Sufjan Stevens: The State I Am In

While Sufjan Stevens may appear to be making storybook albums about Illinois and Michigan, his personal and spiritual songs are nothing less than national anthems. By J. Edward Keyes

It’s a balmy Fourth of July weekend at New York City’s South Street Seaport in 2004. Sunscreened tourists and disaffected locals weave idly in and out of the stores that line the boardwalk, buying $7 cups of beer from wobbly carts and stretching out lazily in front of the jerry-rigged stage, which sways perilously at the end of the pier. It’s the closing days of the Seaport Music Festival, Manhattan’s annual free concert series, and that a coveted Independence Day weekend slot has been awarded to Sufjan Stevens is a testament to his ballooning profile.

Up to this point, his set has been as rickety as the stage on which it’s being performed. Despite their best efforts, Stevens and his seven-piece band (dubbed the Michigan Militia) can’t seem to replicate the knotty instrumentation and tricky time signatures found on Michigan, the 2003 record they’re here to promote. The brass section comes in late and spends several measures trying to catch up. The poor PA and unforgiving open-air acoustics swallow the sound of Stevens’ banjo, turning spare, delicate songs into ghostly a capella numbers. Adding to the surreal atmosphere is the fact that today is Stevens’ 29th birthday, and he leads the crowd through a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday,” singing “happy birthday, dear Sufjan” along with everybody else.

As the show winds down, vocalist Katrina Kerns hauls out a cardboard box from the back of the stage as Stevens leans into the microphone.

“The last song we’re going to do is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” he says, and the announcement is met with immediate cheers. “And if we’re going to do ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ then we should have a flag, right?”

Kerns clambers down into the audience and pulls about two dozen small American flags from the box, handing them to anyone who wants one. When she’s given out the last of the pint-sized stars-and-stripes, Stevens continues: “OK, those of you who have been given flags, could you stand up?” The flag bearers cheerfully oblige. Some of them hoist the banners above their heads, others keep them stock still at chest level. After a few minutes, the band starts playing.

At first, it’s disorienting. Instead of blasting out the opening cadence, Stevens begins the anthem with slow, lurching guitar chords. His delivery of the opening line is whisper-soft, and the melody has been completely inverted. Instead of starting out in the middle and somersaulting up to the high note, Stevens starts low and gets lower. He sounds defeated, and the volunteer color guard is having a hard time waving their flags to the song’s funereal tempo. The wind has started to pick up a bit, and the blue seems to have bled out of the sky completely. As the band makes its way to the end of the song, some of the flag bearers stand up a bit straighter, swaying their arms with more emphasis as the group sadly heralds the arrival of the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air.

Suddenly, instead of guiding the song into its safe, familiar “land of the free, home of the brave” resolution, Stevens executes a last-minute hairpin turn. The horns wail like weeping children, the guitar goes grim and gritty, and all eight musicians onstage lean straight into the microphones and sing at the top of their lungs:

And the flag marked with blood!
With the blood of our hands!
And our hands marked with death!
With the blood of a man!
And the man on the cross!
And the cross on our hearts!
Has it done nothing more than to tear us apart?

Within seconds, the entire mood of the afternoon shifts from simple awkwardness to severe discomfort. The people sitting on the boardwalk draw their collective breath, the faces of the flag bearers crumble in a combination of shame, dismay and betrayal. The band repeats its alarming mantra over and over and over like a group of priests performing a morbid exorcism. It’s as if someone has kicked over a giant log and exposed the maggots, millipedes and boll weevils burrowing deep into its rotting undercarriage.

A year later, Stevens recalls the incident with characteristic wryness. “There I go again with my political persuasions,” he smiles. He’s sitting on a blue plastic folding chair in Astoria Soundworks, a huge, anonymous recording facility in a quiet, residential Queens neighborhood. Stevens squirms when he talks, stretching himself out, then bunching up again, seemingly locked in an eternal struggle for comfort.

