Daniel Anum Jasper
Like many over the last year, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine spent a lot of time inside, watching movies. But instead of laying for hours on the couch, mindlessly scrolling through Netflix, they took all that binging experience and turned it into something transformative.
The result is A Beginner's Mind (out now), a catchy, collaborative album loosely inspired by the films they saw together after a long day of writing and recording music. Each song has a corresponding influence, and the eclectic collection reads like your favorite film nerd's Letterboxd watchlist: There are the well-regarded classics, of course, including All About Eve and Wings of Desire, but they're right next to gory horror staples like Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Thing — not to mention unexpected choices like the 2004 straight-to-video cheerleading comedy Bring It On Again or the 1985 sequel Return to Oz (known for traumatizing a whole generation of children).
EW recently caught up with De Augustine and Stevens over Zoom, where the pair of singer-songwriters opened up about their cinematic collaboration.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you decide you wanted to make an album inspired by movies?
ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE: It was kind of an accident, to be honest. We were initially just trying to focus on the collaboration. I think we maybe wrote one or two songs together, and then we realized that some of these movies that we had been watching at night had themes that were kind of working their way into songs. I don't want to speak for both of us, but I think we both enjoy happy accidents in creative work. It can take you to somewhere you might not have gone before. That was the case for this, and once we saw that happening, we decided to embrace the films as sort of a springboard or a jumping-off point for inspiration. Even though I don't think these songs are necessarily about the movies, it helped us to kind of align our minds together and work towards making something new out of it.
Was there a moment where the switch flipped for you, and you realized, "Hey, what we're writing about reminds me of what we were just watching"?
SUFJAN STEVENS: A little bit. I think it was a little amorphous in the beginning, and then at some point, we were watching all the Hellraiser movies. I left, and I had to go to a meeting or a lunch break or something, and when I came back, Angelo, you had written a verse about J.P. Monroe from Hellraiser III. [Laughs] You had recorded it, and I was like, "Oh! This is about Hellraiser III!" But then once we saw what was happening, we embraced it. I think it was a really helpful conceit to initiate writing, but the songs — other than a few references here and there — they're not really about the films. We're just using the films as catalysts.
But yeah, once we knew what we were doing, we packed up our bags and our gear and our instruments and drove upstate to my friend's farmhouse and spent a month there, kind of pursuing it more seriously and more self-consciously.
So did you pack a bunch of DVDs, or were you scrolling through Netflix?
STEVENS: Yeah, it's all streaming. Or John at [record label] Asthmatic Kitty would give us pirated [versions]. We would ask him, "Can you find this movie?" and he would send us a link. But we watched a lot of it on the laptop because the house we were in didn't have a TV. I don't even know if it had internet connection at that point.
DE AUGUSTINE: I don't think so.
STEVENS: If it did, it was old.
I love the mix of stuff you watched. You've got what a lot of people would consider to be classics, like All About Eve, but you've also got some really fun choices like Bring It On Again. Did you have a rhyme or reason as to how you picked the films?
DE AUGUSTINE: I think they were just films that we liked when we were younger, and then ones we were recommending to each other that we hadn't seen before. Like, I had never seen Bring It On Again.
STEVENS: It was kind of all over the place.
DE AUGUSTINE: Sufjan, I don't think you had seen The Last Wave. I think I recommended that one to you.
I know sometimes when I show friends movies that I really love, I get kind of nervous watching them watch it. I'm like, "Oh no, what if they don't like it! This movie means so much to me!" Did you have that experience?
STEVENS: [Laughs] Yeah, there's always that chance. I was introducing a lot of horror films just because I'm a huge fan. Horror is kind of a love or hate genre. I think a lot of people don't have the stomach for it. And Angelo, I don't know if you had watched a lot of horror films.
DE AUGUSTINE: No, not really. I grew an appreciation for it.
STEVENS: I was definitely risking my reputation by suggesting all these outlandish horror films. But they ended up being really good source material because they're just so over the top and so strange and violent and supernatural. I think it allowed for us to think more imaginatively in terms of lyric writing. There's a kind of boundlessness to a lot of these films because they're not answerable to basic laws of physics. [Laughs] They create their own extremes, and those fantasy elements really inspired us.
I do love how much horror and sci-fi and fantasy is on your list of films. What was it about those genres that you found particularly inspirational?
STEVENS: Probably on a basic level, escapism. That was key. Working all day, trying to create material and write songs, is arduous and tedious. It's kind of mundane. When you're holed up in a house in the woods, there's really nothing to do, and the basic routine of life is pretty simple. We'd get up, make breakfast, go to our separate bedrooms, write, record together, make dinner. I wonder if maybe we gravitated toward the supernatural because it allowed us to escape the commonplace nature of our environment. I don't know. Maybe I'm reading [too much] into it. What do you think, Angelo?
DE AUGUSTINE: No, that makes sense to me.
STEVENS: I think a lot of the films that are more science fiction and supernatural and horror are interesting because they create a space that is kind of boundless. It's about imposing all this bizarre, supernatural, antagonistic forces against humans, who have to survive in those environments. For me, I think it reveals a lot about human nature in conflict. There's a lot of trauma in those films, and I feel like trauma can be at the epicenter of transformation. I'm always curious about how these traumatic events create change in the characters.
