Sufjan Stevens might joke about his “Fifty States” record series. He might say that, in the course of writing songs about all fifty of our United States, he’s contributing to the general knowledge of an alien species, state-by-state feeding knowledge in preparation for their American invasion. He might call himself the “vicarious informer” to said alien species. But Stevens, hyperbole—or simply grandiose story—aside, is closer than he might know in using this method to explain his creative ideas. Stevens is a storyteller and this explanation of his musical creation simply sets his records deeper within the story of a young man who went to college in western Michigan, whose first love is fiction but whose fame, thus far, has been musical.
Stevens moved to New York to attend the New School of New York’s Creative Writing program, pursuing his love for writing, penning stories and songs about Michigan upon his arrival, a reflection of the area from which he had moved. The songs would become the first of his state-themed records. The stories would merely fall to his school projects.
His father-in-law, Lowell Brams, asked for Stevens’s help in starting up Asthmatic Kitty Records, originally an outlet for Stevens’s four-track recordings and other music of Brams’s western Michigan locale. Soon, Brams found himself in Lander, Wyoming, and Stevens, in New York and gaining rapid steam with his music, was constantly meeting new musicians that would come to be signed to the label. Such musicians include Castanets, Liz Janes, John Ringhofer a.k.a. Half-Handed Cloud, and more; and if you don’t know of this quirky collective now, you soon will. In a random swarm of musical connections, Asthmatic Kitty went from a mom-and-pop local Michigan record label to a collective of artists Stevens describes as “random” and “continental” on a label with a “unique voice both in intonation and in vision”. Since then, music has as much as swallowed Stevens’ writing aspirations whole. His new record, Illinois, the second in the “Fifty States” series was released in July (surviving some album cover copyright issues).
“Honestly, music has been a big distraction since I moved to New York,” Stevens said. “I came here to go to graduate school, to finish the program. I worked in publishing. I wanted to write, to get published. I wanted to write novels and teach writing. And I did a little bit of that. I was sort of peripherally involved in this literary environment for a while. The music thing was always a hobby, but people were always pulling me out of the writing and inviting me to perform or record.
“At this point, obviously, it’s taken over my life. It’s my career now. So I think I have to make some serious decisions in the next few years about what I really want to do, because writing is my first love.”
Asked how exactly songwriting connects to fiction, Stevens rhetorically asks, “Didn’t they start out the same?” There, then, was a brief silence, the equivalent of one begging for elaboration.
“A lot stories and narratives were sung,” he said, finally. “The original balladeer, or the minstrel, or the troubadour, would go out and he would evoke stories through song. So I think they’re really closely aligned. And there’s the epic and then there’s the lyric—those are kind of divisions in literature—and the epic is like Homer’s Odyssey and the lyric would be like Pope poetry. The epic, I think, still had some sort of meter and rhythm and rhyme scheme and it was sung and that made it easier to remember. They didn’t have economical or efficient forms of writing or paper or any of that stuff. But I think they’re really closely related.”
As if the grand concept of his state-themed albums is not proof enough, allow the obvious to be stated: Stevens’s songs are of a narrative nature themselves; epic and with characters on Illinois alone as various as himself, John Wayne Gacy, Carl Sandburg, Superman, Ronald Reagan, and God; and let us not forget the places—Chicago, Decatur, Kankakee, Jacksonville, Peoria, etc.—for the places are, one might argue, the real stars of these creations.
“These songs are very narrative-driven and are based on stories and I think they create scenes and settings,” Stevens said. “They use multiple characters in conflict. I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision that I make. I think it’s just part of my practice and part of my habit. Right now I’m interested in narrative songwriting, and taking so many workshops conditioned me to think in terms of a narrative structure in terms of character development.”
Stevens freely admits his connection with modern American writing and this is perhaps the best way to contextualize his music; not as a genre or a descriptor but rather through the concrete parts that are the architecture of fiction—people, places, things, and words.
“I guess characteristically I’m very epic and cinematic,” Stevens said. “I think it’s because I’m conceptually driven. I’m not really sure where that comes from but I do think on a grand scale. But I also think that even small, mundane, everyday circumstances have profound, epic meaning. I think that’s characteristic of modern fiction. It’s not so abstract, not so generalized. It’s not generally about historical events, it’s not usually omniscient point of view—it’s from first person, very personal and intimate. The ‘modern American novel’ or whatever is more about a particular person and a particular setting. And sometimes it’s very mundane, like Raymond Carver’s fiction, which is just about everyday people, blue-collared workers, but it seems to somehow evoke much greater, epic kinds of things.”
