hat. Originally released as a free download on Apple's iTunes Music Store to promote two simultaneously released Bright Eyes CDs, it blatantly questions the conservative religious agenda behind George Bush's America.
\o7When the president talks to God,
Are the consonants all hard or soft?
Is he resolute, all down the line?
Is every issue black or white?
Does what God say ever change his mind,
When the president talks to God?
When the president talks to God,
Does he fake that drawl or merely nod?
Agree which convicts should be killed?
Where prisons should be built and filled?
Which voter fraud must be concealed,
When the president talks to God?
Oberst fumes at how faith has been transformed from a private act of devotion into the stuff of mega-churches, media circuses and public posturing. It's a sentiment just as angry as those expressed by the punk rock bands whose popularity surged in the early '80s during Ronald Reagan's presidency, yet musically, his sound bears closer resemblance to the spare, bluesy "finger-pointing" songs on Bob Dylan's political albums from the '60s. Finally, it's this quietness that's more to the point than Oberst's lyrics.