National Anthems: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens
It will come as no surprise to listeners familiar with Sufjan Stevens that his latest album, Illinois, is a knockout. The album boasts a baroque complexity far exceeding that of its predecessor, Michigan, which is saying a lot indeed. Whereas Michigan, an exploration of Stevensís home state, focused heavily on first-person narrative and autobiographical details, Illinois takes a broader, more historically-minded approach to its subject. In anticipation of the albumís release, Sufjan spoke to Dusted about the creative process, the history of Illinois, and his own personal discovery of America.
Michael Cramer: Illinois sounds huge, even in comparison to Michigan, and your instrumentation is getting bigger and more complex. Could you tell me a bit about the recording and production process?
Sufjan Stevens: Yeah, it was a little bit complicated, because I donít think I was expecting to do so much. I had a vision that was very grand and epic, and a lot of times I think the songs I write on the piano lend themselves to more embellished arrangements. Some of the song started turning into Broadway musicals, with multipart harmonies, and woodwinds and trumpets. I just kind of went crazy, and I had so much time to work on it. I had four months to start writing, and researching, and record everything, so I pretty much used all that time.
MC: Did you record in a different studio than on the past albums?
SS: Yeah, I think this is the first record I recorded primarily in one place, and that was a studio in Queens, in Astoria, here in New York. I still used my antiquated 8-track recorder, which is a piece of junk, but thatís because I didnít want to use an engineer at the studio, I wanted to do everything myself. So even though I was in this great studio, I wasnít using their preamps or their ProTools setup or anything.
MC: Is everything orchestrated and written out in advance, or does it evolve as youíre working on it?
SS: It evolves. I take it sort of note by note, part by part. I usually write on one of three instruments: banjo, acoustic guitar, or piano. I feel like each instrument itself kind of induces its own principles and its own set of arrangements.
MC: Itís definitely less folky than Michigan or Seven Swans. Are you influenced at all by classical music or modern composers?
SS: I think so. I studied oboe for a while in high school, at a music school, and thatís probably what Iím most trained in. A lot of what you study is baroque music, classical music, and the repertoire for the oboe is pretty interesting. I played in a lot of wind ensembles, quintets, things like that. So Iíve been listening to the standard kind of baroque music for a long time. More recently Iíve listened to Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Grieg, whoís a great Norwegian romantic composer. A little bit of opera, but more baroque opera and cantatas, vocal cantatas. A think a lot of that informs my arrangements, and there are obvious minimalist influences, like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass.
MC: So when youíre writing, do you set any ground rules for yourself in advance, or is it just a gradually evolving process?
SS: For this one, I was going for kind of a dramatic, Broadway musical style, which was pretty broad; I could do pretty much whatever I wanted to. I wanted it to be a real survey, kind of a historical survey, but I didnít want it to be heavy with information; I didnít want it to be too political, and I didnít want it to be too didactic. So I had to somehow monitor everything with kind of a sense of self-discovery and conviction, and an emotional landscape within me, personally. That was the overall goal of the record. It was kind of ambitious from the start, because I knew I wanted it to be really big and on a grand scale. I wanted it to be almost like a movie soundtrack, but without the movie.
MC: Do you know Illinois pretty well personally?
SS: No, not really actually. Some areas, some regions, but I have very limited personal experience there. There are some particular important memories that Iíve had, around Peoria and Chicago, and Iíve driven through a few times.
MC: And of course itís right next door to Michigan.
SS: Yeah, Illinois and Michigan are kind of like sister states in a lot of ways.
MC: You mentioned that you researched. What kind of research did you do for the album?
SS: I did a lot of reading. I read Saul Bellow, a famous Chicago writer. Carl Sandburg, a now kind of outdated poet who wrote the ďChicagoĒ poem, and he wrote a very famous biography of Abraham Lincoln; itís really long and rambling, and pretty inaccurate as well. I read that, I read some of his childrenís books. I read some strange history books; thereís a historian from Illinois who wrote Frontier Illinois which is about early immigration patterns, surveying Native Americans moving out and Europeans moving in. A lot of picture books from different towns. A lot of these towns will do small runs of memorabilia, artifacts, photos, and things like that about their history.
