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Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens

Wednesday 2nd February, 2011 1:28PM

Sufjan Stevens became an indie darling following a string of excellent albums such as Michigan and Seven Swans, and which culminated with brilliant 2005 album Illinois. However, Stevens disappeared for a while – made some films, a Christmas album, and an hour long EP. However he finally re-surfaced (in terms of an album) with his excellent 2010 album Age of Adz. Eschewing the 50 state album idea, the album instead explored electronic and acoustic sounds, unusual structures and instrumentation (including an "autotune concerto"), and continued his idiosyncratic approach to characters and ideas.

I thought I'd start off with a basic question, why music?

That's a good question. I don't think I can answer that. I think music is sort of inherent in all of us, and we're all very musical. But for me it probably had to do with school. I went to a Rudolf Steiner school when I was a kid, and they really cultivate the arts and music at a really young age, probably why I picked it up.

After Illinois, you had so much hype and discussion, and it felt like writers only focused on a few things – like the fifty state project and your religious background – did you find you lost a bit of control of your own persona with all that was being written about you?

It's true, but persona is an illusion. It doesn't exist outside of myself. It's definitely becomes at that point a plaything of the public. I did kind of lose control, but I think I was kinda the culprit. You create your own persona and as a performer you're meant to imbibe the music, and that requires you take on a character.

I guess in your songs you take on these characters, is there something pleasurable in taking on these different personas?

Yeah it takes you out of your ordinary life. My life is very boring so that's exciting. It allows you then to speculate and invest and scrutinise from another perspective. I don't know. Even when I'm speaking from a first-person point of view, it's still a persona, still someone else.

You've obviously speculated with some extreme figures – John Wayne Gacy Jr., is it tough taking on these figures and trying to humanise them, even equate yourself with them?

I think it's my job as a song-writer. I spent a lot of time in writing classes, and writing workshops. One of those approaches you have in writing is empathise with your characters and become fully entrenched in them, physically and emotionally. So the role of the writer is to bring to the surface the fullness of the characters' voice. The songs have this purpose as well. They're meant to embody someone else and something else and bring it to the surface.

The Age of Adz took a long time to come out, especially after Illinois, was there a reason for the delay – you obviously had other projects

I did work on other things. I worked on the BQE, which is a long film about an Expressway in Brooklyn.

And you had your Christmas project

Yeah I did the Christmas stuff, and I produced some other people's music. But then when I really sat down to work on new material. It was unwieldy, and boundless and unmanageable. For the actual songwriting process, it had been much slower than it had been in the past. And that's why it took so long.

Did you lose a bit of confidence following the hype you had from Illinois?

The hype didn't really mean anything to me. I think what really threw me off guard was that I decided to do away with the normal approach. I decided with the Age of Adz I didn't want to start writing songs on the guitar, the piano or the banjo. I wanted to base it on sound exploration. A lot of the songs are built on processing and sequences, and running things through filters and pedals and stuff. I was using a lot more electronics: keyboards, and drum machines and things. I wasn’t as comfortable with that format. It took a lot longer to finally reach a point where I knew what I was doing.

I guess you were kinda going back to [2001 album] Enjoy Your Rabbit with the electronic stuff

Yeah, I was going back to how I worked with that. But the problem was that I wanted them to be songs. With Enjoy Your Rabbit, it was like this meandering, programmatic electronic record without any singing. On this record I wanted there to be songs. I made all these rhythmic structures and I had everything sequenced on the computer, but I didn't know how to incorporate my voice. It was really hard.

Did that take a fair amount of time to figure out?

Yeah I squirreled a lot of stuff away. I realised once I really tried to impose the songs on the improvisational environment, I realised the voice is the key and the listener is really drawn to the human voice. A lot of stuff I had to throw away because it wasn't accommodating to my voice.

Do you find this album a challenge live?

A little bit. My singing on this record is a little strained. It's a lot more forward. That was a deliberate decision. I didn't want to be so precious and breath-y when I was singing. I felt like I needed to sing louder to be able to be heard above all of the noise. It is a physical challenge in the live show for sure.

Did you in hindsight enjoy the freedom of not having to structure the album around a concept or particular research?

