Music News

Altered States

For Sufjan Stevens, everything goes back to Bigfoot.

As a young boy, Stevens was asked to do an oral report on Oregon for a social studies class. While doing his research, he came across a book on the frightening furry phenomenon and decided to incorporate it into his assignment. When he presented his report, including a map labeled with all Bigfoot sightings from the previous twenty years, his teacher informed him that the information was not appropriate. Stevens disagrees.

"To me, it's just as valid as Lewis and Clark or the Oregon Trail," he points out. "Even though it might not be fact, it's part of the mythology of the area."

That interest in local folklore ultimately led Stevens to his current "50 States" project, an attempt to create fifty albums devoted to a thorough exploration of each one of the states. It began with 2003's Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, a largely personal paean to Stevens's home state and his upbringing, and continues with the sprawling Illinois, an album that takes the World's Fair, Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne Gacy and much more into its panoramic scope.

Stevens's musical ambition was first apparent during his high school years at the Interlochen Arts Academy, where he chose to study the oboe, believed by many to be the most difficult instrument to play. He later learned to play the piano by ear, and before long, he was composing small concerti that he calls "Reader's Digest versions of Grieg and Rachmaninoff." But it wasn't until the irrepressibly musical Stevens began to learn guitar in college that he started to write pop songs.

On Illinois, the songwriter's long history of musical exploration is in evidence -- loud and clear -- as he plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano, organ, bass, drums, oboe, sax, flute, banjo, glockenspiel, accordion, vibraphone, recorders and percussion and incorporates elements of American folk music, baroque music, Broadway musicals and more into a rich and unpredictable sonic blend. If Iron and Wine's Sam Beam had an unhealthy obsession with Stephen Sondheim, the result might sound something like this. Spare, haunting folk songs such as "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." share space with heavily orchestrated numbers like "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" -- and sometimes, as on the banjo-and-choir-filled "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!," disparate styles and instrumentation exist within a single track.

Although Illinois is fundamentally an indie-rock album, classical orchestration techniques are especially apparent in its instrumental interludes, such as "The Black Hawk War, or How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!" Beyond the music itself, there's also a spiritual affinity with certain twentieth-century American composers, specifically Aaron Copland, who spent most of his life capturing the ever-changing American spirit in his pieces. Like Stevens, Copland frequently punctuated sparse, simple passages with grandiloquent orchestral treatments.

And yet, for all its musical and thematic grandeur, Illinois still manages to be an intensely personal record. Stevens not only did his research, but he found bits of himself in song topics such as Gacy, Chicago and Superman.

"I'm thinking about information and misinformation," he explains, "and storytelling and the assemblage of history. We think of history as being very linear, but usually it's very carefully shaped to evoke a particular story."

In this case, the history of the state of Illinois has been shaped, in part, to evoke the story of Stevens himself. "I'm just interested in the ordinary human being," Stevens says. In examining the working-class people and experiences that populate his songs, he concludes, "This is my family and who I am. Their conflicts are interesting because they're very mundane in some ways, and about the struggle for fulfilling basic needs, but they also represent profound universal themes that can have an almost supernatural meaning."

Even the song titles on Illinois, some of which are over fifty words long, convey a personal meaning for Stevens. "It's an explicit indication of my struggle with nomenclature," he reveals. "I find it incredibly hard to summarize an entire historic event with a title or catchphrase." For Stevens, trained as a writer, this sensitivity to the power of language permeates his songwriting approach. He cites the Black Hawk War as an example: "Why do we call it a war and not a genocide?"

A hefty question, to be sure, and an indicator of the earnestness with which Stevens approaches his work. "My sisters used to tease me when I was fifteen that I was like a 35-year-old man," he recalls. "I wasn't rebellious. I was very studious and very pragmatic."

That same earnestness guides the way the thirty-year-old Stevens manages his career in the rather un-serious world of the music business. In addition to his artistic work, he also helps run the Brooklyn office of Asthmatic Kitty Records, a small imprint whose home office is in Lander, Wyoming. The label is a cooperative economy of sorts, existing to support artists and keep the proceeds within their network.

"I think it's really important to keep things at a modest level, never work beyond your means, and to be responsible and accountable for everything," he says. "I worked at Time Warner for a couple of years as a designer, and I felt like I was just one more mechanical piece of a large infrastructure that was very greedy and had no accountability to me or my interests, and so I had no accountability to the company.

"When you're doing everything yourself," he adds, "you can still be responsible and accountable and make mature and mindful decisions."

For Stevens, that means being aware of where and how his CDs and T-shirts are manufactured, choosing promotional activities very carefully and creating an environment at Asthmatic Kitty that supports musicians artistically and economically. As his own label's breakout star, Stevens is very much aware of the importance of his success to his labelmates. Speaking of the critical acclaim his recent works have received, Stevens says, "I think it's important to respect and receive it with as much earnest joy and graciousness as you can muster." He's also keenly aware, however, that his current high profile could diminish at any time.

"I'm very conscious of the fact that public opinion changes," the songwriter admits. "Even if there's a surge of interest, you can't feel required to keep working up to that level, because you'll exhaust yourself and those around you. And then you have to downsize."

But Stevens has no intentions of scaling back. After all, he still has 48 more states to cover. "I don't think it's realistic," Stevens concludes of his project. "I'll probably do about ten states before I run out of ideas. Then maybe I'll start commissioning other younger, more creative bands. But I'll own the rights, just like Tom Clancy. You know, Sufjan Stevens Presents Wilco Performing Alaska."

Wilco might need some help filling Stevens's big shoes. Maybe they should give Bigfoot a call.

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Eryc Eyl
Contact: Eryc Eyl