By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated March 22, 2009 at 08:31 PM EDT
Steven Johnson

Well, SXSW is just about done for this year, and I can say I got to see almost all the artists I wanted to, plus a few I hadn’t planned on. One unfortunate exception: Various scheduling snafus prevented me from making it out to any of Indiana singer-songwriter DM Stith’s shows. Stith’s recently released Heavy Ghost is one of the strongest debut albums I’ve heard in some time, a swirling mass of atmospheric melodies and instrumentation. The whole album is streaming online, and it’s well worth a listen for fans of artists like Grizzly Bear and Sufjan Stevens. Though I’m sorry I missed seeing Stith perform, I did get a chance to chat with the soft-spoken musician on Saturday afternoon about his festival experiences and the making of Heavy Ghost.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’s the festival going for you so far?
It’s been fine. I’m not used to the festival atmosphere. I’ve always stayed away from them, just as a listener, so it’s been weird being here and being part of it. But we’ve had a couple real nice, intimate shows. It’s been easier for me when we get away from the main strip — I don’t want to be able to hear another band playing when I’m performing. But Austin is a really pretty city, and the warm weather’s been good for me.

Are you happy with how Heavy Ghost turned out?
Oh yeah, I love it! I had only recorded little songs, separate experiments. This was the first time that I set out knowing I was going to make an album. There was so much apprehension in the beginning that in the end I had to give up control — let whatever happens, happen, and just kind of observe it. When I finished the record, I was really curious about the whole thing, still. It really feels like I witnessed it and I wasn’t in charge of it, which is a nice feeling.

Did you have many other musicians helping you record?
It’s mostly me. I recorded it all in my bedroom, my kitchen, wherever I could find instruments. My friend Shara [Worden of My Brightest Diamond] sings backup vocals on “Pigs,” and Sufjan Stevens plays piano and tambourine and some other things on “Pity Dance.” The string quartet Osso plays on two tracks. I would record versions of the whole album, basically, myself, and then write out parts for other people to play.

What was it like working with Sufjan?
Well, he has a piano, and I don’t own a piano. So whenever I was writing on piano, I would go there. Before I went to mix the record, I was visiting Sufjan in Brooklyn, and we decided to spend a few hours. I was like, “Okay, we gotta try this sound and this sound.” He grabbed a stapler, so there’s a stapler on there. I was like, “Oh, we need scissors,” so he got a couple pairs of scissors. He plays a floor rotary fan with aVermont state quarter — that’s that broooop sound in the beginning. That’s how I work. I heara sound and I grab whatever is around me to make it. And he was totally into it.

You worked as a graphic designer for a while, right? Is that something you still do?
Yeah, actually, I’m in grad school right now at Indiana University for an MFA in graphic design, and I’m teaching sculpture. I do a lot of work for Asthmatic Kitty, [my] record label, and I’ve done freelance and odd-job design work for the last six years.

What’s the relationship between the visual side and music for you?
I don’t think that I could do either of them full-time. For me, both of them sharpen each other. Design tends to feel like an organization mechanism. I’m a very neat person, so doing design lets me work on aligning things and making things very clear and crisp. And doing music is much more emotional and messy. I need both of those things.

What else do you have coming up?
The month of May should be a tour through Europe, and we’re talking about some different options for touring the U.S. My summer is open, and since I’ve been teaching and schooling and doing all this press stuff and working on music, I really need a break. I think mainly the thing that I think I’d like to do most is start recording again. It’s been a while since I’ve really been able to enter that creative space.

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