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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

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More Adz and Ends: Sufjan Stevens Bonus Interview

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In the course of publishing an interview, editing is inevitable. My recent three-part interview with Sufjan Stevens is no exception. In this post comprised of discussions that didn’t make it into the interview proper, the artist talks about the music of Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Shara Worden–who will open for Stevens at his August 2 concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park–architecture,the term “composer,” his perspective on contemporary music criticism, and more.

Daniel J Kushner: Your music has been appropriated for a wide variety of music purposes, as string quartet music, hip-hop samples, and also as ballet music. Does this extrapolation of your work s inform how you think about what you do?

Sufjan Stevens: Yeah. I mean, I think that music has a function, and we forget that it can have mutiple functions and it can be site-specific…And I think there’s something very iconoclastic about going into an H&M store and being accosted by techno music or dance music, because I think that that’s a misuse of form. The form itself, it’s meant to engage with movement and bodies, and you know, the dance floor. And we go in the restaurant, and there are these speakers everywhere and they’re imposing this music on us. And I think that we’ve become even careless in how we do music and exploit it, and it’s part of this constant soundtrack. So I think about function a lot.

One of the reasons why I don’t like to play outdoor festivals is cause I think there’s something really sacrilegious about blasting sound through a huge PA system in an outdoor environment. There’s something very environmentally irresponsible about that, you know? There’s something very strange about that that I’ve always had trouble dealing with. I like to think that music can have multiple functions but should always be sort of deliberate and responsible and sort of accommodating to each environment….I don’t think as a society we’re ever going to grow weary of music. I think it’s always going to be valuable. It’s funny, cause I think of architecture as being vital. Architecture is this sort of discipline in creating space which [sic] we inhabit, and architecture matters more than anything else because it’s all about physical matter that covers us. We live in these rooms, in these spaces.

Music has no physical matter at all, it’s just waves, I guess. I don’t even know what it is. It’s just waves. And yet emotionally and psychologically it matters to us probably far more than architecture. I think people have more opinions and allegiances to songs and styles than they would to architecture, for some reason. And I don’t know why that it is, even though it doesn’t matter—like physically doesn’t have matter. It still matters more to people. It’s a mysterious thing.

Kushner: I wouldn’t ask the question about labels if it didn’t seem so relevant. In talking to contemporary composers, it just seems to be this ever-present issue that some people really take personally. Is it contemporary classical? Is it indie classical? There are all these terms floating out there that people choose either to utilize or avoid. It’s a really perplexing problem without a real answer. The label itself doesn’t say anything or explain anything about the music itself.

Stevens: Yeah, well music journalism and music criticism today is pretty sloppy and irresponsible with language, and there’s actually no accountability in terms of the kind of flagrant labels they use. There are a lot of run-on lists of descriptors and modifiers that aren’t usually very responsible. And I think I’m less interested in these descriptors and modifiers than I am in concrete nouns. I think if you’re going to call something what it is, you should use a noun, because a noun holds up better…

[Writers are] really desperate to kind of describe something, but they describe it as a list of modifiers that are constantly cross-referencing or alluding to previous work. It just feels very kind of insular and circular and reductive….it makes for really clumsy prose, cause as a reader you have to wade through all those references and there’s no concrete terminology on which to stand so that as a reader you feel confident about the subject at hand. Maybe it’s just an inherent problem in music journalism or writing about music, because music doesn’t have shape or form—like you said, it’s ephemeral. It’s extremely subjective, and it’s a mysterious phenomenon, and the desperate need to categorize is indication of how mysterious music is.

Kushner: I was wondering what you thought of the current music scene in New York, particularly the Ecstatic Music Festival?

Stevens: [Shara Worden] did a My Brightest Diamond show with all new material…I was kind of blown away by Shara’s new songs because they’re really exuberant and very generous and dynamic, and they were very confusing too. I was having that conundrum, that labeling conundrum, wanting to to reduce it to a formula, form or term, and afterwards I was just baffled by it all. And I kind of liked being really confused. Some of it was like weird 60s Gospel/Broadway theater, there was like a theatrical element to it, there was dance. Some of it was just real simple folk, but then it had all these really kind of dense wind arrangements, tone colors and flourishes. But then it had these big fat beats too. It was very beat heavy, and it felt kind of like poppy and hip-hoppy. She’s becoming more soulful…I was really confused by it all, but where her other previous stuff has been very focused, you know? She was doing this dark gothic rock thing, and all this new material is really turned away from that and is much more dynamic, more joyful.

