I recently sat down with Sufjan Stevens at the Diner on 9th Avenue in Manhattan to talk about the release of The BQE CD/DVD for a piece in Art In America and Interview. We touched on the new project, but also got into a discussion of some of Stevens’s recent interviews (see Shannon Stephens), the Internet, art, and the future. When I asked about any new State recordings he spoke about the reasons he’s not focusing on them right now — which we sorta already knew. More interestingly (to me at least) is that he talked about how he wants “to become a better singer.” Interesting because I’ve always found the way Stevens sings to be one of the most appealing aspects of his project. (Have you seen the drop-dead gorgeous take on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” from a couple years back?) With that in mind, here’s Stevens’s thoughts on how he might mix things up vocally and why the Internet needs to be disarmed.

STOSUY: Do you think you’re going to do any more State records?

STEVENS: That was all publicity. It wasn’t really serious… I think there’s a risk of becoming a cliché of myself. I would probably do it again, but I don’t need to work on that right now. I’ve been working a lot on figuring out how to sing differently and better. I want to become a better singer. I want to sing out more. I want to me more extroverted, vocally. A lot of my previous records have a real closeness to them-an intimacy with the voice. I want to throw my voice more, I want to manipulate melody more… I want to be less deliberate and mechanical… I want less melody. I was talking about Jimmy Scott that Jazz singer, Little Jimmy Scott, he’s got just such a beautiful rhythm and his placement of notes in a song and even in these well-known standards they are really deconstructed in a way and subversive.

We also spoke about the Internet, largely because I spend so much time interfacing with it, but like Stevens, also have a complicated relationship with instantaneous culture. (Plus, it offered me a chance to make fun of myself for a post I did a ways back.)

STOSUY: You mentioned “context.” I wrote you once and asked for a quote about a project you were doing. I posted the quote an hour later and you wrote me joking about how there’s no synthesis anymore — there’s just this quick block-quote turnaround. It must be a little bit nerve wracking to know if you say something publicly, it’ll end up in a place where someone is going to comment on what you just said, even if it’s out of context.

STEVENS: That’s the nature of gossip, really, and the Internet is just one big gossip chamber — that’s why it’s so fascinating and entertaining. It’s a fabulous platform for superficial communication. I feel like the Internet needs to be disarmed in some way. There needs to be a philosophical undermining of the Internet. We take it too seriously and too literally. For a reference we go to Wikipedia, which is full of inaccuracies and misinformation. It’s kind of beautiful — it’s all the product of imagination; it’s not reality at all.


STOSUY: In that interview with Shannon [Stevens] you ask, “Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?” Silence is almost impossible now. People are so excited to be the first to hear something. If you play a show someone is guaranteed to video tape it.

STEVENS: There’s nothing personal anymore. To me, there is a real sacredness to privacy, especially because we live in an exhibitionist culture. There’s such a magnitude of record taking. It’s so exhaustive. Bandwidth and hard drive space are able to accommodate limitless capacities to take a record of anything and everything. Maybe I do really value the kind of personal-private creative endeavor that’s done in isolation. My Dad used to say that the balance of the world relied on all of the monks who were living outside of society in creative isolation. I don’t quite understand the ascetic life or the private life or the monastic private life. But I definitely understand privacy’s value.

You’ll find plenty more — like why he thinks doing Late Night television is “tacky,” the main reason for his recent jazz turn, and how posting comments on the Internet is like “graffiti in a bathroom stall” — at Interview.

[Photo by Denny Renshaw]

Comments (39)
  1. Phil Oakes  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    …and with Cindy Sherman as Diane Chambers…

  2. Brad  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    I generally love his stuff, but he is starting to sound really full of himself in interviews.

    STOSUY: While we’re being Luddites: I’ve never seen you play any Late Night TV shows. Everyone does those now. You just not want to do them?

    STEVENS: I don’t understand why bands do that. It seems really tacky to me. I get asked all the time .Those shows are just promoting insipid comedies. Who watches those shows? And whoever does-I don’t think my music would speak to those people. I don’t even want those people to hear what I’m doing. I think musicians should stay off television generally.

    • ~_~  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

      He sounds like one of those people who takes pride in not owning a television. I love him too but that made me roll my eyes.

  3. If the 50 States project was “just publicity”, perhaps this existential crisis he seems to be flaunting is, as well.

    He’s definitely an artist who seems so stuck on reinventing not himself, but everyone else’s interpretation of who he is. Hence all of this press as of late. The traces of post-Illinois output we’ve heard, (save “Majesty, Snowbird”) has shown this vehement discomfort with himself, where any trace of “Old Sufjan” feels subverted or punished in some way.

    I just say to him, (for what it’s worth–as a writer of graffiti on the bathroom wall): Write the songs you want to write, and be yourself up on the Opera House stage. I’d say that’s worked pretty great so far.

  4. Gene  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    Pretentious, much?

  5. This guy is still alive?

  6. brandon  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    i heard he’s planning to write orchestral arrangements for all of America’s expressways!

    i find his conflicts, self doubt, and products of these two of late as interesting as they are frustrating.

  7. “For a reference we go to Wikipedia, which is full of inaccuracies and misinformation. It’s kind of beautiful — it’s all the product of imagination; it’s not reality at all.”

    Entirely false, the internet is very real and lucid. There is some great treasure out there amongst the trash. To pass it off as false or imagination is misjudgment on his part and a failed attempt at that to be “above it all.” Ugh.
    He’s just coming off as snobby. I hope he gets through his clearly apparent issues of self doubt and comes down back to the “real” world.