MC: Yeah, after listening to the album I looked up the photos from the Columbian Exposition, which was pretty impressive.
SS: Yeah, that was a whole kind of classical city that was built just outside of Chicago. It was host to this Worldís Fair, it was a big deal and celebration, 400 years after Christopher Columbus. I read a lot about that, a lot about the architecture there. I found I was kind of obsessed with buildings on this record, and architecture and monuments. And war heroes, like Steven Decatur and Casimir Pulaski.
MC: What about the song about the zombies? [ďThey are Night Zombies! They are Neighbors! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhhh!Ē] Does that have Illinois connections?
SS: Yeah, you know I have a feeling that some of these thingsÖthe average listener is probably not going to pick up on any of this stuff. That is really a litany of ghost towns. Itís basically kind of dramatization of ghosts from old ghost towns being exhumed and coming to life and chanting their names. I think itís relevant because itís a quick summary of all these towns that were old industrial or mining towns. Some of them were urban centers and were really important, but then once the resources in the area were depleted, or the industry moved to major cities, then people would leave and abandon everything. The towns would collapse and then get plowed over and become farms. Iím interested in the cycle of civilizations, because where we live, itís city upon city, and civilization upon civilization. Even the apartment you live in, there were residents there before you, and they had maybe their own language, their own habits and culture, and before them, the previous generation. I feel like weíre constantly compounding culture upon culture and society upon society; sometimes societies donít last, or they move on or get wiped out.
MC: You could probably write a book to go with every album.
SS: I know, itís a little obsessive, and I understand that the average listener, the undiscerning listener, they just want to know ďis it fun,Ē ďis it musical,Ē ďdoes it have a good beat,Ē and they might pick up on things here and there.
MC: Well I think people who are listening to you are probably going to be a little bit more conscientious than that.
MC: For the two 50 states albums, so far youíve confined yourself to the Midwest, which is interesting since usually we hear from musicians who have backgrounds in either New York or California, or at least one of the two coasts. What is it that intrigues you about the Midwest?
SS: Itís very familiar to me because thatís where Iím from. Itís kind of a cultural pivot in a way. I feel like specifically Illinois and Chicago are sort of the center of gravity for the American Midwest. Chicago is a major city in the U.S., itís the third largest city, I think, and itís such a vibrant and healthy city. And Illinois generally just seems very much like a healthy, industrious kind of average American state. I chose Illinois because it wasnít a great leap from Michigan, and I feel like there are similar themes, similar cultural idiosyncrasies and characteristics between the two, but to me Illinois seems more successful in some ways, more fully realized.
MC: As a state or as an album?
SS: Both! And I donít think thatís a fair assessment in terms of the actual state or the economy. I think itís more about my own perception of the state, and because Iím from Michigan, it has kind of an emotion burden to it that deters me from having a real objectivity about it. Whereas with Illinois, there was research, and the writing of it was a process of surprise and discovery. I think my next state will definitely be in a different region, a different time zone, maybe one of the coastal states.
MC: Have you traveled extensively in the U.S., or is this project sort of a way to learn about the country, or get a sense of it for yourself?
SS: There might be a little bit of that. There are so many motivations to this project. Part of it is wanting to understand the American identity, you know, what does it mean to be an American? Which is very confusing because of the kind of personality disorders we have as an immigrant country and as a very young country. The divisions between states are somewhat arbitrary, but there are clear cultural characteristics that distinguish state from state. I find that our allegiances to states and our allegiances to sports teams are very strange and arbitrary, and make really no sense. Itís more about just picking a team and rooting for that team. But for hundreds of years, wars have been based on that concept. I guess for me itís not even as much about the U.S. as it is about myself and my imagination. The states themselves are just kind of the fabric, theyíre kind of the canvas, and they create very helpful arbitrary guidelines.
By Michael Cramer