Kushner: It seems like she’s emerging into the most natural version of her creative self, or a fuller representation of her creativity. I think that was the nature of that festival as a whole. I think if you walked away confused in terms of how to categorize something, it’s probably a good thing. For me, this happens in your music too. In the cases of songwriters like you and Shara and others, I don’t really separate composer from singer-songwriter. I think you’re all composers who happen to use song as your medium of choice.

Gustav Mahler is a composer, but he’s most well known for writing songs. Technically, he was a songwriter, but no one refers to him as a songwriter. I don’t know what distingiuishes someone from being a composer or not being a composer. I don’t make that distinction, but as we’ve determined, that distinction doesn’t matter so much.  [Editor's note: Upon initial publication, the quote contained in this paragraph was incorrectly attributed to Sufjan Stevens.  This quote was in fact spoken by the interviewer.]

Stevens: Who cares what I think, too, because I think that my hesitation with the term composer, it’s like personal hang-ups with the connotations of that word, composer and composition. And my instinct is to dumb down what I do. I always just want to keep it simple. People ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I write songs.” They say, what kind of music, and I just say, “Pop music.” End of conversation. It’s such a vague, kind of all-encompassing term, but it’s good enough for me.

Kushner: Is the connotation of the composer that it’s too complex and not accessible enough?

Stevens: Maybe, that it’s too important, more important than I’m willing to concede.

Kushner: Maybe music somehow feels more personal [than architecture]. You can take ownership and make it your own more than you can take ownership of that great building you walked by. I think that’s what it is, at least in part…

Stevens: An object, just by the nature of its physical being, resists possession in a way because it’s an object, you know. You can’t carry around a building obviously. You can’t possess it, in a way. I guess you can own it, like real estate, but that’s short=lived anyway. Music is nebulous. We talk about intellectual property of music, but that’s just politics. I don’t know what that means. That’s why I really believe that the song sustains its own consciousness and is dispossessed of its owner, and then it basically yields to the multitudes of listeners, of consumers, and everyone owns the song.

It’s such a relief for me to acknowledge that because I feel far less possessive of my own music, and I feel lest earnest and less despairing about its worth, or its value, and more willing to just make it, create it, do my best work possible, and then give it away.

Kushner: Precisely because it never belonged to you to begin with?

Stevens: Yeah. It’s not concrete so it doesn’t feel like I own it. It feels nebulous.

Kushner: The implication that you’re presenting is really interesting, which is that the physical things that one can make into a commodity or possess, those are the things that you actually can’t control, and it’s the things that seem totally intangible and unattainable, and those are the things you can really own. I think that’s a really epiphanic thought. It’s kind of revelatory, and it flies in the face of our culture for sure…

Stevens: We’re born into this world naked and screaming, with no possessions. And we leave in the same way, you know? We can’t take it with us. All we have is our bodies and our souls and that’s it. I don’t even think our bodies are our own. I think that’s just borrowed. So give it away, that’s what I say. Give it away.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 25, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 3 of 3)

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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.

The Age of Adz; photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

Get Real, Get Right from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

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.

Sufjan Stevens in the spotlight; photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 2 of 3)

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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.

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Sufjan Stevens and band performing "Too Much;" photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

"Vesuvius," Age of Adz tour; photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

"I Want To Be Well," Age of Adz tour; photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 1 of 3)

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It was eleven short months ago that Sufjan Stevens effectively returned to songwriting. A five-year hiatus had separated the venerated indie singer-songwriter/composer from what many considered to be his last “proper” studio album, but in late August of 2010 he released the All Delighted People EP, an album-length appetizer to the feast of idiosyncrasy that is The Age of Adz, released two months later.

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 Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. I recently spoke with the artist about his theatrical stage show, pre-concert Quiet Craft Time, and what he learned from the Michael Jackson movie This Is It.

The center of gravity is really [outsider artist] Royal Robertson. We kind of go off on a lot of tangents, but really his design and his aesthetic is the foundation on which we’ve built the whole show.  

