Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 2 of 3)
Following rigorous U.S. and European tours supporting Adz, Stevens and his band set upon the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of New York City’s Celebrate Brooklyn! summer festival on August 2 and 3 to sing the (seven) swan song of The Age of Adz tour.
Among the stage show’s inluences, Stevens cites such distinctive influences as Royal Robertson, Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. In part two of my interview with the artist, Stevens talks about his period of disillusionment, discarding his signature whispered vocals, and the prospect of alienating Illinoise era fans.
Daniel J. Kushner: Your temporary disillusionment with songwriting was fairly well documented, particularly on the Asthmatic Kitty web site. How did you ultimately rediscover the value of the song?
Sufjan Stevens: Well I think I just got fed up with my own existential quandary, and got really bored with this sort of circular, philosophical pondering and my obsession with naming things and categorizing things. I think I wasn’t so much [disillusioned] with songwriting as I was disillusioned with form, and I was really frustrated with the limitations of the song. And I think a lot of that was suffering the repercussions of The BQE and having spent way too much time investing in that project and trying to render something meaningful out of this ugly modern urban expressway. And I really wanted to challenge the form, the format of the song. And that piece, by making it a film, and making it a soundtrack, and making it a photo-essay and exposition, and everything else except for song…when it was all finished I realized that I felt really sort of creatively spent but unsatisfied, you know?
It made me really question, well what is a song? Why are we so limited by these parameters? And then at some point I just got fed up with the kind of whiny, existential questioning, and I realized that really wasn’t my business to differentiate these categories, that my role was to do the best work possible, and not try to categorize it beforehand. I also got really sick, and you know, and couldn’t write for a while, cause I went through all this crazy physical stuff, and then when I came out of that, I sort of felt kind of this necessary revitalization, and I just felt like I had a second lease on life. I was really excited about writing—didn’t even want to question it anymore.
Kushner: You were trying to reconcile the difference between song and symphonic work, or something that’s other than song, and then trying to categorize it?
Stevens: Yeah. I think I was getting tired of my creative habits, and I was trying to challenge all of that by imposing all of these other kind of variables. Who’s to say a song has to be four minutes long? And wanting it to have multiple movements within sort of one comprehensive form, and really questioning the role of the voice and the narratives, and even melody—you know, everything, I was just kind of like taking apart and over-theorizing.
And I think that generally the least common denominator of the audience—they don‘t even care. They don’t question these things. They really approach everything on instinct, whether you like it or don’t like it. Does it sound good? Does it have a beat? Does it make me feel good? Most people aren’t really too preoccupied with the kind of theorizing of music, and I actually think that I learn something from the audience, from the consumer, and deciding that the creator, the artist, doesn’t need to be so preoccupied with knowing and the theorizing. ‘Cause I think intention—an artist’s intention—is kind of irrelevant. It doesn’t have much bearing. ‘Cause I think the song—its greatest realization—becomes its own, has its own consciousness, speaks its own truths, and belongs to the listener more than it belongs to a writer.
While writing The Age of Adz, was there any concern that the record would alienate some fans of your music, particularly those who had fallen in love with the Illinoise era?
I was aware that the textures and the sonic environment was a little dirtier, more cacophonous, or whatever. I was aware of that, cause I feel like I was also extremely aware during the making of Illinois of how much effort I put into making it listenable. It’s such a populist record—there’s just so much effort in appealing to the listener, you know there’s such a kind of a pageant of sound, and it’s constantly entertaining and rewarding, and it’s just sort of a patchwork of this sort of harmonic beauty, harmonic what do you call it, I don’t know—It’s very harmonious.
You know, The Age of Adz, these are pop songs, but they’re based on sound experimentation and noise. They’re more aggressive, and even my tone of—the way I’m singing—it’s more in my throat and not always pretty. So I was aware of that, and I just felt like an imperative to experiment with these tones, and generally, I think now more than ever, I’m making music for that elite 5%—you know, the listener who’s been with me from the very beginning and understands my interest in electronic music and noise and in sound sculpting and minimalism and all that stuff. So I think that that record, The Age of Adz, is really for that listener, you know? I don’t think it’s meant to be for the casual listener who likes the song “Chicago,” which is fine. There’s no condescension at all in that remark. I don’t condescend to any of my music or to any listener. But I just am not in a season right now of feeling that kind of populist thrust. I don’t feel motivated to make things so listenable.
In the summer of 2010, All Delighted People was released, and it was really the first indication, that compositionally something had shifted, particularly in your vocals, which now seem less whispered, and much more emotive and vulnerable even. Can you expound upon that a bit?
Yeah, I think my voice is my Achilles’ heel, ‘cause I’m not a great singer and I was involved with music very early on but I didn’t start singing until I was in my 20s, and I’ve always felt really self-conscious about my voice. And I think maybe that might explain all the sort of dynamic arrangements, and the shifts in styles and fashion from song to song, and also it might explain why I use so many background singers, cause I always feel like I’m so limited vocally. But then in terms of instrumentation and arrangement and style I don’t feel self-conscious at all, obviously, ‘cause I’m kind of jumping all over the place.
And so recently, in the past few years, I decided to really be more engaged with my voice and try to be more expressive and soulful, and to kind of step up and be a singer. And I was getting tired of the kind of coy and fey whatever-you-call-it, kind of assertive innocence or sensitive whispery tone of voice—what I’ve been using for years. I sang like that partly out of self-consciousness and partly just because I was singing to myself and writing in isolation and so my singing was very kind of quiet and intimate and almost like conversational. More recently, I’m becoming more emotive and dramatic and dynamic, and even kind of trying to be more for soulful. I guess I felt sort of like I needed to be more responsible as a singer and to take more challenges, more risks vocally. Whether or not I could hit a note, it didn’t matter, like I just kind of try go for it.
And I toured with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, and she’s a singer of great facility, and she’s extremely soulful and she’s got a pretty wide range. She’s been really inspiring, ‘cause sometimes when I’ll write a line in my mind myself I always think of her, I think of someone like her. And then when I actually sit down to sing it in the studio, it’s like this kind of challenging gymnastic trick that I have to do multiple takes.
I feel like that might even be perceptible on the EP and the latest record, in that it seems that in parts some of the lines are a little more florid than maybe they were in the past.
Yeah. Less breath and more body, too, you know? I’m singing more in my throat or through my nose, and it’s a little more nasal. It’s not as beautiful. I’ll admit to it: I think it’s prettier when I sing more quietly. To me, sometimes the quiet singing feels put on, pretentious, and a little bit coy. And I really just want to be more human and more real.
NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.