I recently caught up with Sufjan Stevens by email to talk about his latest record, Illinois. The album follows on the heels of Greetings from Michigan as the second installment of his ambitious 50 States project, and it offers one man's view of the Land of Lincoln, starting down in Highland with the possibility of alien life and making the rounds before finishing up in the sands of "Little Egypt." Along the way and through various characters, Stevens celebrates Casimir Pulaski Day, has an existential crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze, and attends to the "very good reasons" Mary Todd Lincoln "went insane." Having grown up in Florida, I'm a newcomer to these parts and, accordingly, have a lot to learn about them. Fortunately, in his stories, Sufjan Stevens has a lot to say.
There's more happening on this album than a mere exploration of the history and geography of the Prairie State, though. As Stevens explains in the interview that follows, he's concerned about commercial capitalism, the relationship between artists and their work, and how we connect to where we are and aren't from...
Gapers Block: The lead-off song on the record deals with an alleged UFO sighting down in the southern part of the state. As a first impression, what does that tell us about the album?
Sufjan Stevens: Because America is a nation of immigrants, it seemed appropriate to begin with a supernatural visitation. My parents were certain, in the mid-'80s, that they were Star People. This would make me an alien offspring, so of course I've always been obsessed with outer space. Who isn't?
In general, the Illinois record gives an overarching survey of the history of civilization in that particular region, from the Cahokia Mounds to Native Americans to European immigration to the Industrial Revolution. I needed to step back and get a view from the moon, so to speak. I figured that an inquiry into the civilization of mankind requires the most objective vantage point, namely that of an alien. We are all aliens here.
GB: You obviously did a lot of research, and I wonder what stories you may have found compelling but that ultimately didn't work as songs or didn't make it on the album.
SS: I wrote four eulogies for Abraham Lincoln, and only one short instrumental made the cut. The man who "discovered" Pluto is from Streator, and this would have fit in with my extraterrestrial obsession, but it just didn't work out that way. I wrote a jumpy number for the supercomputer in Champaign, but eventually cut it. Saul Bellow was an important muse, but I found him too fussy and articulate.
As grand and epic as this record appears, it is actually very carefully hewn. It was essential to have a particular vision and to reconcile every element within that vision. So much was left out. I ignored all the prevalent and popular themes — sports teams, the Mob, etc. I tried a song about Springfield, a song about Pittsfield, a song about Carlyle Lake, the largest man-made lake in the country. These things just didn't fit with the rest of the album, so I cut them.
GB: This editing you mention reminds me of recent press about a wave of "literary" songwriting. Give us your thoughts on that notion — whether it's even valid — and talk a little about how you fit in.
SS: I'm not the authority on trends. My advice is: wait 50 years and see what remains, what continues to resonate, what unearths itself. By then there will be an objectivity of language, breathing room for the historians. Our culture in particular is too quick to apply terms to immediate phenomena; we hardly give ourselves the chance to experience something in the fullness of being before we begin to endorse taglines and catchphrases — willfully and haphazardly — which often conceal the truth behind anything. I find this a little bit irresponsible.
Now, in terms of literary songwriting, I still believe that at the crux of every song is a narrative. The past 50 years have introduced a trend of simplifying and scaling down, so that the song no longer evokes a complete narrative but casts a primitive survey of catchphrases and clichés. I use the short story formula: observational detail, sensory language, landscape, setting, and character development. Sometimes I think every song needs a point of conflict, a crisis, a climax, a denouement. These are structures of literature, of course. But maybe it's because I'm so old school.
If there is a literary trend, then what's driving it? Well, there's certainly enough illiteracy in this culture to react against.
GB: On "Come on! Feel the Illinoise!" you've punned the title on Quiet Riot, while at the same time engaging the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Tell us something more about that connection.
SS: It's originally a Slade song, actually. [ed. note: Stevens, with an impeccable sense of history, is right: British act Slade recorded the song in 1973; it wasn't until a decade later that Quiet Riot took it to the U.S. Top Ten.] In terms of the connection, there is none, really. I was just being silly. There's so much pedantic subterfuge on this record, and historical two-stepping, cross-referencing, cultural theory, Marxist criticism, and on and on, that I just wanted to give the reader a little bit of comic relief here and there.
It's not completely unfounded. The World's Columbian Exposition was just one big promotional fiasco, an expensive advertisement provoking all the senses. I wanted to compound all of that to a single pun.
GB: In a strange paradox, even as it describes sexual molestation and murder, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." has the most tender sound of these songs. What do you see going on in those lyrics?