 –Sufjan Stevens on The Age of Adz show

Sufjan Stevens Concert Trailer: Age of Adz / Prospect Park from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Daniel J. Kushner: Did this past tour feel different to you compared to past tours?

Sufjan Stevens: Yeah, it actually did. [indistinct] I feel like I kind of designed the show as a way of communicating more than the music communicates on its own. And I think in the past I’ve always just like made the record and then the live show was sort of struggling to present the song in the best way possible. And I think for some reason, this tour, it felt like the songs were kind of more fully realized on the stage, at some points, than they were realized on the record.

Kushner: Does that mean that your intention for the record is larger than perhaps the medium of a song can encapsulate?

Stevens: Well I think the music in some ways is finite, and it communicates multitudes on its own, but it’s still very self-contained and limited. And then the show became kind of an experimentation [sic] with multiple mediums….We kind of turned it into theater, in a way, like multimedia theater, for better and for worse.

It seems that The Age of Adz live show is very much like experiencing a live music video, particularly during songs like “Too Much.”

Yeah. The video stuff, with the dancing and the kind of graphic, Tron-esque neon kind of laser lights—those were all created for the show, but we ended up posting some of it as like a music video because it was…I never really had done a music video before, so it felt like a lot of times the show itself was like that—it became a live music video ‘cause there was all the dancing and the choreography and the lights were all really kind of designed and everything was kind of fabricated.

How did you settle on neon gaffer’s tape as part of the aesthetic look of the tour?

That kind of happened midway through the American tour, ‘cause I think the U.S tour, the first two weeks were really just a trial run, you know we were still working stuff out, like live rehearsals. And this was the first tour I had a pretty fundamental production crew…they use gaffs to mark positions on the stage—instruments and objects….I remember at one point we just started putting it on our bodies because the lighting designer was using black lights, and it just looked really cool. The girls were really well costumed, but the rest of us were kind of thrown together. The costumes weren’t really fully realized, and so halfway through the tour, when things started to get kind of ragtag, we started just taping everything together with gaff tape, and it just kind of turned into its own thing.

So it wasn’t just an aesthetic choice, but a practical one as well?

What happened is that people in the band had some time before the show and there was gaff tape lying around, and they just started taping up their arms and their legs and putting tape on their shirts…at some point we realized that there was like a good 20 to 30 minutes of like Quiet Craft Time per stage. Once they got their parts down they would spend more time on their gaff design than they did, you know, during soundcheck, ‘cause we had the music figured out, so we just spent most of the day using gaff tape.

David Stith (background) and Sufjan Stevens (foreground) in full regalia; photo by Josh Higgason.

The costumes have gotten considerably more elaborate as the tour has progressed. Can you talk about the evolution of this concert element?

I mean it’s the same show, it’s the same music, and generally it’s the same video, but it’s become a lot more dramatic and more choreographed. The dance is a lot more developed, and movement—we’re just much more confident the way we move….I think what we realize is that this is actually theater, and even though it’s just pop music and it’s still me just up there singing, and I feel like ultimately I’m a folk songwriter at heart. I feel like this material has a kind of dramatic, dynamic quality that requires a real suspension of my own kind of suspicions of theater.

It requires us to engage with the theater element of it, and we just decided to own it. We watched the first half of the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, and it’s about all these dancers, and they’re trying out and rehearsing to get into this show; and they’re really young but they’re really committed, and they’re just wholeheartedly invested in this project, and we kind of took inspiration from it and decided that we weren’t going to be coy about this. We weren’t going to be ironic about it. We were just going to own it, and engage with the kind of psychological theater and try to make it as big as possible….

It was the dancers, you know, they’re being interviewed, and this is before Michael Jackson’s death, and there’s a kind of hysterical allegiance to the form, the dance form—the language, the dance language that Michael Jackson created in his lifetime. Those people know it so well, and they’re committed to it and want to be part of it. And the enthusiasm is really inspiring, cause I think a lot of people in my camp—there’s a kind of lackadaisical aethstetic. You don’t want to try too hard, you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard. There’s kind of a sense of paying allegiance to what’s natural, and usually what’s natural should be sort of easy and instinctual. But I don’t know, my whole school of thought is pain—through pain and work and willpower, and through constant challenging and discomfort, that’s how I sort of engage with my work.

The Age of Adz Bliss-Out; photo by Josh Higgason.

