Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 3 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 three of my interview with the artist, Stevens talks about striving to write the perfect song, his gravitation toward noise, and Royal Robertson and the cliche of the tortured artist.
Daniel J. Kushner: How do you feel about genre labels and their level of usefulness?
Sufjan Stevens: Yeah, I think they’re only useful in commodity, in kind of an economic sense. They’re useful in just categorizing for marketing. And I guess as listeners, unfortunately we’re obsessed with identifying and categorizing and putting everything in its place. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s necessary for our understanding of it and relationship to it and proximity to it. But for me, I guess I decided now that I shouldn’t concern myself with categories, and just let the music be its own thing, and speak for itself.
All the lines are blurred now, more than ever. The music industry’s much smaller, and I think that that gives songwriters and musicians and composers greater freedom to meander from one form to another without too much, there’s very little backlash or criticism, I guess. I wouldn’t say I’m a composer. I still say I’m a songwriter. And my objective is to write the perfect song.
Kushner: Do you think that’s something you could ever achieve?
Stevens: No, I don’t think it’s attainable but I think that the effort itself is the achievement, more so than the song. I don’t think it’s identifiable—the perfect song. The perfect song is different to everyone.
Is there anything I failed to bring up?
When I did press for The BQE, I was always shocked that nobody talked about the film, and The BQE was the film, like it was a movie, and they would talk about the music as if it was like an album. And the same thing with this Age of Adz, I’ve had a lot of conversations with writers, and they never asked about Royal Robertson. I just assumed that maybe they knew everything and they would just kind of fill in the blanks themselves.
Yeah, that’s a good point. Definitely, the album made me more aware of Royal Robertson, and then having recently seen the documentary Make, that definitely filled in some other blanks. It seems that in pretty much all of your work it’s definitely very theme-centric. I know that’s a very generic thing to say, but the music itself almost functions like a documentary in that way. And I’m wondering if that’s something you’re conscious of and of this latest focus on Royal saw you approach the way you write about subject matter differently.
Yeah, because of the emphasis on sound, and a lot of the subject is on emotional well being, or mental health and physical health, the sounds are much more kinetic and I think inspired by that, by the nervous system in the body. I’m glad that you can kind of perceive that in this music, that there is a language to the music and the arrangements that’s communicating, documenting something that’s not explicit necessarily in the lyrics. And I think a lot of listeners have a hard time managing that. They’re obviously aware unconsciously of how the music affects them, but I think that most of us are probably predisposed to hone in on the lyrics and the subject itself as it’s manifest in the narrative of the song. And I don’t know if the lyric-writing on this record is strong enough to kind of stand on its own. I think it really requires the environment in which it’s contained, the sounds themselves. A lot of that’s coming from Royal because there’s script all over his paintings and drawings, but it’s nonsense or it’s non-sequiturs, it’s grammatically flawed, and full of expletives, and he disrupts himself, interrupts himself. And you kind of have to take it all as a whole, and none of it is very appealing or beautiful necessarily as a whole. It’s all very problematic.
There’s almost this sort of duplicity in his feelings toward his estranged wife Adell. If the phrase “love-hate relationship” was ever more apt, I’d be hard-pressed to find the context. He obviously really loved her, but his work is totally infested with this vitriol against her. Do you feel that dual nature of relationships present in the album?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Royal’s a real messed up guy, and I think it’s frustrating to engage with that malicious quality in his work. It’s really frustrating. I don’t know why, I really felt akin to that in some way. I felt that I also had these issues of really longing for and desiring something, but then also feeling repulsed by it. And I think it comes out of that quality of masochism in my work, ‘cause I’m drawn to the disorder and the cacophony, and al the disruptions and the noise. And I’m drawn to all of that, and I find that as I engage with it, even if it’s an unhealthy kind of obsession with noise, that I really want to draw from it an experience that’s joyful and beautiful and satisfying. But then I often leave feeling kind of disturbed and injured. And I don’t know where that’s coming from or why that is.
You mentioned in your show last year in Toronto that the story of Royal Robertson is in part a cautionary tale about the potential “disease of the imagination.” Could you elaborate on that and how might relate to your own creative process?
Yeah, I wonder if “disease of the imagination” is just a euphemism for mental illness or schizophrenia. And I don’t know where I stand on this issue, but I sometimes feel that all creative endeavors are in some way related to mental illness or madness, because the imagination is such a kind of unwieldy, limitless environment in which one can reside for long periods of time and lose track of reality, ordinary life. I mean royal was really, really sick, and isolated for years and years. I definitely don’t have a mental illness, and I’m not autistic or schizophrenic—I don’t hear voices. But I do know that when I’m really fully engaged in writing, music, or whatever, that I do feel a kind of, like a sense of losing my foundation, like losing sense of reality, and sense of what’s kind of like normal and ordinary. I become kind of asocial and I spend a lot of time alone, and stop shaving and stop doing the dishes, kind of thing. And ordinary life becomes really disorganized, a mess. Yeah, I kind of forget about ordinary living.
Do you think that being tortured is almost a prerequisite for making art, or quality art?
I don’t know if it’s torture but I do think there’s fundamentally there’s a necessary masochism involved, especially with the kind of work that I’m doing, which isn’t natural. It’s very unnatural, and requires kind of a habit of risk-taking and a habit of running into obstacles, and there’s a kind of inherent masochism in that. And I think I get a thrill out of punishing myself through creative effort. And a lot of people I work with suffer the same kind of of symptoms of the creative willpower. I don’t want to romanticize mental illness, and I also think that the tortured artist is a cliché. I think it’s work, and effort, and you know it’s sort of our curse is to toil and labor. Creative life is no different than the sort of working class, blue collar life of labor. I feel like they’re more related than we might think.
Is noise a sonic manifestation of masochism, do you think?
No, maybe I’m sort of unethically imposing that term on the sonic environment that doesn’t really have any meaning necessarily. But I think a lot of people are really afraid of noise. There’s a sense of obligation and duty in the songwriter to arrange sounds in a way that they’re really beautiful and harmonious, and most people would rather switch to something that’s pleasing, but there’s a big part of me that really likes noise improv, and that kind of disorder. I was never really into punk rock or anything, but I would go to these shows where, back in the day when Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo would just like do feedback for an hour, and everyone would just stand there kind of simultaneously appalled, bewildered, and pleased by the whole effect. It gives you a headache, but it draws you into a meditative environment.
I think it’s the difference between listeners whose relationship to the song is predicated mainly on having a pleasant experience and listeners whose relationship to song is more about a reflection of what they’re feeling, and those feelings aren’t always particularly beautiful. Why do people like Joy Division? Is it just because they’ve come into vogue as this seminal band? I mean I guess that’s part of it. I mean their music isn’t particularly pretty. It doesn’t necessarily sound very good. Ian Curtis is not a particularly gifted singer, but it’s able to resonate because it’s so authentic to so many experiences for whatever reason.
I agree. I think you’re talking about an indescribably phenomenon that we might call authenticity or honesty or truth. I tend to use the word realness. The value, the substance of realness, of a man’s work, of a person’s craft. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just resonance as real, as true.
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.