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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 replies on “Sufjan Stevens Interview: An Excerpt”

Sufjan, your music will always make an impact. You have seen to it that it will by putting everything you can into it. If you feel this way then I will gladly and proudly wait for your album to release and go buy it. To me it seems like most artists these days have zero heart and don’t deserve to be waited for, you are not amoung them.

Music that matters comes from the heart, body and soul. Sounds like Sufjan is stuck in his own head. The promotional conceit of an album for every state, the overwrought explanations for simple songs etc. etc. – all suggest he needs to loosen up. Get into the physical world, make visceral music, and can the pseudo-intellectualizing.

Sufjan, whether or not you actually end up reading this… I don’t care. But do you really think that the music industry is really suffering right now all because of free downloading? I can not say I feel the same way. The industry may seem like it is currently in a state of disarray, but to me it feels like much needed fresh air – almost a musical renaissance. The world wide web is simply adapting to the delivery of music – a change from the once all-powerful, bland corporations. Is this not the sort of thing that you love and drives you? If not I am truly sorry, for I see your impact on the current state of music as nothing less than astronomical.

Cheers

“I’m wondering what I am doing?”

Have faith in the wonder. Modern conceptions of music are simply new forms, and a form is not the beginning of the end. It is simply a shape.

“Loose my hands to use my heart.”

Stop worrying about what will hold its own, and start focusing (again) on who owns it to begin with.

Hi Tim.

I’m primarily working on a large article for the next issue of Signal to Noise but you can also hear this entire interview when we air it on the Mich Vish Interracial Morning Show in the next few weeks. There’s a whole section devoted to our show on this site so keep an eye on that for when you can stream/download it.

thanks,
vk

Sufjan, The point is to express whats deep inside of you.It is a noble endeavor.

Let me tell you what I feel when I listen to your music. A Godliness on earth!

The unity of instruments and notes in your art shows us all what could be if only the world would mimic it’s unity as one.

Your the only artist I know of with the ability to mix electronic / classical / folk / and beautiful poetry, all in one.

If you feel down… it’s only natural. Our greatness is always matched by our challenges and I’m sure a great mind such as yours knows this. But this is how we grow!

See the light! Pull yourself out of the Lull… for the dark places in our mind are more dangerous then any villain! Although…great pain does sometimes create great beauty.

Look, this past year I found myself in Jerusalem walking from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre all the while with your Christmas music running through my headphones. It was YOUR music that drove me into a spiritual high beyond description!

Now how many song writers can say they have been able to send their listeners into a mystic trance? How’s that for the point of a song?

Live, Love, Laugh, Give, Sing, Unify, Inspire, Grow, Create. This is how one lives a Godly life. Need I say again… A noble endeavor!

to ethan:

i agree that the new music industry is a breath of fresh air… for music. today’s music is more dynamic than it has ever been, I think. and the MUSIC itself is doing great because of all this free sharing.

however, it’s really inane to think that the INDUSTRY isn’t hurting because of illegal downloading. it’s an industry, and no matter how much you’d love to believe that the modern world can survive on love alone, if you take money out of an industry, the industry suffers.

Sufjan doesn’t need advice (and he’s not asking for it as far as I can tell). He’s just an artist who constantly needs to justify what he’s doing to himself and I’m glad to be privy to his struggle.

I think it’s great that he’s pondering these ideas. They should be pondered. He’s totally dead on with every one of those sentiments in my opinion. The music business and everything that goes along with it and the way people make and release albums feels like a dog chasing it’s own tail. We need newness. Go Sufjan go! Ponder that shit man. I support this kind of thinking. He seems like he’s not content with just doing things the same way they’ve always been done. He wants to find something bigger and more meaningful and that’s great.