Yeah. I guess I really enjoy being liberated from structures. The songs are much more emotive and impulsive, and there is something really primordial about that. It's physically more satisfying to be on stage emoting like a teenager. There's a hormonal energy to a lot of this music that I really appreciate in the live show.

There's a strong contrast between the acoustic and electronic instruments – it sounds kind of fun in terms of production

Yeah. I don't know what my problem is. I definitely have a bi-polar disorder, a multiple personality disorder. I don't think I've ever been really constricted by aesthetic or genre. A lot of this music is of embracing the confrontation between harmony and cacophony. Those things become bedfellows, they make a good pair. I really like the way they interact.

How useful was the BQE in setting a template for being able to compose for something which isn't tied to specific song structures?

That project was a really good workshop. I had a better understanding of the orchestra and all the roles of the instruments. I think on the Age of Adz, they were much more idiomatic and streamlined and efficient than they were on Illinois. The arrangements have more of a playfulness to them. They're just much more efficient. I think I learned a lot of that from the BQE.

Did it help confirm that with MP3s and the internet, you can challenge the length of a song and the length of a piece of music?

I think that's a major impetus in my music is trying to push myself and push the boundaries and challenge the definition of a song.

Are there still the material challenges? [25 minute long album closer] 'Impossible Soul' would have struggled to fit on a vinyl side, or there are still the CD limitations?

Impossible Soul is sort of the worst case scenario. It's so rambling and meandering, and it has all these movements and yet I feel like it's ultimately a pop song, a three minute pop song. It has all of these manifestations.

Was that a hard song to compose and to perform?

Yeah it is sort of the centrepiece in the album. It definitely had a lot of challenges, because it's sort of structured like a symphony or a concerto. It's one piece but it has multiple movements. Even though it's a pop song and it's very dance-y, it still has an old world classical aesthetic. In some ways it requires the micromanagement a composer would have for a piece with an orchestra.

I'm not sure I ever imagined concerto, orchestra and Autotune would be used in the same sentence…

[Laughs]. It's everything you know. I still have that desire to do what Wagner called the "complete work". I want the song to contain the universe, and the universe to be contained in the song. It's an impossible task, an impossible goal, but I'll die trying.

The art comes from Royal Robertson – what interested you in his art and in him?

I think his mental illness was fascinating to me. He had schizophrenia, and these visions, and I think the vastness of his imagination was really inspiring to me. He didn't seem to limit himself for his resources. His source material was the Bible and po rnography and the comic books and books on the Occult, and he mixed all of this stuff together and he created this new language. He really believed he was this prophet and he was called by God to warn people of the apocalypse. Also what I found fascinating was the confrontation between the naïveté of his work, and then the sophistication as well. There's something very primitive and juvenile and schoolboy about his work, but his ideas are also very sophisticated. There's this incredible scholarship – he's very well read. In the end he had this amazing imagination and he had this illness. A lot of that worked its way into the record because the record is about illness, mental illness and physical illness, and about sensation and the imagination. I confuse heartache with the end of the world and apocalypse with love, and all of these things become mish-mashed, combined into this one sensory experience. I felt an affinity to Royal because I felt that his work and his life had that vivisecting, frenetic energy to it.

It sounded like he had major contradictions – he had a very dark side to a lot of his art

Yeah, his art is very angry and vengeful and misogynistic. He was estranged from his wife and his children. He felt really guilty about kicking his family out of his house. He kicked his wife out – he accused her of cheating on him – and he never really recovered from that. I think that a lot of that vengeance towards her is cloaking his own guilt, concealing his own guilt about how he dealt with that situation. I think there's a kind of self-destruction, masochism going on. His anger towards the world is only explained by his own sense of guilt.

I read that you also had a mysterious illness in the lead-up to the album – is it quite hard going back and listening to this album, realising that this music was working through this illness

No not really. I had this funny virus which was creating all sorts of problems with my nervous system, and I had to see all of these specialists and go through all of this physical therapy. It took months. I think the record meditates on that, on illness and disease. I think that the music has a kind of life to it, an energy to it, that's actually very enriching and encouraging. So I don't feel a sense of dread when I have to play these songs. I feel like they're built on rhythms and movements and they have a real physicality so I think playing them is maybe a process of healing.

Brannavan Gnanalingam