Sufjan Stevens – The union of our states
When Sufjan Stevens was growing up in Michigan, there wasn’t much music in his everyday life. His stepfather had a decent record collection, but Stevens spent most of the year with his biological dad, whose sole foray into the field was, oddly enough, occasionally playing bongos along with the radio or ubiquitous Motown 45s. Nevertheless, one musical incident from his childhood impressed young Stevens.
From day one, Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yan) was convinced he was an atrocious singer. “But when I was very young,” he recalls, “we attended a Methodist church,” and one Sunday, the parish youth group was roped into performing U.S.A. For Africa’s maudlin “We Are The World”. “I remember singing the Michael Jackson part, and being very excited,” he confides, “but I also felt horrible, because I knew I couldn’t sing.”
Look at the bright side: Somebody else was assigned Cyndi Lauper’s ear-splitting interlude. “My sister had to do that,” chuckles Stevens, 30. “She had the bangs for it, so she was very confident.”
Today, much has changed. For one, Stevens’ voice, his intricate arrangements, and his finely tuned songs have made him one of indie rock’s fastest-rising acts. And while he isn’t out to feed a continent, he has undertaken a task almost as daunting — an homage to every state in the nation via 50 individual concept albums. Thus far, he’s graced us with Michigan (2003) and the new Illinois (out July 5 on Asthmatic Kitty Records).
Michigan, Stevens’ third solo album, was adorned with hand-painted illustrations of the state bird (the robin), tree (white pine), fish (brook trout), and other key signifiers. The fifteen-song set delved into Stevens’ memories of growing up in the Great Lake State. With its gently swaying rhythms, intricately layered vocals and inventive instrumentation, the album offered everything from the enthusiastic “Say Yes! To Michigan” to the mournful “Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid)”, which paired elegiac piano with trumpet and English horn.
Not all the ditties deal closely with their locales — the dark folk of “Romulus” details the strained relationship between a child estranged from his mother — but as endorsements go, it proved the utter antithesis of the strident didacticism of filmmaker Michael Moore and the yammering black comedy of Eminem.
Stevens, who was born in Detroit, admits surprise at the fond reception the disc received, from both the media (including a spread in The New York Times Sunday Magazine) and fans. “I’m as confused as anyone else,” he says. “Maybe it had to do with the concept: Narrative songs rooted in a place, a particular region, that were using arbitrary state lines as the guidelines. People found that inviting. It was very personal music, yet generous, sort of symphonic…and maybe a little timeless.”
Illinois is even more ambitious musically. More than 30 instruments and players, including a string quartet, a choir and a brass section, are featured; the arrangements hint at predecessors as diverse as Robert Russell Bennett (who orchestrated 300-plus Broadway musicals, including, appropriately, Oklahoma!) and Philip Glass at his most majestic.
Two down, 48 to go…
Stevens did have some preparation for such grand musical ventures. Despite his aversion to singing, he picked up the oboe in sixth grade and joined the school band; three years later, he was accepted into the acclaimed Interlochen Arts Academy, a Northern Michigan performing arts boarding school for high school students. His reviews of the experience are mixed.
“I went in with the thought that I would continue on [through graduation], but after one year, it was so traumatic that I didn’t want to go back,” he discloses. “Plus it was too expensive. Socially, it was very isolated and awkward. There weren’t many freshmen there, and quite a few of them left.” When his family relocated to upstate Michigan, he opted not to return to Interlochen, and though he continued to perform with a woodwind ensemble, finished out his education at a regular high school.
But attending conservatory did open important doors. Foremost, it immersed him in a humongous repertoire of music that would eventually inform his own aesthetic as a composer and performer. “I was listening to a lot of baroque music, which took into consideration the whole dynamic, the integration of sound,” he says. “Every instrument had some sophisticated part, and there were always several melodies moving at once.” He was exposed to the non-western chord progressions popularized by the so-called French Impressionist composers such as Debussy, and he pored over homemade tapes of minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley.
His year at Interlochen also introduced Stevens to another instrument: “I discovered the piano, because every practice room there had one.” Mandatory piano proficiency was not part of the Interlochen program, so the instrument retained some mystery. “It’s fortunate that I never took [piano] lessons, because I wound up with an unusual infatuation with it,” he says. “It was foreign to me, overwhelming and exciting. Physically, it was so big. And it was loud, and you played more than one key at a time.”
In college, Sufjan and his brother Marzuki formed a folk-rock group that bore the latter’s name. By then, Stevens had tired of the oboe and turned his attentions to guitar. Although he characterizes the music he made during this period as “naive,” and “ambitious but unrealized,” he also singles out positive aspects, too.
“I learned a lot about composition and songwriting in that band,” he acknowledges. “I wrote some of the melodies for the singer — although I never tried to sing myself — and I learned to play guitar in that band.” And he began to figure out how to accommodate his self-professed “mediocre level of proficiency on different instruments…into the pop song format.”
Eventually, Sufjan found himself writing more material than the band needed, so he began recasting some originals as solo pieces. “I bought a four-track and started recording,” he remembers; but, still ashamed of his vocals, he initially guarded these experiments. “It hurt my ears just to listen to myself. I didn’t know what I was doing, my intonation was bad, I was attempting melodies that were out of my range. It was frustrating.”