  8. Can I revoke my indie crush now? My boyfriend’s apparently an asshole!

  9. stevens seems to be saying that we should not take the internet at face value as always good for artists or the music they produce (by questioning such issues like the immediacy and capacity for which we can acquire music, the limitations of pure open access, and the lack of intimacy generated online). while posting such reservations ON a website will predictably result in heated attacks, i think his thoughts are genuine (not made for PR or out of elitism) and are issues worth the attention. the irony is we can only call him pompous because his comments were immediately posted online.

  10. Forever's No Time At All  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    “post irony”…whatever that is…

  11. Oy vey  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    So, playing a late night show for publicity is “tacky,” but selling “merch” is not? This guy is a great musician, but he sounds like an 18 year old douche trying to act above it all. Yeah, yeah, internet, straight to the web, I don’t read comments anyway, bathroom graffiti. Just write songs, or don’t. If you went away tomorrow, we would never know that you had left. Note to Dave Longstreth: don’t act like this in five years!

  12. Here’s the way I see it… the man created the masterpiece that is Illinois voted by many as one of the best albums of the decade. He has the right to be pompous every once in a while. He’s simply expressing himself and letting everyone know what’s on his mind. Would you all rather he said nothing and simply continue to make random projects without concentrating on getting back in the studio and making a proper album? I think not.

    “..Yeah Sufjan, so tell us what’s your take on artists using twitter as a medium to connect with fans?”

    • MF McNutt  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

      It always surprises me that people think so highly of the Illinois album. There was nothing unexpected in that album as he covered virtually all that musical ground in Michigan, Seven Swans and Rabbit albums before it. Considering the albums that preceded it, it’s his least interesting work.

  13. He can have as many pompous and outlandish opinions as he wants, so long as there’s a new album out in 2010 and it’s good.

  14. Andrew  |   Posted on Dec 1st, 2009 0

    I don’t care about his opinions on this or that but I would love to hear a new album.

  15. Sufyawn Stevens  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0

    ya know what’s tacky? saying obsurd general statements knocking everything on the internet while giving an interview that will quickly end up there.
    dude, all mediums are filled with misinformation and inaccuracies…find a different target to deflect your writer’s block frustration on. and it’s not late nate tv’s fault either bro, you just ran out of ideas…no biggie.
    Suf wuz here

  16. dk  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0

    “I want to become a better singer.”

    [my head explodes]

  17. boo  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0


  18. jjazznola  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0

    Overrated, overhyped, self-absorbed tool. Next.

  19. nels  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0

    Tacky is portraying yourself as some who holds so much value in their art and other art in general, then naming a few albums after states as if they are part of a series only to later state that it was all for publicity.

    Did that shiny jacket come with the doosh of the month award?

  20. tom  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0

    late night show *are* kinda tacky, dammit.

  21. Bob K.  |   Posted on Dec 2nd, 2009 0

    So he’s willing to make up a “50 state project” and answer 10,000 questions about it over 5 years for a little publicity, but he’s not willing to go on Letterman and play a song?

  22. awesomedude  |   Posted on Dec 3rd, 2009 0

    Has no one pointed out the irony of a confirmed christian criticizing wikipedia and the internet for being inaccurate and not based in reality?

  23. Sufjan Stevens is not a person, just a bag of hot air that can produce decent music every once in a while.

  24. *sigh*
    Sufjan just needs a break from music to collect himself. And I agree; his vocals are amazing and often the best part of his songs.

    Here’s a recently published essay I wrote theorizing on his role in postmodern culture.

    Shameless, I know.

  25. timm  |   Posted on Dec 6th, 2009 0

    I think this post, and the comments posted, is kind of an example of what he was getting at – at least how I interpreted it. The internet gives voice to anyone and everyone, and maybe not everyone should have a voice. Just like not everyone can be a musician, a leader, an NFL player, and actor, a welder – whatever. Everyone is a critic, everyone has an opinion — has it always been this way, or has the internet/modern culture bred a generation of critics? It’s so easy for an random person to sit back in their computer chair in their office or dorm room and just come up with fully uninformed opinions. Criticism of others is easy, however, empathizing is difficult.

  26. Nacho  |   Posted on Dec 6th, 2009 0

    Why do we expect Soof to be less contradictory than any other human being ?

  27. Adam  |   Posted on Dec 7th, 2009 0

    I kinda figured the 50 States project wasn’t real. I think it’s better to look at Michigan and Illinois as standalone albums and as two states that Sufjan felt passionately about enough to make tributes to them rather than to look forward to the “Sweet New Jersey” album coming in 2030 where songs include “No Place to Turnpike” and “Newark Airport.”

  28. I agree with sufjan at some level with everything he said but some things are better kept to yourself because otherwise it doen’t make a musician look like the confident artist everyone hopes for. Everybody on this site can without a doubt think of that one band or solo artist that fucked it all up by doing to many interviews and less music.

    He should use that attitude and write some music instead of doing these interviews.

  29. she  |   Posted on Dec 8th, 2009 0

    i love sufjan. let him be

  30. Cant wait for another album from him, always a pleasure.
    I think he seems like a nice person, weird but really nice.
    I found a Norwegian band on myspace by the way, if you like might like this:

  31. Cant wait for another album from him, always a pleasure.
    I think he seems like a nice person, weird but really nice.
    I found a Norwegian band on myspace by the way, if you like might like this:

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