These structures (lps, operas, etc) are only as meaningful as we make them. I’m glad to read that Stevens is struggling with questions of meaning and personal involvement in the practice of music. Hopefully it will lead to work which can satisfy both his and his audience’s interest. Even if it means an end to his work in pop, at the very least he will have walked away before composing by rote.
It is worth noting however that the task of fifty albums never seemed accomplishable, even by an artist with a Zappa-like work ethic. Perhaps this represents an end to that style of showmanship, and a beginning of some serious artistic examination? I wish more popular artists would have the guts to take a leap off the deep end…

The man is a serious artist. This sort of self examination should be expected and appreciated by his admirers. I’m just grateful that he has punctured our lazy culture and made any mark at all.

no my friend, when you take money out of an industry the music does not suffer – it flourishes. It is when you put money in does it become diluted and tainted. This is why I like to think music is currently doing doing so well.

@ Ethan – forgive my rudeness, but how the hell does music get better because no one’s paying for it? In short, isn’t your position that “people should make things for free, out of the goodness of their hearts, so that I don’t have to pay for them!”? That is a little ironic, if you ask me. If you don’t pay your artists, you’re essentially saying, “art isn’t worth anything to me – it’s not even a real job! Go get a day job like everyone else, you’ll still have time to make art!” If music meant a thing to you, you’d pay money for it. We pay for things that matter to us… and furthermore, if everyone gave out their music for free, no one would ever receive proper recognition for their work. Like it or not, money is how we reward people for doing things well. When someone doesn’t charge any money for something, our subconscious assumption is that it doesn’t have worth. If you gave a damn about musicians, you’d pay for music. If every artist gets a day job, no one has much time for art. I pay money as a sign that art is valuable to me and I don’t think that should happen.

Furthermore, Sufjan is talking about the degradation of the artform, And how albums/musical creations more than a song long are suffering in the digital age. I think this is hard to deny, and I think furthermore that it’s impossible to argue that art that people pay money for is somehow inferior to the alternative. If you really believed that, you wouldn’t even know who Sufjan Stevens was.

“no my friend, when you take money out of an industry the music does not suffer – it flourishes. It is when you put money in does it become diluted and tainted. This is why I like to think music is currently doing doing so well.”

I love it when people say “I like to think that…” It’s like saying, “look at me everyone! I’m fully detached from reality!” Just because you say something, or “feel it in your heart”, doesn’t make it valid. So in your opinion, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, The Beatles… every one of them was just “tainted”, I suppose? Every artist you listen to… their music is tainted because they make money from it? Or is it just the act of actually paying the asked price that does the tainting? I’d like to know, just what the hell else are you spending this money of yours on, Ethan? Are you saying that wanting to get paid for something is evil? “How dare you charge me money to plumb my toilet! You should do it out of the goodness of your heart and your love for your fellow man!” Well, if you loved *your* fellow man, you’d pay them what they ask, in acknowledgment that, just maybe, they can do things for you that you’re not capable of or don’t want to do. I think this applies as much to making you think and feel as to fixing your plumbing.

i have to respect Sufjan’s artistic predicament- at the same time, his contribution to our collective musical body is so powerful and angelic, i miss his pop folk songs and hope that he meanders back soon.

Harrison: calm down.

I’m a musician and I am thrilled to be living in the age we’re living in, where music is inevitably going to become free.

Ten years ago, the record industry thrived off of album sales. Well, people aren’t buying albums anymore, they’re getting bits of data off the internet. I don’t go to stores and steal CD’s off the shelves, because a CD is a physical package that you hold in your hand that you pay money for. Music itself, however, SHOULD be free, and was free for many many many centuries before our jacked-up consumerist society decided it was worth $14.99.

I understand what Sufjan was saying about the album itself possibly being a dying art form, but that’s the way it goes. But you know what else is happening as a result? Lots of little artists are getting a fair chance in a system that was completely controlled by the middle-man for over half a century. And artists like Sufjan are still making their big fat pay checks from playing fantastic concerts. You can’t download a concert, so no harm done.

Why don’t you pick up a real cause? There are children being sold for prostitution. You’re an idiot.

