If you've been paying attention to Sufjan Stevens at all this past month, you know that his newest album, Carrie & Lowell, captures the processing of his grief after the death of his mother, Carrie, in 2012. They had been largely estranged for most of Stevens' life, having left him and his family when he was 1 year old. Pitchfork published an interview with Stevens in February, and The Guardian published a piece by Dave Eggers last week about his family history, and both of these articles provide great insight into this new album. I recommend you read them for more personal background. However, I'll be starting somewhere else:
Opal Whiteley grew up in poverty in the logging camps around Cottage Grove, Oregon (Covered Bridge Capital, y'all). The oldest of five children, she was considered to be something of a child prodigy. She heard the voices of animals, plants, and God, and spent much of her waking life in nature collecting and examining the world around her. It is said that she collected thousands of specimens of rocks, plants, and insects. By the time she was a teenager she was giving lectures on nature to her peers and the community. Her work was a poetic combination of science and religion, utilizing narrative stories to teach lessons about plant and animal life. She would charge a 10-cent admission to her lectures, advertising with "handbills picturing herself in a white dress, with butterflies perched on her head, shoulders and hands" (McQuiddy, 7). By the age of 17 she had received national attention, and became something of a religious leader, touring the state of Oregon. It was her dream to write books about nature for children.
In 1918 Opal moved to Los Angeles to have a series of promotional photographs-- from her dressed as a Native American fishing near a river, to playing the violin-- meant to be added to a portfolio that would help her launch a movie career. She was never successful in landing any acting jobs, however, and returned once again to giving nature lectures to the children of wealthy Californians (McQuiddy, 8). She was able to raise nearly $9,500 to publish her own book, but made so many changes that the printers backed out. Heartbroken, Opal hand-labeled and pasted illustrations together herself, and proceeded to self-publish The Fairyland Around Us-- a book version of her lectures-- in 1919.
But it was the publication of her childhood diary that Opal became most known for, due to the controversy around its truth. "The Story of Opal" was printed serially in The Atlantic at the insistence of editor-in-chief, Ellery Sedgwick. She pieced together the scraps of her childhood diary, allegedly written when she was around 6 years old.
The diary was incredibly popular, quickly becoming a national bestseller. But with this acclaim also came a great amount of scrutiny. Some called Opal a prodigy, while others thought she was a fraud due to the clues within the diary that claimed Opal had been kidnapped as a child, and was really the daughter of a French nobleman and naturalist (and pretender to the throne), Henri d’Orleans:
As more elements of this theory of ancestry were reported in the press, Opal’s credibility faded. She began to pull away from Sedgwick in favor of some wealthy new friends. As these friends helped Opal into hiding, Sedgwick severed their business ties, and the diary went out of print. Here Opal’s history becomes fuzzier. She claimed to have spent time in Europe before surfacing briefly in India, living with the Maharaja of Udaipur. By 1948, she could be found in a basement flat in Hampstead, London, surrounded by books. Her neighbors complained about the smell and she was committed. When she finally died, in 1992, it was as an inmate of more than forty years at the Napsbury Mental Hospital in Hertfordshire, England. She was registered there as Françoise d’Orléans. (Dean)
Opal Whiteley had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but many questions remain with regard to the truth of her diary, the nature of her genius (some believe perhaps she had Asperger's syndrome), and the truth behind her family history. What we do know, however, is that Opal Whiteley was gifted. And whether or not her diary was indeed written when she was 6 years old, she seemed to be haunted by her own family history. In 1923 she sailed to England and then traveled to France to meet the mother of Henri d’Orleans. "His mother sponsored a trip to India for Whiteley, a place that had fascinated her son. Whiteley wrote a book about India’s royal family, which was printed in a London publication" (NWDA).
All of this leads me to:
Carrie & Lowell
Select lyrics (emphasis mine):
Under the pear tree
Shadows and light conspiring
Covered bridge, I scream
Cottage Grove shade invite me
Carried by stones
Fairyland all around us
Like a dead horse
Sign of your children’s fever
Carrie, come home
Holding your hands with Opal
It was a fluke that I thought to look into Opal Whiteley. It just so happened that I was reading the Wikipedia page about Cottage Grove, Oregon, and she was listed as a notable person. I remembered the line above, "Holding your hands with Opal," and thought, Huh. Wonder if that has to do with anything? Turns out.
I can't say what inspiration Sufjan found in Opal Whiteley's story. At the very least, Whiteley is a figure of legend in the Cottage Grove area (she has been honored with murals and walking tours, after all). Or maybe there's something about the mystery of her own past, her history of mental illness, and her isolation that spoke to him. She was creative and misunderstood, and she must have seemed like an eccentric in her time. Whatever it was that clouded the lines between realities made her uniquely capable of appreciating the wonder around her, and perhaps rendered her unable to truly stay engaged in the "real" world. This reminds of Royal Robertson, and I wonder if Opal Whiteley's persona served as a study of his mother in the same way Robertson had been a companion for Stevens during The Age of Adz?
