By Mark Guarino
Fact: The official snack of Illinois is popcorn.
Fact: Illinois State Senator Paul Simon (1928-2003) did not write the song “You Can Call Me Al.”
Fact: Illinois is a Native American word meaning “tribe of superior men.”
Sufjan Stevens will say he prefers living in New York City over Chicago.
But New York City, despite accolades for Stevens in their newspapers, despite accepting Stevens into their charmingly ironic “anti-folk” scene and despite giving Stevens a chance to hobnob with intellectual all-stars like Philip Glass, is not a tribe where boys are expected to become superior men on their own terms. Jeff Tweedy, Hugh Hefner, Ernest Hemingway and Kanye West — all native Illinoisans — are bound by this simple fact.
Illinois has a waterway to the Atlantic Ocean, but it is not a coastal state. Prairie grass and industrial grit forced the hand of its inhabitants to work harder than both the sun-kissed California slackers and spoon-fed Ivy Leaguers in the East. Illinois is where Louis Armstrong found his sound, where Louis Sullivan saw architecture in the sky, where Barack Obama rallied a nation and where Muddy Waters plugged in and made the world loud. New York will chew you up if your ironic T-shirt isn’t ironic enough, but in Illinois, hipsters are imports. Anywhere else, cute girls will say you’re “amazing,” but in Chicago, unless you can prove you are sincerely invested in your work, or you’re paying off city hall, no one’s that impressed.
Before the state’s geographical, historical and cultural lore gave Stevens, 30, the inspiration to create an album that enchanted almost everyone who heard it, Illinois gave Stevens a chance to grow up. During college breaks, he snuck here to see his first rock shows. He jumped off the rocks and swam in Lake Michigan. He learned how to smoke cigarettes.
It took a few years, but Illinois paid him back. It cheered.
To repeat: The state cheered. It happened last fall at a concert Stevens was performing in Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. This would be a special concert considering that A.: Stevens’ album was called Illinois. And B.: He and his band dressed in outfits patterned after U of I cheerleaders.
“We didn’t know if they thought we were making fun of them, but they went along with it,” he said.
At one point during a lull, while guitars were quietly being tuned, a spontaneous cheer broke out. One half of the crowd yelled “I-L-L!!!” to which the other half answered, “I-N-I!!!” This continued as a sort of gift to the band. So the band stopped what they were doing and listened.
You could tell they all knew it, semester after semester of conditioning going to football games,” Stevens remembered. “It was kind of scary.”
It has now been a year since Stevens released Illinois, a quiet album that turned into a big roar. By the end of 2005, Stevens was toasted by the major media, and the album topped most year-end lists and won the inaugural New Pantheon Award — recognizing albums that sold under 500,000 in the U.S. — beating out Fiona Apple, the Arcade Fire, M.I.A., Death Cab For Cutie, Antony and the Johnsons and others. Illinois is not an album that would, at first blush, seems like it would warrant all the attention. Spanning 22 songs, the album blends dreamy folk, marching band pageantry and electronic meditation, not exactly sexy stuff. Then there’s the concept. Through five months of meticulous research (no indie rocker knows more about Adlai Stevenson), Stevens tromps through the prairie exotica that constitutes Illinois’ past, discovering that its lineage of strange characters (Mary Todd Lincoln to John Wayne Gacy) and elaborate mythology can be an entryway into personal storytelling. Preventing it from becoming a quirky romp through the history books is that Stevens inhabits these songs on a deep level. His sincerity, dry sense of humor and laser attention to detail — plus a hushed singing voice making even the loudest songs melt like lullabies — contribute to an album that sets the stage for epic grandeur but occasionally pulls back the curtain to reveal the hidden vulnerabilities inside.
There are benefits to being so complicated. In January, Stevens was invited to perform at Lincoln Center as a part of its “American Songbook” series. Two months later, in early March, he bee-lined to Carnegie Hall for the annual Tibet House Benefit where he rubbed shoulders with Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Allen Toussaint.
Glass phoning him to invite him on the bill “was a big shock,” he said. He’s grateful for all these opportunities, but curious.
“I thought what I was doing was anachronistic and for a small exclusive audience,” he said from his home in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I think what’s surprising is that I’m writing idiosyncratic music that is cluttered with historical and geographical details and there are references upon references. I’m not saying that it’s complicated, sophisticated stuff but it’s unusual that something that has so much substance is appealing to so many people.”
Maybe not. In the world of indie rock, music with such celebratory energy, appealing melodies and big-shouldered arrangements, is far more unusual. As the Illinois tour rolled across the country, he saw what kind of nerve it hit: People coming up to him, giving him trinkets from their home states, providing literature on regional flower festivals, wanting to talk to him about their hometowns and, in general, “feeling a real sense of pride about where they came from.”
Stevens is flattered. But he wants these same people to know: “The Illinois record is as much about my experience and my memory and my imagination than Illinois. It’s really just a fabrication. I’m just using the subject as a springboard and … reconfiguring it according to my experiences. So I think the subject is secondary. I’m not an authority on Illinois. I have no business writing about it in the first place.”
Which brings us to his second album of songs about Illinois.