[…] Whi­le he makes i­t­ clear he’s n­o­t­ ret­i­ri­n­g, St­ev­en­s do­es say­ he’s “si­ck o­f­ [hi­s] co­n­cep­t­ual i­deas” an­d wo­n­deri­n­g what­ hi­s so­n­gs mean­ i­n­ li­ght­ o­f­ hi­s “creat­i­v­e” an­d “exi­st­en­t­i­al” b­at­t­le. O­n­e he f­eels he’s lo­si­n­g! T­ho­se n­ew so­n­gs suggest­ o­t­herwi­se, Suf­j­an­. Rea­d­ it. […]

some of us are struggling to make even one song. dreaming of the day when we have one song were proud of. of having our music heard, praised, respected. some of us dont care how, just that it happens somehow.

so while i get it, this all sounds like spoiled white people problems and he just needs to suck it up.

Wow. He’s such a genius. Maybe He needs to go on holiday. What he creates is so enlightening and inspires to continue in my music endeavor. God bless him.

So what about those of us who still enjoy listening to full albums? Why just give in to the current trend of downloading songs by not creating albums? Shouldn’t it be preserved?

“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.”
The proper term for this is, “The Frustration.” You’ve got to be foreign to a very exclusive crowd to understand it, but excepted into the creative-pro-clique. People born into it don’t know the frustration they cause. I’d rather be Bartleby than the Scrivener than one of the Frustraters.

Honestly, I think that all the excess or NYC is probably getting to him. Perhaps a good long sabbatical to somewhere rural would do some good. Breathe the air, listen to the birds, play the banjo – it’ll do ya wonders.

Music has not always been free. Did you know that Handel’s Messiah was written as a desperate attempt to save the guy from poverty? It worked, too.

Also, I think it’s pretty silly to tell me to “adopt a real cause” when you actually bothered to argue against me, and it’s silly to criticize Sufjan for having “spoiled white problems” when you yourself have the time, ability and desire to read interviews with all your favorite indie musicians. There’s no need for hypocrisy here.

To be clear, my argument is not with artists who want to make their music free, but with consumers who won’t cough up a few dollars when asked. It’s not just a product of our “consumerist society” that we charge money for music – it’s a result of the artists’ wishes, and so if you respect them very much, you’ll pay them for what they do for you, if they ask you to. I think it’s very fair for someone to use their talent and hard work to make a living doing something they love to do, no matter what it is – it’s all in whether you can get people to pay you for it, and I don’t see how it’s wrong to want to be paid. Also – if performances are to you the only way for a musician to legitimately make money, I have to disagree. That doesn’t make any sense. Some musicians I like very much barely tour at all, and I think it’s wrong to say that somehow they don’t deserve to earn a living simply because they care more about producing a recording, a lasting piece of art, than performing. And to say that that recording SHOULD be free… I simply don’t understand. How is it fundamentally different from a book? A film? Should those things be free as well?

As I said, where we put our money is an indicator of what things are of value to us.

Also, the “lots of little artists are getting a fair chance” argument, I must object to as well. Getting a fair chance at what? A career? Not really. Renown? Among a couple of thousand people, perhaps. If anything, the internet has made it more difficult.

Hi. Thanks for posting this interview excerpt. I posted a link to this on my company’s Microcinema Facebook Page, so more fans can read about his Sufjan’s current thoughts. I hope that is okay. Just in case you didn’t know, Sufjan Stevens’ “The BQE” is an Asthmatic Kitty release now available through Microcinema DVD. To order this DVD and/or other titles distributed by Microcinema, go to: http://www.microcinemadvd.com

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A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

-Chinese Proverb

Reduce it to the simplistic bare bones and the meaningless is saturatingly meaningful.

I feel it.

I would just like Sufjan to know that he is one of the most phenomenal persons. I just want to be his friend and talk to him and play “immediate music” with him. So Sufjan, do whatever you feel you need to do. My heart would break if you stopped sharing your magnificent music with us. But I think that you have every right to do whatever you like. You are a genius, you deserve it.

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