Will the Prospect Park concerts be the last time people can see the stage show that is The Age of Adz?

Yeah, yeah, it’s the finale. We’re going to retire the show, and I’ll move on to something else. I don’t know what though.

Do you have any idea as to what might be next for you?

I don’t know. I still feel like I have a lot to learn in the realm of sound experimentation, and I think I would like things to get noisier and weirder nd more distressed and more aggressive, but I don’t know if that’s something that would be suitable for public consumption. It might just be like a private exercise in which I spend time alone making all those sounds, and then at some point get back to songwriting…my imperative or my objective is songwriting. And I think it’s safe to say that The Age of Adz is a bit of a tangent away from songwriting. It’d be nice to kind of return to songwriting again.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

DM Stith: Sufjan’s Kindred Spirit

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Yes, Sufjan Stevens performed a headlining show at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Wednesday. But there’s another artist deserving of discerning music fans’ attention, and he had a big hand in the Toronto gig’s success.

 

Sufjan Stevens and DM Stith.

 

That artist is David Stith, Sufjan Stevens’s friend and Asthmatic Kitty label mate. Also known as DM Stith, he is both a gifted singer-songwriter and an accomplished visual artist, whose work has been featured in cover art for the albums of fellow musicians such as My Brightest Diamond. On this much-anticipated tour, Stith serves both as the opening act and as a member of Stevens’s 10-piece backing band.

As a member of Stevens’s cohort, Stith is more than a complementary fit.  His voice–while similar in timbre to that of Stevens–has a slightly nasal edge, with the ability to switch effortlessly between chest voice and head voice.  When Stevens goes into his falsetto, it’s more noticeable.  Where Stevens has had a softer vocal lilt that can seeem cooly detached somehow (particularly during theIllinoise era), Stith projects a singular instrument of piercing vulnerability.

As a solo artist, Stith presented himself much more than admirably on Wednesday.  His brief four-song set showcased above all his remarkable voice, and his ability to craft songs with a potent emotional core  that swells and grows vivid before the listener’s ears, but somehow is slightly beyond  our earthly grasp.  His music represents something “other.”

While I generally disapprove of making overt, obvious or heavy-handed comparisons between artists, I’ll take the risk here with the hopes of providing a greater context for where Stith finds himself in the current indie singer-songwriter landscape.  Stith’s guitarwork, melodic choices, and vocal phrasing are all similar to that of Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen.  But Rossen almost always sounds timid, like you’d have to beg him to let the song out.  In stark contrast, Stith possesses a quiet presence, but clearly has something to sing about and needs no coaxing to convince him to let it out.

And as a vocalist, Stith has astonishing control.  In its fullness, his voice is as joyously combustible and melismatic as Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors.  Stith’s falsetto is stiff competition for Sigur Ros’ Jon Thor Birgisson in terms of sheer ethereal ecstasy.

Compounded by his use of a looping pedal, Stith amassed a veritable chamber choir by stacking his own voice on top of itself in harmonies that evoked a hallucinatory mix of sorrow and hope.  This effect was perfectly exemplified in his performance of “Thanksgiving Moon”:

It’s interesting, though–as I listen back to that clip, he sounds a lot like Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. With all those comparisons now floating around out there, Stith still sounds distinctly like himself. I would contend that his “otherness” is quite singular. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

Here at the end of this post, however, I do have a definitive conclusion: Like Sufjan, David Stith is a truly gifted songwriter who channels his artistic savvy into heartfelt and sincere expression.

 

A kindred duo.

 

Written by winebrick41

October 15, 2010 at 4:51 am

Sufjan Stevens Live at Massey Hall, Toronto 10/13/10

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Here it is–the Sufjan Stevens concert, in review:
  • A quick disclaimer: Before I begin with my recounting of the Sufjan Stevens concert at Massey Hall last night, I must preface it with a little background on how Stevens and his devoted fans have gotten to this point October 13, 2010–the beginning stage of his first real tour in support of his first “real album” (quotes emphasized) since 2005. Proper context is definitely needed in order to understand the importance/implications of the concert. And as you’ll read later in my review, Stevens seems to think the album and tour need to be contextualized for his audience as well.
  • Very special thanks to Richard Mah, a fellow concertgoer who has kindly contributed his  bird’s-eye view photos of the concert from our seats in the gallery for the purpose of this concert review.
  • Also, I’ll be devoting a separate post to DM Stith’s opening set.

