Sufjan Stevens Talks Songwriting With Shannon Stephens

As he does from time to time, Sufjan Stevens has upped his thoughts on a new Asthmatic Kitty signing. This time it’s an interview that feels especially personal. The discussion takes place with ex-Marzuki band mate, folksy Seattle singer-songwriter Shannon Stephens. (Bonnie “Prince” Billy covered her “I’ll Be Glad” on Lie Down In The Light.) She’s just released her second album, The Breadwinner, her first in almost 10 years. In the piece, Sufjan talks about that old college band Marzuki and describes Stephens as possessing “a gorgeous alto voice like Judy Collins and a penchant for writing catchy folky songs about love and heartache.” He also updates us on what Stephens did after college (“she moved to Seattle, got married, raised a beautiful family, worked in landscaping, and grew older, wiser, and more complete”) and where she is now. In the end, Sufjan and Shannon’s conversation sheds light on both participants: We get naked insights into Sufjan’s process, his output, etc. Take a look at a few of the highlights after you listen to The Breadwinner’s “In Summer In The Heat.”

Shannon Stephens – “In Summer In The Heat” (MP3)

Here’s the accompanying video:

As far as the Stevens vs. Stephens tête-à-tête:

SUFJAN STEVENS: I’m quite embarrassed by some of my older songs, and often feel they’re the product of immaturity. Do you have a similar view of some of your older material?

SHANNON STEPHENS: Yes, I do — particularly a few songs from the Marzuki days, when I felt compelled to turn every song into a neat, tidy little gospel message. I frankly don’t want to perform a lot of those songs now because I can’t really get behind them anymore. Life is not neat and tidy; neither is the gospel message! And I don’t want anyone to think I’m suggesting that.

SUFJAN STEVENS: At the same time, people often tend to like the older songs. Is there some kind of psychological disassociation that’s required of us to maintain a healthy view of older material? I never like the idea of condescension toward a song. But I loathe looking back, and the idea of nostalgia makes me sick. Also, I fear that some of the best songs are the product of reckless naivety, the fodder of youth.

SHANNON STEPHENS: I’m not sure how to handle requests for some of the more embarrassing songs. Sometimes a song can be good and immature at the same time. For instance, going through a college breakup is an event that happens when you are immature. But if you can articulate it properly, the song transcends the phase of life it was written in. Other songs are not articulated well in the first place, or they come to the wrong conclusions, and those do not transcend. Those are the ones you end up wanting to bury. And those are the ones I’m not currently planning to play at shows. But the question is still unresolved for me, because those embarrassing songs don’t just belong to me; they also, in a way, belong to the fans whose lives they have affected. Maybe it is arrogant to refuse to play them, even if they don’t represent me anymore.

Later, in a question, Sufjan notes:

For myself, I’m starting to fear that music is far too selfish, self-absorbed, and self-interested for the ordinary life. When I’m entrenched in a project, for instance, the dishes are left undone, the bills left unpaid, the house is a mess. I become sub-human. I begin to despise all my bad habits.

And, for those of you clamoring for a new Sufjan album, there’s this:

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?

Considering we’re in the era of over-sharing (in various forms), that last question he poses is especially poignant/relevant. The rest of the interview is at Asthmatic Kitty.

The Breadwinner is out via AK.

[Photo by Zack Bent]