Sufjan Stevens vintage interview: "There’s a problem with music that is purely emotive"
Updated: Sep 3
This article was first published in The Big Issue in October 2006. It's classic Laura in that I have managed to write about an artist I genuinely love — but also add in Prince and Les Rythmes Digitales. Ha!
Sufjan Stevens is working his way across the USA making an album for each of the 50 states. So far he’s done Michigan and Illinois. Laura Kelly spoke to the singer songwriter about storytelling, religion and navel-gazing.
“You know, I just really love Prince.” Listening to Sufjan Stevens’ orchestral folk — his gentle voice singing about his Michigan background, or Bible study, over kindly pianos and muted trumpets, you would not exactly place the lascivious purple one as a direct influence.
Still, on closer inspection, the similarities are there. Like the little funkster, Stevens has taken charge of his records by playing many of the instruments himself, and by releasing his albums on his own label. Also, like Prince, religion plays a major part in his work — though Stevens is Christian, rather than a Jehovah’s Witness.
But where these two musical prodigies align most obviously is in scope and ambition. Proving yourself comparable to Prince is no mean feat, but with his 50 States project Stevens may just have managed it. He has set out to compose a full album about the distinctive characters of each of the USA’s 50 states. So far he has released only two — Michigan and Illinois — but he is confident he will complete the undertaking.
“Yeah, of course will,” Stevens affirms. He pauses for a moment, as though calculating how long he will have to live to fulfil this promise. A quick mental calculation — there were two years between Michigan, multiply it up, and — if all goes to plan — 30-year-old Stevens will release the final instalment when he’s a ripe old 126.
As though he has simultaneously performed the same sum, Stevens adds, “If I don’t then I'll just pass on to another musician.”
Whether it ever reaches fruition or not, Stevens’ mission has already given us two fascinating and beautiful records. Michigan is a complex love letter to his home state — the pleasant peninsula — that gracefully evokes working class triumphs and failures. Meanwhile, Illinois’ lush melodies tell tales of Abe Lincoln and UFOs, serial killers and bone cancer, all with the same attention to the details that make up individuals’ lives.
This magpie’s eye was tuned by Stevens’ first love: fiction-writing. “There’s a real suspicion of abstractions and generalities in fiction,” he explains. “What we value is a real concrete term, like a particular kind of Buick sedan or a particular kind of blue jean with all of its textures and sensory information. That’s what I’m trying to do in my music: to try and evoke an experience rather than just tell it like it is.”
In order to do this, Stevens employs unusual writing techniques, more akin to a journalist than your typical singer-songwriter. For Illinois he collected information through careful library work, basing the songs on “text books and literature”, though this method is not set in stone.
“Each state will have its own methodology,” Stevens explains. “There's no real guidelines. Some of that might require travelling, some of that reading, some of it might require just looking at maps. Or some of it might require flying an aeroplane over the landscape to get a sense of the geography from bird's eye view.”
Does he get a sense that his routine is different from ‘normal’ musicians?
“What do ‘normal’ musicians do?” he asks.
Well – I propose — they mostly seem to sit around and write off the top of their heads.
“Yeah,” he confirms, suddenly animated, “about their emotions, right?
“There’s a problem,” he continues, “with music that is purely emotive, because it quickly becomes self-indulgent and self-conscious. I think there's ways to challenge the purely emotive style of songwriting through other kinds of techniques, whether they be research or observation.
“I think music, or at least songwriting, is based on the narrative — the ballad and the oral history —and there is a historical and narrative element to that, but there is also a personal and emotional element. I think today songwriting has become far too emotional and personal.”
While Stevens’ music can often be emotional — poignant, distressing or uplifting – the navel-gazing approach is evidently not for him.
In his live performance too, Stevens takes an unusual tack employing fanfare and pageantry to challenge his “quieter singer-songwriter instinct”. For his sold out Glasgow show, those of you lucky enough to have tickets can expect a full band of seven skilled musicians, along with a cheer-leading routine for Illinois and a human pyramid.
All on Oran Mor’s intimate stage.
Having heard how he approaches his subject it Seems appropriate to find out why the States fired Stevens’ imagination. As it happens, he is not as definite on the topic.
“Everyone asks that question, but I haven’t really got an interesting answer,” he apologises. “It began in middle school, when we used to learn about American history and geography and I developed an obsession with the state guidelines and the capitals and the state birds. We were asked to memorise all the dates that the states became part of the union and the historical figures — all the main trivia.”
Years later, when Stevens began writing songs about Michigan, he realised the idea was itching to be rolled out across the Union. “For me it was kind of an arbitrary concept in which to develop my songwriting,” he says, with rather less zeal than you might imagine necessary to keep going for the next 96 years.
“It could be anything — it could be planets, it could be botany, it could be the organs of the body. I could write a record about the lakes and rivers or about video games. It would all be just as much fun.”
What he lacks in ardour he can make up for in pleasure, at least.
Arbitrary as the decision was, it has piqued many music-buyers’ interest, bringing Stevens a rash of new fans and glowing reviews. Nonetheless, he remains remarkably calm and grounded.
“It's very encouraging,” he acknowledges, “but I don't try to measure myself on public opinion because know it is very fickle. For the time being I’m encouraged that people are receptive to what I’m doing.”
"I’m not really preaching to anyone.”
Strangely, Stevens seems more pleased with the wider implications of his success. “I’m mostly encouraged because I'm doing it over here in the States on my own label with my family, and we're not a part of the commercial marketing machine,” he continues.
Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, which he set up with his step-father, intentionally shies away from blowing big bucks on huge advertising campaigns. His closely composed melodies have done the talking for him. In an age of viral marketing, Stevens is the real deal — a true word-of-mouth success. His popularity has spread from friend to friend and he is such a darling of the bloggers that one online fan confessed to be “scared” at the hype surrounding the release of Illinois.”
“I think it says a lot about how the record industry is shifting,” Stevens explains, with an attractive sheen of optimism, “less towards advertising and more towards art and creative voice and vision. A wider audience is appreciating what we're doing and we're not spending millions of dollars to do that.”
In the cold light of day – with Beyonce’s ass screaming from billboards and Les Rythmes Digitales only getting recognition due to a car advert — it is hard to endorse Stevens’ view. But listening to his slightly sleepy, intelligent arguments over the phone as he takes a break from his US tour, I can’t help but be swayed.
I find myself trusting that we are on the verge of a golden era when beautiful eccentrics will ply us with intricate and inspiring pop. It is a good feeling.
For all the good feeling around his music, though, Stevens has had to endure as much suspicion about his religion. “I’m very surprised sometimes by the kind of prejudice that it brings out in people,” he says, with an edge of hurt in his voice.
“Any kind of religion or race or creed brings with it cultural baggage, the kind of misperceptions of things. But a lot of times I think people are just here to hear the songs, they like the music and they know I’m not really preaching to anyone.”