The Avalanche is the bookend album to Illinois, some originally ideas that came to life during the songwriting process for the first record, but stalled. Others are castaways that didn’t fit the sequence of the first album. Some are duplicates, but appearing here in completely different incarnations. Heard on the heels of the first album, it is a testament to Stevens’ driving obsession with creating a collection of songs that followed a specific journey. It wasn’t until months after Illinois was released, when considering posting the unused material as free MP3’s on his website, that he discovered he enjoyed the original sketches so much, he wanted to pursue them further.
“That’s when I realized when I had another record on my hands,” he said. “I decided I needed to honor these songs and spend more time with them and respect them and release them as a comprehensive whole.”
The Avalanche is not just an addition to Illinois, it’s a continuing revelation. His research pays off, giving room for more Illinois luminaries (brass and woodwind choirs toast former governor Adlai Stevenson while Stevens’ banjo leads a wistful eulogy for novelist Saul Bellow) to step into the spotlight. The music takes more playful synthesized left turns — “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” is robot pop lamenting the pending apocalypse (“oh my god I can’t believe it/what went wrong?” he sings). A song titled “Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair” is a sweet but ramshackle country rock lined by a primitive guitar solo that stumbles up and around the frets, driven more by instinct than precision. “It’s a bit of a reaction having gone to music school and studied the oboe. I feel proficient on oboe and proficient on piano but the electric guitar is unfamiliar territory. When I’m playing it, I feel great, I feel like Jimi Hendrix. And then when I listen back and listen to what I did, I sound terrible,” he said. “I think that’s awesome.”
If you declare you are writing albums inspired by every state in the union, the expectation is that the next album won’t be the one you just wrote about. Stevens agrees.
“I am sort of buying time in a way. I realize it’s a little bit audacious and indulgent and maybe a little bit disrespectful to throw out another collection of songs about Illinois,” he said.
This follow-up, he insists, is to purge Illinois from his system once and for all and reveal just how elaborate the process was. But he does realize, having made three albums about two states (Michigan launched the musical roadtripping in 2003), that the expectations he raised might come back to haunt him.
“I kind of wish I didn’t say anything,” he said.
On The Avalanche, the song “Chicago” appears three different ways: one is acoustic in the most hallucinatory sense, the second is watery pop and the third is electronic. None of these have a chance of being licensed by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism (“I’m not aware of it at all,” confirms public relations manager Lisa Link). The reason: “Chicago,” a song rife with anxiety and indecision (“I made a lot of mistakes,” Stevens sings repeatedly) is really a song about moving to New York.
Considering that Stevens made a similar journey would suggest he is the song. Not that he disagrees. “The first city was Chicago,” he said.
In the Midwest, Chicagoans escape to Michigan for a little bit of country, but Michiganders pursue Chicago for a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll. Stevens discovered the city when he was a student at Hope College in Holland, Mich. During breaks, he and his friends showed up on the city’s North Side to break personal rules: They tried cigarettes, grew their hair, enjoyed the freedom of city life and, during one trip, enacted a “weird sociological experiment of survival” to see what it was like to be homeless for a weekend.
Here’s how: They parked the car, budgeted $20 each and didn’t tell a soul they were from “this small provincial liberal arts school in Michigan.”
“We told everyone we didn’t have a place to live and eventually the street kids told us about an abandoned school off of Clark (St.) where a lot of kids stayed … They had this weird support system set up, they all had pets and carried around backpacks. Some of them did drugs or were kind of jacked up on something. But most of them were pretty clean. We found out they were runaways from the suburbs. They had to get away from this straight-laced conservative suburban clean environment they were raised in. That was one of the weirdest experience I ever had. They were so generous with us.”
Normally, kids grow up and shelf those experiences until the reunions get organized or they want to bore their wives. For Stevens, the details lived inside him, which only made him want to observe more. “It’s become my nature to be fascinated by what’s going on around me,” he said. “Using it to learn from it.”
“He’s really a fiction writer,” said Daniel Smith of Danielson, a frequent collaborator. “He plays music but one is not more important. He’s a good storyteller first, the amount of research he does and his obsession for finding all these interesting details and facts.”
The second youngest of six children, Stevens grew up in Detroit then moved to northern Michigan when he was eight. Raised predominantly by his father and step-mom, early life was nomadic as his parents went were the jobs were. “It was economics,” he said. “They weren’t typical parents. They never had — what is that called? — a career? They were always looking for the right careers,” he said, with a laugh. Today, Stevens reports, both work at a Super Wal-Mart in Northern Michigan.
Stevens studied oboe in middle school but when he arrived in Holland, he started playing in bands. The timing coincided with the return of Lowell Brams, his stepfather who just moved to Holland to become a caretaker for his aging parents. Although Stevens only spent three summers with Brams starting when he was just five, Brams kept in touch with his stepson and became his musical mentor through mailing him tapes of his favorite bands and supporting his early sparks of songwriting.
“He probably had more impact on my music than anyone else,” said Stevens.