“At first I just thought, ‘Let’s do the national anthem because it’s Fourth of July weekend,’” says Stevens. “But as I was studying the verses, it dawned on me: That song is all about war. Then I thought, ‘Man, the flag is actually all about war.’ War and death are just inscribed into our nation’s history. Even this concept of having a country or having geographical boundaries; all of that requires bloodshed.”

The song Stevens is at Astoria Soundworks to record today has nothing to do with war or blood or death, but his work on it has been trying nonetheless. It’s a track for This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute To The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (which features the Fiery Furnaces, Low, Ted Leo and others). Rubber Soul, however, isn’t an album Stevens is very familiar with.

“Because I’m the great procrastinator, I was the last one to choose a song,” he explains. “So finally the producer called me and said, ‘OK, we picked a song for you if you want to do it.’ So I said, ‘Sure. Which one is it?’ He said, ‘“What Goes On.” It’s one of their best.’” Stevens rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “After I finally listened to it, I was like, ‘I can’t do this!’ ‘Norwegian Wood,’ that’s something that I would do. This one,” he sighs and shakes his head. “It’s a challenge.”

Not that Stevens has ever shied away from challenges. After one admirable-yet-unremarkable folk/pop album (1999’s A Sun Came) and one outré noise suite (2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit), he released Michigan, a record that pairs the dense, complex timings of composers Steve Reich and Van Dyke Parks with the fractured folk aesthetic of Will Oldham and Bill Callahan. It’s a vast, gorgeous work that clicks and whirs like a mechanical egg, with piccolos and flutes fluttering over plucked banjos and twinkling marimbas.

But as sprawling and technical as Stevens’ work is, the flip side is that it’s also deeply personal, even when the music isn’t his own. When asked if he can be observed while recording the Beatles track, Stevens looks horrified and refuses almost immediately. It’s as if I’ve asked to watch him shower.

In Armenian, the name Sufjan (pronounced soof-yon) means “comes with a sword.” Which seems like a strange thing for a Detroit couple to name their son. But Sufjan Stevens wasn’t named by his parents. Like his siblings, he was named by Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, the founder of Subud, a spiritual organization to which Stevens’ parents belonged.

“They were really curious about spirituality in general,” says Stevens. “They thought they were star people for a while. I think that’s where my obsession with extraterrestrials comes from.”

His parents left Subud by the time Stevens turned one and left each other three years later. For a while, the six Stevens children would spend summers in Oregon with their mother and stepfather and the remainder of the year in Michigan with their father and stepmother. Owing both to his precocious nature and the paucity of social activities for pre-teens in the Detroit area, the majority of Stevens’ adolescence was given over to books.

“I spent my teenage years acting like a 38-year-old man,” he says. “Being in a large family and recognizing the economic pressures that come because of that, there was a feeling that I was responsible for my own fate. I realized very early on that the one thing that would enable me to be a successful person was education, so I got obsessed with school and studying and extracurricular activities to keep my mind occupied because the economic conditions in our home weren’t so great.”

As Stevens was largely fending for himself, his choice of material tended to be scattershot. “I remember reading Tolstoy, which you definitely should not be reading at that age,” he says. “And I really loved Steinbeck. I loved that naturalist concept of huge, impending forces and man just working relentlessly against that. I would try to fabricate that experience through bad poetry and book reports.”

The first instrument Stevens learned how to play was the oboe, which had less to do with personal choice than it did sheer necessity. “In sixth grade, they hired a new band teacher,” he explains. “She came to our classroom and said, ‘Who wants to be in the band?’ I thought, ‘That would be fun.’ We had to choose our instruments, and I chose the cornet. But when my stepmom talked to the band teacher, the band teacher said, ‘I think Sufjan really wants to play the oboe.’ As it turns out, the oboe is a very unpopular instrument, so every school band always needs an oboe player. My stepmom ordered the oboe. When it came in the mail, I was really surprised that it wasn’t a horn.”

Stevens stuck with it, though, and was so proficient with the instrument that, in 1988, his parents enrolled him in Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, whose alumni include Jewel and Norah Jones. It was an experience Stevens found singularly revolting.