 

Stevens's 2nd tour stop in support of his first "proper" album in 5 years.

 

THE PREFACE

Sufjan Stevens is not who we thought he was. We, the general music public and followers of his artistic career, had by and large pegged him as a gentle singer-songwriter with the hushed melodic voice and penchant for writing chamber pop songs with grand orchestrations to embellish his folk-influenced tunes. He was the musician who leapt into the independent music spotlight during the middle of the last decade, captivating listeners-by with the prospect of the impossibly grand delusion of grandeur commonly known as “The 50-State Project.” His goal–to create one album for each of the 50 states in USA–was simple enough to understand, but in practice, it was surely a painstaking process.

Stevens was the songwriter who, after the release of his second “states” album, Come On and Feel the Illinoise in 2005, and the subsequent b-sides record The Avalanche, temporarily set songwriting aside to complete a symphonic song cycle/film for chamber ensemble called The BQE, which was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Subsequently this same Stevens shocked his fans when he revealed on more than one occasion that The BQE project had effectively drained his desire, and perhaps ability to write songs. One notable, somewhat infamous quote from the man himself during a 2009 interview he conducted with fellow musician Shannon Stephens on the Asthmatic Kitty web site is as follows:

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. Now, while I refuse to act wholly on this impulse (I refuse to take my audience for granted in spite of my mood), I’m still trying to find the value of the song in private. Having spent ten years in private (not sharing your music), can you offer some wisdom on this matter? Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?

By the time an album called Run Rabbit Run by the string quartet named Osso– a re-imagining of Stevens’s 2001 electronic song cycle/ode to the Chinese zodiac Enjoy Your Rabbit–was released in the fall of 2009 on Stevens’s own Asthmatic Kitty record label, the once-prolific musician’s future in songwriting was still in serious doubt. But Run Rabbit Run (a collaborative effort between several musicians, composers, and arrangers, commissioned and curated by Bryce Dessner of The National, and sanctioned by Stevens himself) also signaled that the Michigan native created music that aspired to be more than just a collection of catchy songs.

With the release of the nearly 60-minute “EP” All Delighted People and The Age of Adz (pronounced ODDS), his first “proper full-length album” in five years, Stevens demonstrates that he is actually a contemporary composer (of the indie-classical persuasion, if I have to put a label on it, which I don’t, but will for the sake of basic identification) of high order, who happens to use songs as his principal medium. If I recall correctly, Gustav Mahler also picked song cycles as his compositional poison (just a sidenote of interest).

There are those who have followed Stevens since the 50-States Era who seem somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps perturbed at the prospect of The Age of Adz, an electronics-laden fantasy which has been interpreted by some as a huge departure from the acoustic guitar/banjo-driven songs of much of Stevens’s earlier catalog.

I couldn’t disagree more with this opinion. When placed within the larger context of the songwriter’s entire catalog, The Age of Adz is the perfect amalgamation of Stevens’s focused yet grandiose folk-influenced songs and his quirky electronic bliss-outs. Because this is not an album review per se, I will leave it at that.

 

Massey Hall, dimly lit.

 

THE REVIEW

First order of business is the setlist, which was as follows:

  • All Delighted People
  • Heirloom
  • Too Much
  • Futile Devices
  • Age of Adz
  • I Walked
  • Now That I’m Older
  • Vesuvius
  • Get Real Get Right
  • Enchanting Ghost
  • The Owl and the Tanager
  • Impossible Soul
  • Chicago

Encore:

  • Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois (Sufjan solo piano)
  • John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (Sufjan solo acoustic guitar)

*If anyone has any corrections  in regards to the setlist that I may have missed, please let me know.

 

Stevens and band basking in full light.

 

Stevens opened the set with “All Delighted People,” a nearly 12-minute epic that officially heralded the songwriter’s return to form when it was released this past summer. Immediately, the chills hit me. From its choral a cappella beginning to the earnest emoting of Stevens’s voice, newly imbued with yelps, cracks, and a front-and-center vulnerability (one central lyric plainly states, “I’m still afraid of letting go of choices I’ve made”), to the bombastic collision of razor-sharp strings, screeching electronic distortions, triumphal brass, and the unabashed pounding of drums–this track shows Stevens at the height of his powers, able to cultivate deeply intimate and personal moments alongside uber-epic textures that make even Stevens’s past work seem small in comparison.

