Throwback Thursday: Sufjan Stevens Interview from 2005 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, February 22nd, 2024  

Throwback Thursday: Sufjan Stevens Interview from 2005

Stevens on Illinois and the 50 States Project

Jul 10, 2014 Summer 2005 - Death Cab for Cutie Photography by Sean McCabe Bookmark and Share

For Throwback Thursdays we are posting classic interviews from the Under the Radar print archives to our website. Under the Radar used to keep its print articles exclusive to the print magazine and so there are a lot of older articles that aren’t to be found on our website. For this Throwback Thursday we revisit our 2005 article on Sufjan Stevens. Read on as Stevens discusses his acclaimed 2005 album Illinois, the seemingly since abandoned 50 states project, his relationship to the press, and his discomfort with all the attention he was receiving at the time.

The first time I met Sufjan Stevens, he was touring, rather anonymously, as the banjo-playing adopted sibling of the Danielson Famile, making an extended tour stop at the weeklong Cornerstone Music Festival in Bushnell, Illinoisthe state that now serves as the backdrop for one of the most anticipated indie albums of the year, Stevens’ Illinois.

At that time, in the sweltering summer of 2002, Stevens was enjoying some modest praise for his electronic representation of the Chinese zodiac entitled Enjoy Your Rabbit, but his soft-spoken manner and fleeting eye contact seemed to suggest he was more than happy to remain anonymous. And though he had agreed to do an interview during his stay, he avoided me until the very last minute, right up until I cornered him at the merchandise table the night before he was set to load himself into the Famile caravan. “Is it broken?” he asked hopefully when my tape recorder momentarily malfunctioned. He then spoke cautiously about his next project, a homespun set of banjo songs that he’d been carrying around so that he’d have something to perform at his solo shows. He also acknowledged, half-jokingly, that he was working on a set of songs dedicated to his home state, Michigan, and that he thought he might even see fit to release them some day.

We now know that in 2003 that set of songs became Michigan, a left-field word-of-mouth sensation, hailed for its conceptual audacity, sonic depth, and narrative intimacy. The first in a proposed set of 50 albums dedicated to each of the United States, Michigan was the rare release that, because it defied easy categorization and had astounding conceptual depth, became widely appreciated by music fans of all stripes. It was the kind of project that even the most ambitious conceptual artists spend the rest of their lives trying to duplicate, only to find that in setting off their creative firestorm, they’ve lost their original spark and become dwarfed by their ambitions. It was the kind of album that was going to be hard to equal.

“I didn’t even consider that at all, but maybe I should have,” Stevens says matter-of-factly of Illinois, the official follow-up to Michiganthose banjo songs he mentioned in 2002 were released in the spring of 2004 as Seven Swans, the intimately homespun exploration of his Christian faith. “I think what motivated me the most is that with Michigan, I didn’t feel like I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. I felt like musically there were personal goals that I wanted to meet. I felt an incredible amount of pressure from myself, because I had this concrete vision,” he continues, disarmingly, almost as if he’s reliving that stress again. “And I was so desperate to believe that I had the capacity to realize this vision for these songs, and I don’t know if I achieved that, but that’s what motivated me.”

What he achieved is a recording even more ambitious musically and conceptually than Michigan; choirs, trumpets and string quartets form lush layers of sonic bliss while adding emotional heft to his accounts of everything from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a character study of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. “It was very strenuous. It was an incredible amount of work, because I was writing it as I was recording it,” he sighs, recounting the process where he would hole up in a professional studio after hours and labor over arrangements for string quartet and trumpet. “There were days when I had no sense of time or reality, and I wasn’t functioning on a practical level, a day-to-day, matter-of-fact level. I was functioning on a supernatural level, in my mind, in my imagination. That was sustained for days and weeks, and sometimes months. It was really exciting. To be in that space that is so personal yet so epic, as well, and so supernatural, I don’t think it’s really healthy for people for long periods of time. It’s very self-consumed. And also self-consuming. But it’s very enjoyable,” he continues, the deliberate pace of his words quickening. “I relish in the anxiety that comes from these kinds of very overwhelming tasks. For me, it was a real challenge, but I enjoyed it.”

As he explains the project in more detail, it’s not difficult to see how engrossing the concept of continuing the 50 states project really is, as using Illinois as the conceptual backdrop for his songwriting necessitated research into the history and culture of the state. “I spent a couple of months reading. I read some Saul Bellow and Carl Sandberga lot of his poems. I read a few biographies of Abraham Lincoln and a lot of small, out-of-print illustrated history books on small towns like Peoria and Jacksonville, things like that,” he says, going on to explain how the state is brimming with cultural enclaves and sociological quirks. “And then I basically called a lot of friends and colleagues that live there and asked for information and notes and summaries and firsthand observations of accounts of growing up in different towns. That was probably most valuable as far as gathering information, because you get a lot of inane, mundane, mythical material. It probably seems unimportant to them, but to me it seems really, really interesting.”

Because he is profoundly humble and self-effacing (laughing derisively when I congratulate him on making another great album), Stevens seems eager to keep the focus of the conversation off himself, appearing positively conflicted about the current groundswell of attention he is receiving. “I’m probably the last person you should ask about getting attention, because I’m a little turned off by it,” he says, bristling a bit. “I certainly didn’t deserve the attention that I got for Michigan,” he explains, his tone becoming monotone, “but I’m incredibly grateful for people’s generous listening.

“I appreciate it, but I don’t put much weight in the opinions of the press and the listener and the audience, because I’m a listener, as well, and I’m well aware of my own fussiness. And I know that opinions change, and one thing might be in fashion one season, and then the next season, it’s out of fashion. I’m fully prepared for any kind of reaction from any kind of press, so that’s kind of how I moderate any kind of anxiety I have about the public. But, generally, I try not to think about it at all, because it has no meaning.

“I mean, the public is a complete illusion,” he says, measuring his words carefully. “I think it’s important to consider the listener, especially at live shows. And to reconcile with who’s there and what they’re expecting, what you are giving to them. I think people will note that I’m a generous songwriter and that I’m working at my craft and my songwriting and that I’m trying new things; whether or not it’s successful is another thing. At some point, you just let the listeners and the critics decide, and that’s a whole different story.”

Even though Stevens does everything he can to deflect praise away from himselfonto his label, his bandmates, Daniel Smithone gets the impression that he must be at least somewhat gratified by the way so many listeners are identifying with something so intimately connected to him. Consistent to a fault, in the end, Stevens gives most of the credit for his success to his listener. “The kind of art that I make is really quite personal and requires a lot of attention, like having a child. I mean, you can take credit for it for only so long, and then you realize that it’s somewhat autonomous. It almost has its own consciousness, because it’s communicating things and affecting people regardless of me. In bedrooms and living rooms and radio stationswell, not really radio stations, because they don’t play me,” he laughs, “but I realize it’s not my own, it’s a gift for everyone else. They own it as much as I do.”


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