“I was just a music freak,” said Brams, 55. “I had an enormous record collection and I just enjoyed sharing it with him.” At first, the cassettes included basics from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. After realizing Stevens had musical potential far removed from the casual fan, Brams went deeper and introduced him to obscure oldies from Love, Procol Harum and Nick Drake, minimalists like Philip Glass and Terry Riley and Chicago blues.
Stevens took it in and took off running. Brams remembers hearing Stevens’ band Marzuki play Drake’s “Black Dog” at a college dorm during their first show. “The guitar player had it down,” said Brams. “I don’t know if Sufjan introduced them to the song or not, but that was pretty amazing.
Brams, who worked as a wholesale buyer in the book business and dreamt of having his own bookstore, was so enamored with Stevens’ early songs, he offered to finance their recordings, starting with A Sun Came in 2000. Even as Stevens enrolled in a fiction writing program at The New School in New York City, Brams took greater interest in Stevens’ music, practically goading him into recording for Asthmatic Kitty, the label he administers in the pioneer town of Lander, Wyo. (pop. 6,867). The move was prompted by a job offered to Brams’ wife, but its unlikely location ultimately meant cheaper overhead, key for any first-time business. Today the label employs two full-time and three part-time employees and soon is moving into its own building. Still, Brams admits with a laugh, “it’s pretty cowboy.”
“(The label) was kind of a joke in the beginning,” said Stevens. “It wasn’t a real label. (Brams) didn’t have distribution, we didn’t know what we were doing. I went to New York and went to writing school and that was that. I had no interest in being a musician. Over the years, when I started writing more songs and recording and no one was really interested in what I was doing, (Brams) kept releasing records on Asthmatic Kitty and it accidentally became a record label.”
By the end of this year, the label will have doubled its artist roster to ten. When artists join Asthmatic Kitty, they are usually already inside the label’s family circle and understand its cooperative environment counts artist freedom and idiosyncrasy more important than profit. “We are an extremely generous label. We invest in people but we don’t necessarily recoup everything. In a lot of ways, we see ourselves as patrons,” said Michael Kaufmann who works as the label’s artist representative out of Portland.
After Michigan ushered Stevens into the spotlight and Illinois widened it, major labels stepped in to gage Stevens’ ambition for something more. He says he has none. “I think they all had really good intentions,” he said.” I was aware they could offer so much more money … but I don’t think I would go anywhere else. I feel really comfortable where I’m at now. And I think in some ways the state of the record industry is changing and (major) labels are becoming obsolete”
In 2004, between Michigan and Illinois, Stevens released Seven Swans, a meditative campfire folk album layered in Biblical imagery and dealing with Christian allegory. On many of the songs, Stevens sang of the trials one goes through to comprehend faith. “You gave your body to the lonely/they took your clothes/you gave up a wife and a family/you gave your ghost/to be alone with me/to be alone with me,” he sang (“To Be Alone With You”).
“I like that group of songs in comparison to the state albums,” said Danielson’s Smith who produced Seven Swans. “Those songs seem to be real rooted in his childhood in a lot of ways and there’s a lot of beautiful and surreal imagery. And of course surrealism and spirituality go hand in hand.”
The album ushered Stevens into a club that includes Damien Jurado, Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes and Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, indie rock songwriters who are unabashed Christians but at the same time acknowledge that being categorized that way puts their music in a prison. Although Stevens played Cornerstone — the Woodstock of Christian rock festivals — with Smith’s band, he has refused requests to perform there solo.
“It had nothing to do with the religious imperative behind what they’re doing. I made a decision a long time ago not to participate in anything that’s political and anything that’s religious. I’ve made a few exceptions. People have asked me to make remarks about the administration or participate in shows that are very partisan and political. And I like to participate as a person and as an activist but as an artist, I feel like it would be irresponsible to my work to manipulate myself into that environment,” he said.
Although he admires Living With War, Neil Young’s recent protest album, he think only someone with Young’s history can pull it off without sounding “desperate.”
“For me, politics make for bad art … It’s just not in my nature to be didactic or to use my work as a platform for religious propaganda … I think so much of that is offensive and it’s condescending to god and its condescending to human beings. I think we have to be careful to misusing sacred things in a public form.”
In Brooklyn, Stevens splits time between two churches: one Episcopal, one Presbyterian. If siphoning his faith into two denominations sounds needlessly complicated, Stevens won’t argue. The same might be true of facing an audience that expects 48 more albums. The hitch is: The tribe that makes superior men — and superior songs — may only exist in Illinois. Could the same magic happen in Kansas?
“I have no idea,” he said. “I have a feeling (the next album’s) not going to be a state record. It’s just a feeling.”
It’s a prospect he is asked in every interview and an expectation he knows fully well he’s responsible for creating. Over time, Stevens has sculpted an answer that really is not one: “It’s pretty real at this point. It’s definitely something I want to do. I don’t think it’s possible.”
Faith is hidden, not glamorous and requires a healthy dose of madness. Which means Sufjan Stevens might be the right person for the job he started.
“I tend to regret everything I say and everything I do. My whole life is a series of accommodating and fixing and reckoning with everything that has been said and what’s been done. I guess that’s the adventure of life,” he said. “Constant reflex.”