Sufjan Stevens On Art, The Internet, And, Yes, The 50 States Project

By brandon / December 1, 2009

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.

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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]