A mystery person dropped Carrie & Lowell through the mail slot at my shop a couple weeks ago. A simple disc with "SS C+L" written on it in Sharpie was protected in a sandwich bag. I didn't realize what it was until I put the disc into my beat-up laptop and the disc information popped up. I forgot to breathe for a second.
I have no idea who gave this to me. I'm so thankful to have had time to sit with this beautiful music. So whoever it was, thank you. (And don't worry: I'll be buying it as well.)
I could go on for ages about Carrie & Lowell. I almost decided to do a song-by-song rundown, but I honestly don't know if I'm ready to yet. I decided instead to make a listening companion with more historical information, mythological references, activities, etc. It's available now.
The emotional scope and weight of this release is immense, and I'm still processing it. From the official description:
Carrie & Lowell sounds like memory: it spans decades yet does not trade on pastiche or nostalgia. Stevens’s gauzy double-tracked vocals wash across the dashboard of long-finned, drop-top Americana, yet as we race towards the coast we are reminded that sunshine leads to shadow, for this is a landscape of terminal roads, unsteady bridges, traumatic video stores, and unhappy beds that provide the scenery for tales of jackknifed cars, funerals, and forgiveness for the dead. Each track in this collection of eleven songs begins with a fragile melody that gathers steam until it becomes nothing less than a modern hymn. Sufjan recounts the indignities of our world, of technological distraction and sad sex, of an age without either myths or miracle—and this time around, his voice carries the burden of wisdom. Carrie & Lowell accomplishes the rare thing that any art should achieve, particularly in these noisy and fragmented days: By seeking to understand, Sufjan makes us feel less alone.
I have to admit that sometimes-- when I think of the estrangement I have with my father-- I wonder how I'll process the weight of our history when he dies. There's a struggle that I can feel in my chest over it: The desire to make amends and have a relationship with this man, and the ugly reality that doing so is harmful. I've closed myself off from him, but I know that someday I'll have to come face-to-face with that decision knowing that I won't get this time back. Have I done the right thing? Will I know what to do when I have to say goodbye, if I get to say goodbye at all? I won't know, I suppose.
Sufjan's exploration of his grief has, at the very least, made me feel less alone in that struggle. For being mortal creatures, we don't talk much about dying in our culture. This album doesn't fuck around with that. There's no pretending here. There are moments of hope, but they don't overshadow the fact that it can take a lot of work and struggle and pain to get to them. Stevens' stories are woven in poetic and beautiful and heartbreaking ways, but at the end of the day he's shared his reality so transparently that it allows you to stare into it like a mirror.
You might remember hearing the word "meadowlark" in the lyrics of "The Owl and the Tanager" on All Delighted People, and it pops up a couple of times again on Carrie & Lowell. The Western Meadowlark is Oregon's state bird, which I imagine has something to do with the importance of the bird in this instance (whether the references are literal or not).
Meadowlark is my attempt at honoring this beautiful album focused on grief, loss, and forgiveness (of self & others). I tried to capture pieces of each song in the drink so it could serve as a sensory companion while you listen to the album. It's floral, but rosemary (signifying remembrance) gives the drink a slight coniferous hint that points to the Oregon landscape. The slight bit of Lillet and lemon reference the lyrics from "Eugene," the roses point toward the flowers on the table from "Death with Dignity." A touch of sea salt lingers in the finish, like tears. If Carrie & Lowell sounds like memory, I hope that Meadowlark tastes like it.
Meadowlark: A cocktail inspired by Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell
Cocktail by Sara Galactica.
What you'll need:
- 2 oz Hendrick's gin
- 1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
- 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
- 1/2 oz rosewater
- Lemon twist
- Fleur de sel or other flaky sea salt
- Dried rose petals (garnish)
What to do:
Add a tiny pinch of sea salt to empty rocks glass. Set aside.
Make a wide strip of lemon zest over an empty cocktail pitcher, allowing lemon oils to spray into the container. Leave zest strip in pitcher.
Add gin, Lillet Blanc, rosemary syrup, rosewater, and bitters to pitcher.
Add ice until pitcher is about halfway full. Stir well (about 45 seconds).
Strain cocktail into the glass. Add a large ice cube (or 2-3 smaller cubes). Garnish with dried rose petals or a wide lemon twist. I used rose petals and a rosemary flower in the cocktails pictured. Can also be served up (without ice) if you prefer.
Note: I used Dram Black bitters, but Angostura also works.