The performance itself was imperfect in its delivery, but that in no way detracted from the power, humanity, and immediacy of the work. At one point, the line “I love you from the top of my heart” escaped from Stevens’s mouth with a poignant croak. Meanwhile, countless suns, planets, stars, comets and other nondescript celestial bodies bounded across the scrim via video projection behind the band.

It was clear from the start that Stevens’s focus had gone cosmic, way beyond the quaint close-ups of U.S. state locales and stories of historical interest.

Second on the set was the acoustic guitar-centered “Heirloom.” “This is to lift up your spirits after all that drama,” explained Stevens. It is here that I would like to note perhaps the one weak characteristic of the set. While Stevens, to his credit, courageously focused almost exclusively on new material, he seemed insistent on alternating the more upbeat electronic tunes or loud, grandiose numbers with the quieter songs, so that by the fourth song, “Futile Devices” the patterning of song sequences became repetitive and predictable. That being said, if that’s the only aspect of the concert to take issue with, then ultimately, there’s nothing about which to complain.

In an abrupt change of moods, the band quickly fell into the groove of “Too Much” with exuberance. Here the audience was treated to a live music video of sorts, as a rapid-fire succession of images depicting Stevens and others dancing and rocking out the hipster-chic cool factor.

Thanks to trendaway for this excellent video footage of Stevens and co. performing “Too Much.”

 

"There's too much riding on that."

 

By the end of the song, both music and video have devolved into a kind of trance ritual that felt primal and animalistic. Stevens would later relate that “Too Much” was riding on the prospect of love–what he called “the great theme…the great migration of the human heart.”

Indeed the explanatory between-song talks Stevens had with his audience were frequent and heartfelt, all the while seeming to function as exculpatory evidence that the composer was not in the wrong for taking so long to produce new music on a new, more personal theme for himself-love.

Stevens expounded on the overall concept of The Age of Adz:

“The drama queen that I am…I’ve confused heartache with the end of the world. The apocalypse is the end of the heart. Thankfully, the heart is a very strong muscle.”

Title track “The Age of Adz” felt nothing short of prophetic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to elaborate on what I mean by that. It will have to wait for another post, in which I’ll point out the correlation of the above song and the album for which it is named to a book by Jacques Attali called Noise: The Political Economy of Music.

I will say that the song “Age of Adz” is indicative of the entire album, in that Stevens has reclaimed his familiar backing choruses and festive chamber-band instrumentation, and transported them to a more immediate, jagged and imposing musical landscape. The song is also emotionally brazen: “When I die I’ll rot/But when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got…Gloria/Victoria.”

The live performance of Stevens and company, like the studio performance, is somehow both existential and cosmic, personal and intimate but also infinitely large and overwhelming. The sonic textures are filled to excess with distortion, an utter cataclysm of sounds.

“Vesuvius” started out quietly but with insistence and later builds as static keyboard riffs pierce the chorus at the song’s climax, where recorders lend a provincial yet empowering sense of the human spirit. “Sufjan, follow your heart,” the song implores.

It should be noted that both the thematic content and visual look of both the new album and the resulting tour owe much to Royal Robertson a 20th century sign painter from Louisiana whose lived a tortured life as he succumbed to his all-consuming artistic obsession with the apocalypse, time travel, and alien creatures. Stevens studied the artist and the twisted reality he made for himself, and created The Age of Adz in part as a tribute to his influence. But as Stevens told the Toronto crowd at Massey Hall, Robertson’s story is also about the potential “disease of the imagination.” He dedicated the song “Get Real Get Right” to the deceased visionary artist.

 

Imagery from The Age of Adz.

 

Another highlight of the night was “The Owl and the Tanager,” perhaps the most gorgeous, deeply sorrowful song in the Sufjan Stevens catalog (which is saying a lot)

Near the end of the set, Stevens led the band in 25-MINUTE “song cycle” called “Impossible Soul”. In addition to being a frontrunner for most excessive Sufjan song ever, the live rendition last night gave me the opportunity to witness something I never dreamt I would see, hear, or write about: SUFJAN STEVENS USING AUTOTUNE! (it’s also on the recording) But don’t despair–it was fun, and in the context of the song’s indulgent pop aesthetic, it was perfectly appropriate. It seems almost obligatory these days for every recording artist to do at least one song with AUTOTUNE. Hell, if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver can get away with it, so can Stevens.