SS: I made a concerted effort to scrupulously evoke the series of events which led to his crime, and, considering the circumstances, that was not a pleasant task. In all the crime novels I'd skimmed and in all the news clippings I read, there was a deliberate obsession with finding the source of his depravity. What went wrong, everyone asked. What made him this way? Was it his abusive father? Was it a head injury? A doting mother?
I'm less interested in cause and effect, in terms of human iniquity. I believe we all have the capacity for murder. We are ruthless creatures. I felt insurmountable empathy not with his behavior, but with his nature, and there was nothing I could do to get around confessing that, however horrifying it sounds.
Looking back, I see another thing going on here. It's no mistake that the song follows a 9-minute diatribe against the pretenses of commerce, advertisement, and bad art [namely, "Come on! Feel the Illinoise!"]. John Wayne Gacy embodies the crime of disguise in the most human way possible.
GB: These songs seem less autobiographical than some of your previous work, the Michigan album in particular. How should we read this record in relation to you as an individual who is also something of a tourist? In other words, where does Sufjan Stevens position himself in the milieu of Illinois?
SS: Even native Illinoisans will approach this record as tourists, because everything's been rendered through a particular imagination that naturally transcends reality. While a few songs make actual references "on location," for the most part, this is an album of geographical displacement. I've had quite a few exceptional and traumatic experiences in Illinois, a few times when visiting Chicago at a particularly difficult time in my life or driving cross country and being pulled over by the cops just outside of Peoria. One song references a camping trip near Savanna, another song parades through Jacksonville, but, alas, I've never been to these places.
The album renders fact and fiction equally, extracting particular events from my life, my memory, and transplanting them in the landscape of Illinois. It was a daunting task, let me tell you. But in some way, it feels more genuine, more reliable, than anything on the Michigan record, because I put so much more work in conveying the emotional landscape using a precision of language.
For the record, I would not confuse the voice of these songs, even those in first person, with the voice of my person. In all art, there is a clear division between narrator and author. I just heard a theory on the even more ambiguous division between writer and author. The writer is the inventor, the designer, the creative force behind a body of work. The author is the actual man or woman, in reality, in society, in person. I like Woody Allen the director/writer, circa 1975, but I doubt I would like Woody Allen the person, circa 1975.
GB: Related to the idea of place, when you toured behind Michigan, you sometimes brought a map of the state and you often provided stories to contextualize the songs. Do you foresee a similar live treatment of the Illinois material?
SS: I think the map was a bit clumsy and one-dimensional. I was desperate to create a visual context, especially when playing in Europe. This time around I'd like to wear cheerleader uniforms and run the show like a pep rally, you know, with pompoms and megaphones and human pyramids.
GB: You've obviously absorbed a lot of state history. After all that, which Illinoisans might get Sufjan Stevens cheering the loudest?
SS: Saul Bellow is my favorite Chicago writer. Abraham Lincoln is my favorite mythological figure. In terms of musicians, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman.
GB: The album itself devotes six seconds to something of a pep rally, recorded as "One Last 'Woo-hoo!' for the Pullman." Any feelings about Pullman railcars that the clapping doesn't convey?
SS: On some level, this record dramatizes the cause and effect of industrial capitalists like George Pullman or Andrew Carnegie. Pullman designed a more comfortable sleeping car for the railroads, as you know, but his urban planning balked. It was feudalism all over again. He did a lot of damage for the sake of capital gain. Our disdain for capitalism today has been commodified by people like Michael Moore and documentaries like The Corporation. But it's interesting to see how these issues began to simmer early on. There has always been tension between entrepreneurial enterprise and ethics. Perhaps because wealth and power rely on the subjugation of man, and man is not always willing to go along with that. Pullman's ambition for an ideal, efficient society did not necessarily take into account the convictions of the human heart, or the human soul. Every society suffers from a similar disease.
I'm not sure if six seconds of clapping convey all of that, but I just didn't want to bore everyone with a rambling indictment. It's that comic relief thing again.
GB: Last question: any Illinoise-making parties in the works for Chicago?
SS: We're thinking of playing a show at the Metro. We're thinking of maybe doing some cartwheels on stage, if there's room, if there's health insurance.
Did I mention the human pyramid?
Illinois (also known as Sufjan Stevens invites you to: Come on feel the Illinoise) is released on July 5 by Asthmatic Kitty Records. True to his word, after this interview, Stevens scheduled a date for the Metro; he'll be there September 16. No word yet on the gymnastics.