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a love letter


Sufjan Stevens

Illustration by

Ot Pascoe


A.O. Gerber is a Los Angeles based musician. Having spent the past 3 years working on her upcoming debut album Another Place To Need, produced alongside Madeline Kenney, she's honed a distinct sound which is lush, tender and confessional. No surprise then, that when Hook asked her to write a love letter, she chose Sufjan Stevens as its recipient. What follows is a beautiful and in-depth tribute from one artist to another, showing the power of inspiration.


Growing up, I was very aware that I didn’t have particularly good taste. As a kid, I was entirely at the whim of whatever music other people put in front of me, and other than the Ani DiFranco and Fiona Apple funelled into my iTunes by my queer older cousin (who I worshipped in spite of her questionable taste in Dave Matthews Band), what I was exposed to was a haphazard mixture of whatever was on the radio, plus my mom’s CD collection of big pop divas of the time: Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Josh Groban. It’s what I sang on the way to school and what got stuck in my head.


And, to me, that was okay. I did long to have the encyclopedic iTunes library of my cousin Carly and to be the kind of person who could show other people the good stuff (I’ll admit it to you, “Ants Marching” really had me going for a minute). But for most of middle school, it seemed like no one had, or even talked about, “taste”—good or bad. 


That changed when I got to seventh grade. Suddenly, everyone had taste! And everyone’s taste was the same: Led Zepplin, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, The Doors—the stuff I guess your parents are supposed to show you (mine certainly hadn’t). And now, taste mattered. What music you listened to became an organizing principle of social status. So I force-fed myself the new good stuff and found some things I genuinely loved. But eventually, the cool kids started calling me a poser and the truth is, I was. I hadn’t come to my love of Queen organically through the tender interchange of new discovery between friends. I had gotten there through a feat of anxious mining, hacking away at the edifice of rock music, trying to carve a place for myself to stand and feel known. 


Things changed a bit in eighth grade when a close family friend started guiding my musical trajectory. He introduced me to Joni Mitchell and The Beatles and gave me the tools to teach myself guitar on his Gibson CL-20. This opened up my world. But the fact is, I was still being shown. 


Your music, Sufjan, was the first music I remember discovering for myself. I honestly can’t remember how, but I know it to be true. For months during my freshman year of high school, I had only three of your songs on my iPod; their titles so illustrative and long that I didn’t actually know them by name because they got cut off on my iPod screen. It didn’t matter. I listened to them on repeat. 


And because, as far as I knew, no one else at my high school was really listening to you—I felt that I’d discovered something. As we’ve all experienced at some point, that discovery gave me an indescribable sense of “cool.” But what I’d really unearthed was my own taste.


There are a handful of moments I can remember when my understanding of what music could be shifted, took a turn, changed me. That was one of the first. I didn’t yet know that you could have a horn section in a folk song; that you could feature a euphoric choral arrangement flanking a bridge; that you could use a banjo somewhere other than in country or bluegrass; that you could sing so fragile, almost imperceptible, and still convey so much. 


By the time I discovered you, you’d already released so much music; I had many iterations of you to plumb. And in all of it, I felt my picture of what could be expanding. There was a rapture in learning what moved me—the realization that bigness and smallness can coexist, that quiet and loud aren’t necessarily opposites; that angst can and should rest alongside joy, or at the very least, vitality. 


Your songs kept me company through high school, and into college, where I started shaping myself into the songwriter I wanted to become and bonded intensely over my love of you with the first person who would demolish my heart. Your music was the Northern Star for the feeling I wanted to create; it was also the source of so much frustration as I experienced my own limitations as a solo singer-songwriter, unable to construct a world the way you do. 


I waited longingly for all your 50 states albums that never came. You released Age of Adz and I hated you for it, then forgave you (it’s now a favorite). 


In 2015, I was in my last year of college, finishing up a degree in music I never expected to get. I was preparing my senior concert, a song cycle about my childhood and my difficult relationship with my then 79-year-old father. In many of the songs, I was preemptively mourning his death, reckoning with the complexity I knew would come from the permanence of losing someone who was never really there. That’s when you released Carrie and Lowell


It’s one thing to connect to a piece of music; it's another to feel known by it. 


I too had an estranged parent. I too had spent much of my childhood in Oregon. I too had a complicated relationship to religion growing up. And then there were the songs themselves‚ their simultaneous shimmering subtlety and expansiveness; the way an iPhone recording transitions seamlessly into a five-minute epic. I played the album on repeat for months, first letting it wash over me and then trying desperately to understand it. It was too good. It pissed me off. I spent hours in my dorm room, playing it over and over, learning the songs to reverse engineer the theory behind them. I was taking a class called Linguistics of Music at the time, and I used your songs for every single one of our projects. Look at how he jumps the octave vocally over the shift to the IV. Look here at how he hints at the Lydian mode. But the more I tried to understand you, the angrier I became. Your songs are so damn simple at their core. And so much is extramusical—the timbre of your voice, the way the songs are recorded—the feeling. 


I saw you live for the first time in April of that year and I cried. For my Linguistics of Music final, I wrote a 25 page paper about Carrie and Lowell, though the teacher had only asked for 10. She gave me an A, I think, truly for effort. 


I talked a lot about your music that year. So much that I started to become self-conscious about my ardor. The more I talked, especially in an academic setting, the more I realized that some people didn’t connect to your music, didn’t get it. Yet again, I was the introverted middle schooler surrounded by peers who defined themselves by what they knew and what they liked. I started to feel shy about my taste.


That summer after graduating, I saw you play at Eaux Claires Festival. You talked about how you avoid playing festivals because you don’t like crowds and your voice shook a little over the microphone as you launched into an ecstatic rendition of “Vesuvius,” with small hand choreography and what I now know to be your signature body roll. You forgot some of the words. At one point you welcomed out a full brass section to play “Chicago,” and at yet another you played a tender and slightly out-of-tune rendition of “Eugene.” 


At different moments, the performance, like your music, could have been described as garish or twee; at others, chaotic. But I was moved. Moved by the vibrance, the vulnerability, the breadth, the humanity of it all.


On my drive back home from Wisconsin to Vermont, I played Illinois as I drove through Chicago and then I decided to give Age of Adz another try. Finally, I understood.


I’ve grown up to your music, watched you continually reinvent yourself, continually test the limits of what’s expected of you, and yet, continually remain yourself. I hated Age of Adz when I first heard it because it wasn’t what I’d expected. It didn’t fit in the box, and the world loves boxes. I feel that presently and immensely—the formulaic way we talk about music, in how we consume it, in how we package and sell it. But then there’s you, up on a stage wearing angel wings, covered in neon gaff tape with a sideways baseball cap; whispering into a microphone while a fan blows in the background; scoring a super-indulgent soundtrack to a freeway; simply making the music that interests you, here, now, today. There you are, having a personality, not just being one. And there’s so much sincerity in that. 


I love your music because it reminds me to keep playing, to never sit still. It encourages me to lean into the knowledge that being true to oneself means continual reinvention, continual presence, continual curiosity. I love you as an artist because you embody those things without pretense. Yes, at times you may be eccentric or even saccharine, but only because you are those things, and not because you arrived there inadvertently while striving to be anything else. In a world where it often seems like we’re all working so hard to find boxes to crawl into, you keep resisting the urge. And I’m grateful to you for that.


Your fan eternal,


On his Side Hustle
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