“There was a lot of posturing,” he says. “There isn’t room for experimenting or discovering your voice. It’s all about technique. You spend four hours in your rehearsal studio and two hours in your ensemble. There are people from all over the world there, but you’re all wearing uniforms.”

To relieve the monotony of rehearsal, Stevens would steal off into practice rooms to tinker around on the piano. He returned to public school the following year, getting good enough grades to eventually earn a scholarship to Hope College, a Christian liberal-arts school in Holland, Mich.

“I didn’t know anything about [Hope’s affiliation with the Reformed Church in America],” he says. “I went there because I met all the professors in the writing program and thought, ‘This is incredible.’ It didn’t require a statement of faith. I didn’t find any of that out until I was there and started meeting students who were really, really conservative.”

Stevens quickly established an identity for himself at Hope, impressing his professors with both his ingenuity and holistic approach to the arts. “I remember one of the first things he did for me,” says Stephen I. Hemenway, an English professor at Hope. “He put together a newspaper called Pain & Promise Weekly, where he used photographs and poetry and advertisements to analyze all the works that we had studied that year. I’ve taught for 33 years and have a small office. These are the kind of papers that I save.”

While he was at Hope, Stevens formed Marzuki, a folk/rock outfit named after his brother. “My friend Matt found a spare set of keys for the entire campus, so we were always sneaking into various rooms to just make up music,” he says. “We were just goofing around at first, but it evolved into a band. It was kind of difficult to be in a band as a piano player, so eventually I learned the guitar.”

“He would record these funny little tapes on a four-track,” recalls friend Melissa Herwaldt Riches. “He was addicted to themes. He did a series of songs about all the planets. He did a series of songs about the women in the Bible. He did songs for the zodiac. He was always working within these thematic structures.”

Marzuki’s audience never expanded beyond a small, dedicated cult, though, and at the end of his time at Hope, Stevens found himself stymied for a next move. Herwaldt Riches had applied to the creative-fiction program at New York City’s New School University and suggested Stevens do likewise. Both were accepted in 1998 for the fall semester.

In New York, Stevens began songwriting in earnest. “We roomed with two friends in this ridiculous one-bedroom apartment way down by Wall Street,” says Herwaldt Riches. “Sufjan was always recording and trying to get us to join in. I think because he’s a self-taught musician, he always wants to get people to try to do things they think they can’t. We all ended up doing an entire cassette together.”

Stevens’ first two solo albums—released on Asthmatic Kitty, a label he created with his stepfather—are spotty affairs, with the songwriter striking out in dozens of different directions. It wasn’t until the release of Michigan that his sound fully cohered. Like the four-track cassettes he made at Hope, Michigan is the start of a project with a theme. Shortly after its release, Stevens announced his intention to make one record for each of the 50 states, playing sonic archaeologist and using his songs to discover what he termed “the real America.” More than just a singing atlas or a social-studies project, Michigan is Stevens’ chrysalis moment, the sound of a young man feeling out the boundaries of his talent.

Over the course of its 15 songs, Stevens travels across the Great Lakes State and finds it teetering on the brink of economic and emotional bankruptcy. He lingers in Kmarts and trailer parks, sees the jobless crying in cars by the riverbanks and visits a burned-out and desolate Motor City.

“I think what made Michigan so fully realized was that it focused on a narrative,” he says. “I don’t think I really had a voice on the first two records. Michigan was the first time I started to understand the character and nuances of my voice and started training myself to sing in tune.”

The discovery yielded great dividends: While Stevens was recording Michigan, he was also devoting time to Seven Swans, an album of spiritual folk songs. Though Stevens handled all the production chores for Michigan, Seven Swans was produced by the Danielson Famile’s Daniel Smith, whom Stevens met at a 1998 festival organized by Herwaldt Riches called Christ-A-Go-Go. The purpose of the fest was, obviously, to provide a showcase for artists whose music was informed by a Christian perspective.

That last matter is something Stevens prefers not to talk about, though the Holy Spirit continually haunts the corners of his compositions. Seven Swans’ title track concludes with the ominous refrain, “He will take you/If you run/He will chase you/He is the Lord/He is the Lord.” When asked how he came into contact with Christianity, Stevens bats away questions with a simple-yet-firm “I don’t really like talking about this” and proceeds to discuss his family’s general fascination with spirituality.