Before ending the evening’s set with “Chicago,” the only song representing the Illinoise album up to that point, in a heart-to-heart with the concertgoers, Stevens confessed with sincerity and humbleness, “It’s a great privilege to bring my bizarre vision of song and dance to you.”

In response to a resounding and incessant call for an encore, Stevens returned to the stage alone to perform two more favorites from his 2005 breakthrough record Illinoise. “Please forgive me as I cover my own songs,” he entreated the crowd. And the crowd readily obliged him, as he delivered a touching version of “Concerning the UFO Sighting…”

 

"Concerning the UFO Sighting..."

 

Somewhat puzzlingly, Stevens ended the night on a dark note, closing with “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” an utterly macabre but startlingly beautiful song about the infamous serial killer. It surprised me that he would choose to have that song be the last thing his fans heard before they walked out into the rainy Toronto night. Perhaps, it was a reminder to both himself and his audience, that in the end, “I am really just like him/ Look underneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid.”

Ultimately, I think it was a subtle ego check, a way to put things in perspective. Illinoise and the charming acoustic albums that immediately preceded it seemed to cause an organic response among Stevens’s fans to indulge in the myth of Stevens as the consummate, epic songwriter who could do no wrong and would always continue writing, until each and every U.S. state had an album devoted in its honor. Perhaps we projected unreasonable expectations on the artist, we pegged him as a savior of sorts for indie music, the de facto leader of grandiose, no-stone-unturned pop songs that were exhaustively researched and impeccably written.

Now having rediscovered his compositional voice, Sufjan Stevens seems to be taking personal ownership of his craft, and not hiding behind gimmicky 50-state concept albums (the artist’s own opinion) or third-person accounts. No, this is Stevens, the composer of  beautifully complex, meaningful songs and master of his own creative destiny.

 

Sufjan Stevens during the encore.

 

Written by winebrick41

October 14, 2010 at 10:49 am

Toronto Roadtrip/Sufjan Stevens

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The only activity I enjoy more than going to live concerts is taking a roadtrip to see and hear live music out-of-town.  Much time has passed since I’ve done both, so I was totally due for a last-minute, mini-roadtrip.  Tonight, Sufjan Stevens will play the magnificent Massey Hall and Toronto, with singer-songwriter/visual artist DM Stith opening.

Image from Wikipedia user Nephron.

My grandfather used to say that “it’s all in the anticipation.”  That’s only 90% true.  The 10% comprising what actually happens, and how that does or does not live up to said anticipation–well, that’s pretty important too.  I’ve attended a show at Massey Hall before (the incomparable Sigur Ros), but I’ve never seen an official  Stevens show.  I’m pretty sure a screening of The BQE hosted by Stevens himself doesn’t count, I don’t think.

Anyway, a review is definitely forthcoming.  I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are too.  I won’t go into the details of Stevens’s career or why the gig is special right now, but I’ll hash it out in the upcoming post.

As a really intriguing sidenote, Osso’s 2009 debut release Run Rabbit Run–a collaborative reworking of Stevens’s electronic cycle Enjoy Your Rabbit for string quartet–has become ballet music.  Specifically, the New York City Choreographic Institute (co-founded by New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins) will present a new Justin Peck Ballet at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in November.  That’s remarkable news, and I just might have to find my way down there for that.  Further proof that great art is great art, no matter what label, genre, or time period it which it finds itself encased.  The glass will be broken sooner or later, and there’s no telling what will happen once the priceless piece gets into the hands of the public at large (metaphorically of course-no actual theft is being advocated here).

Once again, Pitchfork has proven itself to be an excellent source for independent music news, even if I don’t always agree with their reviewers.

Also, I wrote a feature story for The Brooklyn Rail last year about Osso’s album Run Rabbit Run and what the whole creation process was like. You can find that article, “Rabbit REDUX: The Music of Sufjan Stevens for String Quartet” here.

Catch you all after the Toronto gig.

Arcade Fire performing at Toronto's Massey Hall.

Written by winebrick41

October 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm

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