There was Michigan before Sufjan Stevens and there will be Michigan after, but never will the state that brought you Motown, Casey Kasem and Michael Moore be so profound as when Stevens describes it to you. In his album Greetings from Michigan, Stevens used his populist talent for humanizing the most tragic of stories and has woven together a series of vignettes about his home state that will render even the most skeptical of west coaster heartsick for the Great Lakes state. That is the brilliance Sufjan Stevens; he can find beauty anywhere.
The third album by the now Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist combines post-rock rhythms, traditional instrumentation and a knack for tugging the heart strings to write moving and honest stories about abandonment, history and tourist attractions in Michigan that transcend the borders of his muse. Its solemn tempo and borderline twee expressions have garnered Stevens a growing following since the album’s release last year and his arrival in Portland this Thursday is hotly anticipated. The Vanguard’s own Choncy Jones sat down and spoke with Stevens recently about love, loss and the fifty-album ambition.
Is it true you are really going to write an album for each of the fifty states? Is that a realistic goal?
Well, I’ve had an injection, so if I don’t complete the full fifty albums I’m afraid I’m going to spontaneously combust.
Gosh! That’s a motivator. Which states are you working on now?
Well, I’m working on Rhode Island now. I’m trying to think about a live band while I write this album – it’s going to be more straight ahead rock. I’m also working on Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon. I’m hoping that when I get to Hawaii the label will send me there to do some research.
Do you feel like Greetings from Michigan is overshadowing your other albums? You just released a new album, Seven Swans, but all the buzz is about Michigan.
Since both albums were recorded at the same time, it’s not as if Seven Swans is a new album to me. Michigan is a much more ambitious project and I’m happy for the response it’s received.
I’m thinking about the back stories you present for your songs on your Web site. They, like the album itself, have a real sense of humor and melancholy to them. I know you were born in Michigan, so it leads me to wonder how attached you are to each song. Are they based on personal experience?
They’re based not so much on personal experience as they are on observation. There are little bits of my life on the album, but overall, it’s a combination of observations I’ve made and stories I’ve created from them. The album is meant to capture the feel of Michigan more so than any specific stories.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller first or a songwriter?
A storyteller for sure. My music is totally dependent on the story I’m trying to tell.
I’ve noticed that within the indie rock community it seems that when an artist is open about his or her faith it causes a lot of stir. I’ve witnessed a backlash of sorts from nonreligious fans towards bands when their focus or affiliation is revealed, bands like Pedro the Lion or Souljunk. I was just wondering how your faith plays into your song writing, and if you yourself have witnessed any sort of backlash.
Backlash? Like people buying my albums but then refusing to come to my shows? Or sending me hate mail and photos of myself with, like, mustaches and horns drawn on them? I haven’t noticed any of that. Do you know something I don’t know?
I feel like people, Americans in particular, like to create a singular archetype of religions and make grand summaries about cultures and societies. Islam is a perfect example of this. People have a tendency to misinterpret Islam and stereotype its beliefs based on the actions of a handful of violent individuals. It’s a very beautiful religion that gets cast off because of the pigeonholes created for it within our culture.
What I believe and what I write comes from an intense love for mankind and if people want to interpret that another way there’s nothing I can do to stop them. I feel like there are two facets to differentiate between: Christianity, which is a personal belief and a love; and Christendom, which unfortunately is all some people think about when they think about Christianity. Christendom is the ugly, hateful, corporate institution that aligns itself with Christianity. I feel like I constantly have to resolve myself between what I believe and this deadly institutional entity. I feel no affiliation with what they push – what they believe – and I hope I can make that distinction in my music. But I’m just singer storyteller with a small voice really.
Sufjan Stevens plays this Thursday, July 29, at Dante’s Inferno with Joanne Newsome and Denison Witmer. You’d be an idiot to miss it.