“I know he really dislikes labels,” says Hope professor Hemenway. “He obviously has a lot of religious themes in his work, but if you put the label ‘Christian’ on something, it automatically targets that artist and really limits what they can do. I think he’s concerned about that.”

The other thing Stevens consciously avoids discussing is the meaning of his songs. At the first mention of his new record, Illinois, he cautions, “Don’t ask me to explain anything, because I can’t do that.” When he senses he might be getting too close to exposing the core of his tiny symphonies, he trails off into silence.

In truth, Stevens’ faith and songs are probably the things that require the least amount of explanation, because his music tends to lay things out rather clearly. Stevens is first and foremost a storyteller, and the songs on Illinois work like diary entries and yellowed snapshots from an old photo album.

Stevens’ first encounters with Illinois took place when he was at Hope. Because the college is just three hours away from Chicago, Stevens and his friends often spent Friday nights piling into vans and driving to the Windy City. “That was the first big city I’d ever been in, other than Detroit,” he recalls. “It was very exciting. I was in my early 20s, and it was my first time doing adult things: drinking for the first time, seeing live rock ’n’ roll for the first time. I think because I didn’t do some things I probably should have done when I was a teenager, I started to go through a kind of second puberty. Chicago was just an experimental playground for us.”

It’s that spirit of daring and wonder that runs wide-eyed through Illinois. The gift for arranging Stevens displays on Michigan has grown hundredfold. Songs stretch out past the six-minute mark and seem at once childlike and impossibly complex. But beneath the piano trills, shuffling percussion and bright, blaring brass is the scent of death and decay. “Jacksonville” has racial tension rattling in its skeletal structure, “Casimir Pulaski Day” is a stark recollection of misspent moments with a fragile cancer victim, and “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” hints at domestic turmoil and impending disaster. Like the twin themes in Stevens’ Pain & Promise Weekly and the bleak coda to his upended national anthem, Illinois is about the corpses rotting just beneath the manicured lawns of Middle America.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s haunting centerpiece, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” Over a plaintive piano melody, Stevens murmurs the bleak details of the Chicago-area serial killer’s doomed life. The story is told in glimpses and snatches of swing sets, crying babies and folded laundry. Instead of demonizing, ridiculing or exploiting Gacy, Stevens has done something far more devastating: He’s humanized him. Gacy’s clown makeup and bedtime kisses become tragic devices, and the canyon between his life and the listener’s suddenly seems terrifyingly narrow. Fittingly, the song ends with Stevens’ sober confession: “In my best behavior, I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

“We all have the capacity to do what John Wayne Gacy did, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise,” Stevens says flatly. “I’m recognizing that and empathizing not with his behavior but with his nature. He had such social pretense. He was loved by his community; he was really socially and politically active. He was so well-liked that it was horrifying to find out about the stuff that he’d done. For me, that’s the American identity: how we talk about the advancement of civilization and progress and how we buttress it with advertising and promotion, but there’s a huge discrepancy between that and the actual America.”

Even in a less-than-ideal America, hope bleeds over the edges of Stevens’ songs, warming the icy Michigan landscape and spilling down the streets of Chicago. It’s the emancipation that arrives at the end of “Decatur,” the face of God that appears at a dying girl’s bedside on “Casimir Pulaski Day.” In the end, the promise is always nipping at the heels of the pain, straightening the question marks and glimmering as brightly as Stevens’ cavalcade of banjos and violins.

“It’s beautiful music,” says Herwaldt Riches. “He’s tapping into something that’s hard to articulate. I see Sufjan’s music as a music of response. And any kind of response means there’s room for hope. This music is his response to the world.”

“I think in some ways I’m working beyond my means,” says Stevens. “I get a little freaked out sometimes, because I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ I love music, but I never reckoned with the kind of responsibility that being in the music industry requires. I’m always anticipating the expiration of me and my work.” He pauses, then laughs. “I guess maybe in some ways, I’m gladly anticipating that.”