While no one was looking, Michigan-born songwriter Sufjan Stevens quietly built a peerless catalog of records. Following a relocation to New York City, his recent Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Seven Swans have catapulted the mild-mannered Stevens to the forefront of the indie-songwriter circuit, a position he views with a healthy skepticism.
Stevens dresses his simple songs in complex metaphor and unusual instrumentation, with the bulk of the sounds - guitar, piano, oboe (!!) - played by Stevens himself. Junkmedia caught up with the songwriter on his recent tour.
After quietly doing your thing for the past few years, how does it
feel to all of the sudden receive universal critical acclaim for Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State?
"Universal critical acclaim" sounds like hyperbole. I'm not Lance
Armstrong here. But I know what you're saying, because there does feel like
some cosmic shift occurs when one goes from being insulated and unknown to
being reviewed and scrutinized by the public or by the press.
What changes? Nothing really, just a greater consciousness of my work, and that has very
little to do with me as a person. I still have to go to work. I still need
rest and sleep and several meals a day. I still have the same crummy music
equipment. As for the generous reviews, I'm really honored. I'm grateful
that people have open ears and open hearts. There's such a lot of shallow
music writing out there, but so many of the reviews of this record have gone
deeper, and I'm always impressed by how carefully people listen.
well aware that the public is a phantom. The press is fickle. I'll be shorn
and discarded soon enough. We don't maintain our usefulness by other
people's opinions, thankfully.
You've said publicly that Greetings from Michigan was just the tip of
the iceberg and that you hope to write an album about each of the fifty
in the union. Where do you see this project going next? What states do
you have in mind currently?
It's a musical road trip. The proposal is a gimmick, but I've taken it
very seriously. It's not meant to represent particular regions with
historical authority, of course. I'm not an anthropologist. It's really
about narrative, using the details and nuances of a particular place to
evoke the human condition. Doesn't that sound ridiculous! I don't know how
else to put it. I'm working on Illinois, Rhode Island and Oregon. Who knows
what will be next? I'm just as curious.
Where does your upcoming Seven Swans fall into all of this?
This is a side project recorded with Daniel Smith, from the Danielson
Famile. These are distinct songs that have nothing to do with the 50 states.
I recorded Michigan while we were working on Seven Swans. They were going on
at the same time, except Seven Swans is the first project I didn't record
myself. Daniel did all the engineering and production. I just strummed and
sang. Honestly, I never thought it would get released. But here we are.
Do you think being a Michigan native will make Greetings different
any of the subsequent releases?
Which song off of Greetings is closest to
I like "Holland" because it's a love song. I don't have many love songs.
You've recently recieved a degree in Creative Writing from the New
School in New York. Does your Creative Writing background effect your
Oh yes it does.
From looking on your website pictures and reading the notes on
Greetings from Michigan, its easy to see you've got quiet an ensemble
working with you -- I count nine players in your homepage picture. How
translate live? How many people come out on the road with you?
Those people only play with me when we have local shows. It's a real party
on stage. And a mess of bandanas and guitar cords. People falling all over
the place. It's awesome, but it's not realistic to drag everyone around like
that so I'm pairing things down for the Seven Swans tour. I'm moving ahead.
How did you hook up with John Vanderslice for your current tour?
He asked me to do these shows with him. I said OK, why not.
Tell me a little story about the name Sufjan.
It's Armenian. It means "comes with a sword." It's one of those charming
militaristic Muslim names. I guess my purpose in life is to kill and avenge.
May 12, 2004