Sufjan Stevens Interview: An Excerpt

I recently chatted with Sufjan Stevens about his new record The BQE, which will be released on October 20, 2009.  Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

For anyone, the BQE would be a lofty endeavour but, in some ways, you gravitate to this scale of artistic expression. What motivates you to take on such grand projects?

Well y’know, I don’t think I set out to make epic projects. I think the projects themselves become unmanageable in the process and I end up producing so much for a single project, that they end up taking over and becoming much bigger and grander than I’d anticipated. I never intended for this to be so drastic or extensive. In the case of the commission from [the Brooklyn Academy of Music], I was definitely working within a form. The piece itself had to exist in an opera house seating 2,000 people and fill the space visually, orally, and conceptually. So I knew I had to work within that scale and that’s why I wanted these three images, a miniature orchestra, and live hula hoopers, because I felt like that was what was required! I had the grant so I had the money to see things through. And then after the piece premiered and it came time to condense this into an album, I was really frustrated by the inability to reduce it to an LP. That’s when I started to develop more of the expository parts of the essay, and that’s when the comic book developed. So, the whole thing was unwarranted of course, but was heedlessly enraptured by this conceptual ideal or grand idea of just venturing beyond what was normal or rational to capture it, and satisfy my creative desire to have a set piece that would represent The BQE.

That speaks to The BQE but in general, you’re saying your ideas develop from basic structures ?

They’re really small. I really work on a very microscopic level. I really think in terms of the song or folk song, and I work within a very conservative frame of melody, accompaniment, and narrative. So really basic, simple forms, and they just end up becoming hybrids or amended or expanded to form greater, epic, set pieces.

In a recent interview you conducted with Shannon Stephens for AK.com’s Sidebar section, you wrote the following; “For myself, I’m starting to fear that music is far too selfish, self-absorbed, and self-interested for the ordinary life. When I’m entrenched in a project, for instance, the dishes are left undone, the bills left unpaid, the house is a mess. I become sub-human. I begin to despise all my bad habits.” Then later, you say, “I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process.” And in your essay for The BQE project, you suggest that car culture and the expressway itself really reveal the self-destructive nature of man. So, my question here is, do you think that you or perhaps all of us stuck in this moment of our cultural trajectory, are enduring a particular kind of existential dilemma?

I can’t speak for the culture at large or anyone else. But for myself, I definitely feel a kind of claustrophobia because of the excess in our culture and the availability of so much.

It’s funny that you had this little interview and it made headlines. People seemed to think you were saying, ‘I’m retiring.’

Yeah, no, I didn’t intend to say that. I would never explicitly say something like that. But I definitely feel like ‘What is the point? What’s the point of making music anymore?’ I feel that the album no longer has a stronghold or has any real bearing anymore. The physical format itself is obsolete; the CD is obsolete and the LP is kinda nostalgic. So, I think the album is suffering and that’s how I’ve always created—I work with these conceptual albums in the long-form. And I’m wondering, what’s the value of my work once these forms are obsolete and everyone’s just downloading music? And I’m starting to get sick of my conceptual ideas. I’m tired of these grand, epic endeavours, and wanting to just make music for the joy of making music and having it be immediate and nothing to do with the industry itself, which, y’know is suffering right now of course. And I think it has to do with a creative crisis too. I’m wondering what am I doing? What is a song even? I’m questioning, what’s the point of a song? Is a song antiquated? Does it have any power any more? The format itself—a narrative song with accompaniment—is really beyond me now. Like, I feel that The BQE is not really a song, it’s not really a movie, it’s not really just a soundtrack. It’s so ambiguous and diversified, it seems to lack shape. And the expressway itself lacks shape, so I feel like it’s all related to this existential crisis: Me versus the BQE, or me versus my work, y’know? And I don’t think I can win; I feel like it’s a losing battle…

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56 thoughts on “Sufjan Stevens Interview: An Excerpt

  1. [...] blogs, Sufjan displays a kind of cultural technophobia. Viz this line from a recent interview by Vish Khanna (via [...]

  2. It would be somewhat difficult to create something for the consumption of other people. Yes there are good things about it – such as: touching people and inspiring them somehow. But it IS consumption and there is a sort of intimacy that is missing or lost in the process. And in a way its unfair to the artist/creator, since he or she gives, but recieves no similar love in return. One can have “fun” at a show performing, or feel “joy” while singing with others. But we’re talking about intricate landscapes of personhood (aka a living heart) handed over to the unknown. Its great it does so much goodness for the unknown, but one can imagine how this process could wear on someone.

    While I think giving songs to the public is a noble endeavor, one may find more salubrious life re-focusing away from this model of giving to a seeminly selfish unknown.

    WE could find inspiration in other artists, but then again the intimacy problem is not solved.

    Perhaps we should love someone in particular to love and give to them. Otherwise, we all just live inside inescapable walls. I’m beginning to think that is the case more and more.

    That there is us and there is God, and that’s it. As strange as it is for me to say this: well, sometimes that gets lonely.

  3. [...] there had been no hint of a followup to his 2005 album Illinois. According to an interview with Exclaim’s Vish Khannam, after completing that masterpiece, Sufjan found himself in the middle of an existential [...]

  4. [...] the last year or two, which seemed to be a pretty rocky transition period for him as an artist. In late 2009 he did a really telling interview with the website vishkhanna.com in which he says the following: “I’m tired of these grand, epic endeavours, and wanting to just [...]

  5. [...] the last year or two, which seemed to be a pretty rocky transition period for him as an artist. In late 2009 he did a really telling interview with the website vishkhanna.com in which he says the following: “I’m tired of these grand, epic endeavours, and wanting to just [...]

  6. [...] months) was shocking after Stevens had spoken cryptically about losing faith in the album and the traditional pop song.  It’s not surprising that one of the most prolific living songwriters would hit a wall at this [...]

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