Sufjan Stevens: All Dressed Up and 48 States to Go

“All research, he decided, begins with your imagination and with your intuition, relying heavily on the convictions of the heart.”
— Biography of Sufjan Stevens, AsthmaticKitty.com
Listening to his records, one gets the sense that Sufjan Stevens lives in the clouds. Not in that vapid, no-place-like-home-Toto sense, but in a very literal sense. He lives among the vapors, surrounded by a natural and all-engulfing haze, and it may be the 19th Century. Regardless of where Sufjan (first names only this month) actually lives, he lives in the clouds. This is what I choose to believe.

AG: Are you looking forward to going out on this tour?
SS: Yeah, I really am. I think more than ever before because this tour is such a new endeavor for me.
AG: In what way?
SS: I’m bringing a string octet and having horn players on stage. For once I feel musically prepared because we’ve rehearsed for two weeks and I’ve been writing a lot of arrangements for the songs from Seven Swans and Michigan and Illinois. So we’re gonna be playing those songs. I feel like it’s the first time that I’m able to present these songs in a way that feels fully realized.
AG: That’s exciting; that’s really ambitious. That’s interesting because in every interview that I’ve read with you, you sound really underwhelmed by the tour or by The Avalanche.
SS: This is not a tour for The Avalanche at all. It’s sort of a tour that’s an experiment in composition. I think I’m only playing two songs from The Avalanche. I think I’ve been a little self-deprecating about The Avalanche because it’s never been my “Project of the Year.” This tour has been my big project for the year. The Avalanche is just a side project.
AG: Will you still be backed by the Illinoisemakers, with a similar stage set-up, or is that part different, too?
SS: Yeah, the whole thing is different now. I feel like the cheerleading [stage bit from the Illinois tour] would be redundant and it was such a high-energy show on the Illinois tour that it was a little distracting and I felt that that would have hurt the performance so I fired the cheerleading outfit and we’re gonna have something new; I’m not sure what it is yet. It’s gonna be a little more formal, I think. We’re going to have a projectionist showing videos.
AG: You’re playing mostly 1,000-capacity venues, right?
SS: Yeah, and most of them are theatres, like seated theatres.
AG: Which instruments do you plan on playing on stage?
SS: I’m on the piano a lot of the time; the banjo, the acoustic guitar. A little bit of electric guitar. A friend of mine, Shara, is going to be playing an instrument that is very similar to the glockenspiel. Bass, drummer, guitar. I think it’s gonna be fourteen people on tour.
AG: And you’re going to be playing songs from as far back as Seven Swans; so nothing from A Sun Came?
SS: Yeah, there’s a little bit from each of the newer records.
AG: And Jedi Mind Tricks sampled something from that record, right?
SS: Yeah, they did.
AG: How do you feel about that?
SS: I think it’s great. I think the song’s great. And Shara is the vocalist on that, from My Brightest Diamond.
AG: Yeah, I’ve heard that record. I like it. It’s beautiful.
SS: I don’t know that much about Jedi Mind Tricks. They’re really dark, you know?
AG: Oh, I was talking about the My Brightest Diamond record.
SS: Oh! (laughs) Her record? Yeah, her record is a little dark, but not quite as dark as Jedi Mind Tricks.
AG: Do you usually write on tour, or do you set aside a certain period in the year to just write?
SS: Man, I write all the time. Except when I’m on tour. I’ve found that I distance myself [by writing on tour]. I think it’s important to just be in the moment, to get the experience of traveling. Writing songs is part of my environment at home. I feel like if I were to write on tour I would isolate myself from everything. Usually when I write it’s a very private experience.
AG: I’m guessing that that affords you the opportunity to observe the world around you on tour, which I imagine is pretty important given your interests.
SS: It’s probably the best opportunity to be there and observe.
AG: Were you always a writer? I know you got your MFA in Creative Writing…
SS: I started writing a little bit in high school but it wasn’t very good. When I went to college, maybe my second or third year, I took this writing workshop. It was pretty serious and it was that class when I started reading more American literature, fiction, and paying attention to certain themes. And I started writing fiction.
AG: That’s interesting because I’m at LSU and we had our first day of class today, and the two classes I had were my short fiction workshop and American lit.
SS: Then you’re in exactly the place where I was when I started writing. It was an incredible time for me because I think you spend your life thinking about what it means to be a writer and then what it means to be writing.
