DM Stith: Sufjan’s Kindred Spirit
Yes, Sufjan Stevens performed a headlining show at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Wednesday. But there’s another artist deserving of discerning music fans’ attention, and he had a big hand in the Toronto gig’s success.
That artist is David Stith, Sufjan Stevens’s friend and Asthmatic Kitty label mate. Also known as DM Stith, he is both a gifted singer-songwriter and an accomplished visual artist, whose work has been featured in cover art for the albums of fellow musicians such as My Brightest Diamond. On this much-anticipated tour, Stith serves both as the opening act and as a member of Stevens’s 10-piece backing band.
As a member of Stevens’s cohort, Stith is more than a complementary fit. His voice–while similar in timbre to that of Stevens–has a slightly nasal edge, with the ability to switch effortlessly between chest voice and head voice. When Stevens goes into his falsetto, it’s more noticeable. Where Stevens has had a softer vocal lilt that can seeem cooly detached somehow (particularly during theIllinoise era), Stith projects a singular instrument of piercing vulnerability.
As a solo artist, Stith presented himself much more than admirably on Wednesday. His brief four-song set showcased above all his remarkable voice, and his ability to craft songs with a potent emotional core that swells and grows vivid before the listener’s ears, but somehow is slightly beyond our earthly grasp. His music represents something “other.”
While I generally disapprove of making overt, obvious or heavy-handed comparisons between artists, I’ll take the risk here with the hopes of providing a greater context for where Stith finds himself in the current indie singer-songwriter landscape. Stith’s guitarwork, melodic choices, and vocal phrasing are all similar to that of Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen. But Rossen almost always sounds timid, like you’d have to beg him to let the song out. In stark contrast, Stith possesses a quiet presence, but clearly has something to sing about and needs no coaxing to convince him to let it out.
And as a vocalist, Stith has astonishing control. In its fullness, his voice is as joyously combustible and melismatic as Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. Stith’s falsetto is stiff competition for Sigur Ros’ Jon Thor Birgisson in terms of sheer ethereal ecstasy.
Compounded by his use of a looping pedal, Stith amassed a veritable chamber choir by stacking his own voice on top of itself in harmonies that evoked a hallucinatory mix of sorrow and hope. This effect was perfectly exemplified in his performance of “Thanksgiving Moon”:
It’s interesting, though–as I listen back to that clip, he sounds a lot like Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. With all those comparisons now floating around out there, Stith still sounds distinctly like himself. I would contend that his “otherness” is quite singular. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.
Here at the end of this post, however, I do have a definitive conclusion: Like Sufjan, David Stith is a truly gifted songwriter who channels his artistic savvy into heartfelt and sincere expression.