Most people like to relax after completing a project. However, Sufjan Stevens isn’t most people. After completing Illinois, he’s still churning out new songs and keeping busy. I was fortunate enough to get to exchange words with him about the new album and what state might be next on his list.
Illinois is the second in Sufjan’s goal to write an album for each of the fifty states. It was preceeded by his home state of Michigan. As you might expect, Michigan seems to be more personal and reflective than his newest work. But don’t think for a moment that he’s not aware of that fact. “Michigan was perhaps more personal because it was based on memory and recollection. Illinois is more of an historical rendering,” says Sufjan. “I think every song references a personal experience or event, but it’s often rendered through historical premises.”
As you might have read on any number of websites, Sufjan researches his subjects like he’s about to take a final exam. “Many of the songs are based on second-hand accounts, history books, the study of geography, architecture, memoirs, fiction, non-fiction, whatever I could get my hands on,” said Sufjan. But surprisingly, he’s still able to interlace his personal life with Illinois’ wild past. “I’ve seen UFOs; I’ve been to the world’s fair grounds; I’ve been attacked by the Predatory Wasp, I’m not kidding; I’ve had big fights with my step-parents; I’ve suffered the loss of a close friend to a terrible disease,” Stevens said. “But at this point, I’m no longer interested in distinguishing fact from fiction. In writing, we talk about what resonates as true. The most fabricated story can have more truth than real events.”
I suppose it’s a good thing that he’s not relying on personal experiences for every song that he writes. After all, I’m sure he doesn’t have an album’s worth of stories for each of the fifty states. When I ask if he’s at all worried about this daunting task, Sufjan does something unexpected – he gives me a lesson in language. “So many of us have been throwing around this word “daunting” in relation to the project; the discussion is a bit incapacitating. But then I realized I didn’t even know exactly what “daunting” means, so I looked it up.” He continued, “do you know it actually relates to the Latin word for ‘to tame’?” After explaining that the way we use it today comes from the “daunting” task that the first Americans had of taming the continent, Stevens went on to relate this to his project. “I also think the term applies to my undertaking, which is, quite literally, daunting, in that it requires the aesthetic rendering of geography and history through a singular creative vision. I’m taking wild and abstract forms and personifying them through narrative songs. This is the creative work of history and art. So, yes, it is daunting, but in the best sense of the word.”
While we’re on the topic, I decide to go for the gusto. “Have you given any thought to what state will be next?” I ask, hoping that he’ll slip up with a “Kentucky,” or perhaps even a “Florida.” However, I’m not at all surprised at his answer – “I’m keeping it under cover.” Did I really expect the new king of indie music to give away his five year plans? Well, it was worth a shot.
Thankfully, he is willing to discuss what we can expect to see and hear at his shows; and it’s every bit as lively as you might imagine. “I try to have a trumpet player, bass, drums, guitar, at least two women back-up singers, a mallet instrument of some kind, and maybe even trombone. I try to have as many men as women. What I’m doing now is ruined by too much testosterone,” he said. “A musician who performs with me is required to do quite a lot of juggling on stage. If your hands are free, start shaking something. If you’re not chewing food, start singing.” I hope that these requirements will allow for adequate reproduction of the elaborate sound of Illinois. I don’t envy any musician who is faced with the task of meeting Sufjan’s standards.
As I said earlier, I don’t believe that Sufjan is content to sit back and bask in the glory that is his newest album. Rather, I got the sense that even he’s curious as to what he’ll be doing next. When asked where he sees his career going from here, he gave us a peak into his broad ambitions. “I would like to publish a novel, or a book of stories,” he said. “I would like to start teaching again, fiction writing workshops, for undergraduate students. I would like to have ten children.” Wow. To think that I expected a straight forward answer along the lines of “complete another album.” But wait, he’s not finished! Sufjan then added, “I would like to start my own restaurant. A cooperative restaurant with a rotation of chefs every night, a vegetarian prix fixe every evening with live entertainment.” I think even Sufjan would admit that finding time do complete those dreams while still writing 50 albums is an extremely daunting task. But I feel like if anyone can do it, it’s Sufjan Stevens.
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