AG: That’s exactly where I am right now. I’ve spent my whole life calling myself a writer and only lately have I realized that I care more about being a writer than writing. You mentioned that American lit class that spurred your interest in writing fiction; who were some of the authors that you identified with?
SS: I remember reading a lot of Tennessee Williams, the playwright; In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; a lot of John Updike, like Run, Rabbit, Run; William Faulkner; Flannery O’Connor. When I started writing short stories, I read a lot of her work. Oh, and Raymond Carver, do you know Raymond Carver?
AG: I know the name, yeah, but I’ve never read him.
SS: He’s more contemporary, he was writing in the ‘80s. Really minimal style.
AG: I find it interesting that the authors you named are all Southern authors. I’ve never read your fiction before, but I find your lyricism to be kind of in step with the Southern esthetic, you know? Very dark, strange, moral tales.
SS: Yeah, I don’t know where that comes from; I’m a Northerner, a real Yankee, with a sort of fetish for Southern culture and Southern literature. And I think that Southern American literature is more depressing because you have this great tension, this cultural tension. And, you know, Flannery O’Connor was an outsider; she was a Catholic in a mostly Protestant region. And she was sick, too; she had lupus. She was an intense person, an intense character.
AG: Do you consider yourself an outsider in that way?
SS:  I don’t know, I don’t know. I think maybe growing up, in high school and early in college, I was sort of awkward. I wasn’t in athletics and I wasn’t in a fraternity, so I felt a little bit isolated. I remember reading A Light in August by Faulkner, and especially the Joe Christmas character, who doesn’t really fit in.
AG: What made you switch from fiction writing to songwriting?
SS:  Songwriting was actually kind of a distraction; I never actually thought that I could make a living doing it. I always just recorded music as a hobby. I always thought that I was going to be a writer. It turns out that writing was far more difficult and more competitive, plus I never got published. I taught a little bit, though not enough to make a living. So when I started getting attention for my music, I was caught off-guard, and it distracted me from writing fiction. But that part of me now is satisfied writing songs that are very narrative, songs that tell stories.
AG: Do you miss writing fiction at all?
SS: I do. I miss it and I grieve the fact that I never wrote a novel or finished a collection of stories. I grieve the fact that I never got published. And I think that in the back of my mind, I still plan on doing that some day.
AG: Yeah, that was gonna be my next question: do you see yourself ever releasing something like that in the future? Other musicians have released books of poetry or whatever to varying success.
SS: Yeah. It’s not the time, not now. I don’t want to do it just because the opportunity is here. I’ve been approached by publishers and agents, and that’s really flattering, but the truth is I have nothing to show for myself. A few unfinished stories.
AG: I think at the same time, though, you wouldn’t have the capacity to write the kind of songs you write without going through the fiction workshops.
SS: Yeah. That’s true. I owe a lot to the experience I have from the writing workshops. I know a weak adjective when I see one (laughs). If I got anything out of it, it was that.
AG: Is that what you saw yourself doing when you entered grad school? Being a writer?
SS: Yeah. You know, you’ve got this weird vision of yourself in a vest and a pipe and a beard with, like, your editor and your wife and your kids who are little scholars. So. That never happened (laughs).
AG: Yeah, but at the same time, you’re 28 years old, too.
SS: Hah, yeah, I’ve got the rest of my life ahead of me.
AG: You have the rest of your life to wear vests.
SS: I know, I know.
AG: A few years ago, you and Stephin Merritt gave an interview where he made some claim about Outkast being this very sterile, I guess forgettable, group. You didn’t really comment on it, but you kinda went along with it. I was wondering what you think about now, three years later, with the changes in pop music.
SS: I think the good thing is that independent music, that market is becoming much more influential and that’s kind of exciting. I think that the popular music industry is, um, an industry and at this point it’s really just advertising. The fact that popular music shows like American Idol are becoming the market sucks. Basically, it’s a populist market. The people choose the product that they wish to buy. They’re going to buy a certain singer because they’ve voted for her. It’s so primitive.
AG: I mean, that’s true, but I think it’s also kind of brilliant that you have a built-in market of a million people who have already decided that they like the singer.