It's interesting to compare that to something like Bring It On Again, which is a totally different tone. What was it you found particularly interesting about that movie?
STEVENS: Angelo, you mostly wrote that one.
DE AUGUSTINE: To be fair, I didn't even watch the movie until I had already written most of it. [Laughs]
STEVENS: [Laughs] That's right, you just read the Wikipedia synopsis!
DE AUGUSTINE: I had kind of started working on it based on what Sufjan had told me about the movie.
STEVENS: Did you even watch that film?
DE AUGUSTINE: I watched it with you! And then we finished [the song].
STEVENS: Oh, that's right. I mean, that song was our personal pep rally to help us get through that project. That's kind of how it served us. There's not much you can really say about that film that's that deep. [Laughs] There's nothing substantially philosophical about Bring It On Again. I think we were using that film not just as a relief from all the traumatic content in the other films, but also like a personal encouraging anthem because that's basically what the song is doing. It's using this whole concept of the cheerleader as a tool to encourage us to keep moving and get this project done.
For each of you, was there something you feel like you learned from working with the other person?
DE AUGUSTINE: I learned a lot of things. This is my first time collaborating, so on a basic level, learning what collaboration was in our situation was huge. I'm so used to working alone, and Sufjan, I know you've collaborated a lot, but you do most of your work alone, too. So just being able to be open when you're in a collaborative setting is really helpful. In our case, we're lucky because we have a trust and we created a safe space for ourselves. I think when you write songs, you need an element of vulnerability. Without that, it's difficult to make anything that feels real or true. For me, that was a big part, just being open and learning how to observe instead of being quick to make a decision.
STEVENS: Yeah, and I think just seeing how someone else works is affirming in some ways. You had certain practices that were similar to how I work, and then there were other things that were new. But you're right: Learning how to surrender and be open and cultivate a mutual respect and trust is really important. Also, we were writing all this stuff and recording it together, without anybody else. We engineered and recorded the whole thing. So, we had to cultivate a real trust and respect because writing music is actually really boring. It can be super mundane, and I think you have to be patient and have that patience with someone else.
DE AUGUSTINE: I don't think we put a lot of pressure on it, so that helped.
STEVENS: Yeah, like, what if we didn't like each other? That would've sucked. [Laughs]
DE AUGUSTINE: Exactly! You never know with these kinds of things!
STEVENS: We didn't really know each other that well before this. We had a few interactions, but we weren't really close friends before working on this project. But now we are!
Were there any other movies you watched and considered writing about but didn't make the final cut?
STEVENS: We watched The Evil Dead. That didn't make it. We didn't even try to write a song about it, we just watched the whole [series]. But we realized we had too many horror films. I thought maybe we should introduce an Ingmar Bergman film, or an Antonioni film — something a little more sophisticated. But we kind of just decided to embrace the more popular Hollywood films. Most of them are from the '80s or '90s.
It sounds like you both gravitated toward things you loved growing up.
STEVENS: Definitely. I think that's probably not an accident. In some ways, this project is looking back and almost reevaluating this material. We're borrowing themes and ideas from it, but doing a kind of revisionist, free associative, tangential experiment with the ideas. I guess because so many of these films are so iconic, we wanted to kind of deconstruct them and then reconstruct them.
I like that idea of breaking down those themes and thinking about them more holistically.
STEVENS: That was our intention. It's almost a stretch to say that these songs are about these films at all. In fact, we considered at one point not even mentioning that. But it gives us something to talk about, and I think it's also just another vantage point to the record to know where we started. But the songs themselves have their own identities, their own consciousnesses, and they're pretty disassociated from the source material — and that was intentional. We wanted to make them our own, appropriate them, and then come up with new narratives and new characters and new perspectives.
What was your most memorable day while recording?
STEVENS: Oh Angelo, you have to tell her about the fax machine.
DE AUGUSTINE: That's a good story.
STEVENS: We started working on this project in New York City. I was renting a temporary studio month to month in midtown Manhattan, like a stone's throw from Times Square — where it's just total chaos. So, we started working on this project there.
DE AUGUSTINE: I think the last straw was we were walking through midtown, and somebody had thrown one of those giant fax machine/printers out of a window. It was like remnants of broken glass on the floor. I don't know why, but I decided to open up the scanner part of it, and there was this dead pigeon, like placed in a certain way inside. [Laughs] We were like, "We have to get out of here."
STEVENS: So we packed everything up and went upstate to my friend's house in the woods. [Laughs]
DE AUGUSTINE: There was also the time that we ran out of gas. That's another good story.
STEVENS: We were driving up state, and we were just talking so much that I didn't notice we had run out of gas, until all of a sudden, the car slows down. So we had to go walk. [Laughs] But oh god, the pigeon. And you know it's always garbage day in midtown, so there's just like, big bags of garbage piled up.
DE AUGUSTINE: The worst.
STEVENS: We used to call midtown "the Hellhole." Like, oh no, we have to get up and commute to the Hellhole. I think that's kind of why we started watching Hellraiser and Evil Dead. [Laughs]