Illinois is Stevens’s richest musical accomplishment to date. Of almost operatic quality, both literally (as on “Prairie Fire That Wanders About”) and through structural parallel, these songs tell stories based on Illinois history, the blunders and the glory just the same. Though in different pieces, the narrative of Illinois tells the story of a state which, for Stevens, seems to represent a piece of growth, of youth. Part of what makes Stevens’s songs so lively is his insistence to never ignore the yin and the yang of history, wrenching emotions from the dark places and also from the bright. Though Stevens obviously has a connection to Illinois the state, Illinois the record represents songwriting with fewer emotional connections than the previous Michigan, which both sounded and read like an elegy for youth, not a celebration of it.
“I think Illinois is more emphatic and less emotional and less sentimental than Michigan,” Stevens said. “It’s a broader survey. It’s more optimistic. I just think the writing, the narrative, is a little stronger. I don’t know anything about the songwriting, whether the songs are good or better or whatever. But in terms of the technique and the craftsmanship that I put into it, I think that’s a little more focused.”
When asked how he developed material and, further, how he cut it out, Stevens merely explained (laughing nervously, as if overwhelmed) that “there’s tons of material just in one county of one state to write for years,” and that there were a lot of songs cut from Illinois.
“We’re ripping off the Fighting Illini cheerleading uniforms in the live show,” he said when asked why there wasn’t a song about Champaign-Urbana (this writer’s hometown and alma mater) on Illinois. “We’re probably going to be doing some Illini cheers as well.
“And I have to say, I was rooting for them until the very end [in the NCAA basketball tournament]. I was very disappointed when they lost because I thought, ‘There go my record sales!’” he added with a laugh.
One trademark of Stevens’s compositions is the tradeoff between the poles of quiet, man-with-a-stringed-instrument pieces and songs luxuriously full of instruments, a ramshackle orchestra of guitar, banjo, strings, vocals from all registers, piano, accordion, woodwinds, tambourine, church organ, and (much) more. Such tradeoffs can be seen within records, or by comparing either Michigan or Illinois to 2004’s Seven Swans, which was released between the two and represented a more intimate and quieter set of songs.
“Usually it ends up being a question of what to cut out of a song,” Stevens said and laughed. “I have access to a lot of instruments and I’ve been playing a lot of instruments lately, so it’s usually more about what not to use.”
Stevens does, however, acknowledge the roles appropriate for each of his lead instruments (generally guitar, banjo and piano).
“I like the piano,” Stevens said. “That’s the instrument I love the most. The acoustic guitar is probably the easiest instrument to write narrative songs on because it’s so comfortable and inviting. The banjo is a real problem because it’s kind of bipolar. It has a lot of personality disorders. Sometimes you get it on a good day, when the temperature is right and the humidity is right and it stays in tune. You find these extraordinary drones or resonances that come out. You can write songs you can’t write anywhere else.”
And, of course, at the base of every song lies the words, each with its own creation story for Stevens and its own contextualization for the listener. Stevens, at the end of the day, is a writer. Even in describing his lyrical goals, Stevens goes back to the trade of the writer.
“My goal lyrically, I think, is very closely aligned to the aspirations of the writer—what the writer is trying to do and what the writer is trying to convey,” he said. “I think that’s a lot about evoking something that is true, that resonates, that’s real. Using particular details and nuances and creating a kind of dynamic within characters within a setting. You know, that feels real? That’s a real challenge lyrically because you’re limited to rhyme schemes and line breaks and all that stuff.
Is Stevens, then, a failed writer at the expense of being a brilliant musician? It’s difficult to make such a statement, especially when lyric writing is one of the most constricted facets of writing as art. To master lyrics is to have ultimate control. But this argument seems to be what plagues Stevens, what perhaps bothers him most about his professional career as a musician. And perhaps even more accurately than anything else, Stevens is making his way to becoming our balladeer, our troubadour; master of the sound and master of the word, lying somewhere between the page of the book and the increasingly lackadaisical forum of the song.
“Musically I think it’s much more nebulous and much more difficult to organize because I always think really big and feel like the sky’s the limit. I feel like I can change a time signature or the key, or I can change the downbeat and get away with it. And a lot of times you can’t do that. I have a greater vision that’s very abstract and once I start writing I’m kind of accountable to the mechanics of the song. I feel like every song has its own inherent voice. It sets up its rules and principles and you have to follow along once you start working on it. It’s a real challenge to put everything together and I don’t always do it well. Lyric writing is really hard to do.
“But, we all have so many things that we love to do. It’s a healthy tension, I guess,” he added.