SS: Yeah, in terms of marketing and commerce it is absolutely brilliant. But in terms of art…hah…it’s the decline of culture and it’s buttressed by billions of dollars of advertising. But, that said, it’s kind of encouraging that there are bands like Deerhoof and songwriters like Joanna Newsom, and, you know, some others that I don’t wanna name-drop who are making music that’s very visionary and sophisticated and singularly interesting. That’s kind of exciting. And also, with independent music, the market is so empowering for the artist where the majors are more empowering to the executives. The way that independent record labels are set up, it’s somewhat of a co-operative effort. It’s a 50/50 split; you share.
AG: What motivates you to make your art? What experiences, or, I guess for a lack of a better term, what is your muse?
SS: That’s a hard question. I haven’t quite figured out this notion of the “muse.” It seems like some kind of invention and I haven’t quite figured it out. I’m inspired by so many things, by everyday life. I could sing a song about a tennis shoe just as easily as I could sing a song about World War II. And I find both fascinating. I think what makes it fascinating is finding some microscopic information that appeals to me, that renders my heart in a way that moves me and makes me feel, and it somehow evolves into a story. The story of the tennis shoe is, like, exploitation of child labor in China, or it could be a story about marathon runners. I’m just very inspired, hah. I find everything so interesting. That’s what’s so exciting about writing. Everything is interesting.
AG: Yeah, I’ve definitely found that, since I’ve decided to become a fiction writer, I notice more quirks in people or in situations.
SS: It’s almost like the stuff that matters itself has very little meaning. It’s all about perception. Artists that are fully engaged argue, like, Are we focusing on the right things?
AG: Why did you decide to release The Avalanche? I know that you were considering releasing it as mp3s on your website.
SS: I think that, in a way, I really wanted to honor the songs. I think as mp3s they wouldn’t be fully realized. They were, by every right, meant to be on the Illinois record. I think that a lot of the stuff on there is more interesting and more experimental than the stuff on the Illinois record but for various reasons didn’t make the cut.
AG: Did you touch anything up or record anything new or rework anything for the release?
SS: Some of them are really reworked. I’d say a little less than half have been changed. My friend Rosie Thomas did a lot of backing vocals and I wrote the arrangements. I did a lot of reworking.
AG: Yeah, the record flows a lot like a “real” record whereas most outtakes records feel cobbled together. It kinda reminds me of Blind Melon’s outtakes record, which is better than all of their albums.
SS: I think that’s why I decided to release this as a record, because I knew I had a whole record. And I think there’s a correlation between these songs because the subject matter is so different. A lot of the songs on The Avalanche are more philosophical.
AG: Yeah, I’d noticed that.
SS: Yeah, and it’s frustrating. When you comprehend the narrative trajectory of the Illinois record the outtakes make much more sense.
AG: Do you think that one day The Avalanche could stand on its own in your discography and not be just “the outtakes record”?
SS: Yeah, uh, it’s just an outtakes record, haha. Yeah, it’ll never be more than that. And that’s fine. That’s not to say that it’s invaluable or whatever. It just is what it is. I don’t mind. I tend to think of my records in terms of major releases and minor releases. Like the concept album, the zodiac album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, is an epic album, but it’s not really for everyone.
AG: I’d heard that you were thinking about not releasing Seven Swans because the songs are obviously very personal.
SS: What happened was that the songs on that record were never supposed to have been recorded. I’d been playing shows but I was incapable of playing anything on Enjoy Your Rabbit or Michigan [at the time], so I wrote those songs so that I could have something to perform. Daniel Smith heard me play them and wanted me to record them. So I put together a whole bunch of demos and he chose the ones that are on the record and he recorded them.
AG: So you’re going to be playing some of those songs on tour?
SS: Yeah. We’re playing a lot from Seven Swans and Illinois.
AG: You know, a lot of the people I’ve talked to think that Seven Swans is your best record.
SS: Well, I think the songs are better. The songwriting on that record is way better than anything else I’ve done. Illinois is interesting as a set piece or as a song cycle.
AG: With Michigan, you were writing about places and things that are completely familiar to you as a native Michigander. Was it more challenging with Illinois and anything else you’ve been working on to put yourself into those places and truly experience them, to write about them that way?
SS: Actually, it’s easier because it’s a relief to not have that kind of emotional baggage that comes with Michigan. There’s also a lot of autobiography disguised as fiction in Illinois. Songs about personal things that I then kind of translate into the local cultural landscape. And that’s why I think that there’s so much material for Illinois, because for the first time I’m able to write about something very personal but then put it in a specific environment.

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