'I got sick of my own flawed, epic approach'
Following up one of the decade’s great albums was never going to be easy, and Sufjan Stevens admits that he lost his way a bit. He talks to SINÉAD GLEESONabout crisis, liberation and, er, knittingThe Age of Adz,Come on! Feel the IllinoiseChicagoThe Irish TimesCasimir Pulaski Day
The new album has been preceded by talk of writer’s block and burnout. During its inception the singer claimed, via his website, that he didn’t want to share any music. He then told an American magazine that he was suffering an existential creative crisis. Was “explicit” a way of warning us of an expletive-filled ode to frustration?
“I don’t mean explicit in a profane way, but this record has a clarity, with hard edges,” he says. “It’s something that I just had to do. The BQEwas a real sea change for me. That crisis was a bit of a response to what that project required.”
The BQEwas a musical suite about New York’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a multimedia project, incorporating music, film and live performance. “It was really exhausting and all-encompassing. I went beyond my means creatively and lost my way in the process. It was as if I’d lost my bearings and wasn’t sure what I was doing or why I was doing it. I had turned away from songwriting for so long, and working on these non-song-based projects made me really confused about what I was doing with my life.”
It’s hard to imagine the man who set out to record an album about all 50 US states being unable to write music.
“It wasn’t necessarily writer’s block, because I’ve always worked and created music . . . It was something else,” he says. “I think it was an anxiety about language and semantics and what determines an album, you know? Without any shape or form, I had this existential conundrum of ‘what am I doing? Why am I doing it?’ ”
Did he think about giving up completely? “Oh yeah, I could rebel against it, but I couldn’t turn away from it. Music is just so deeply entrenched in me.”
What’s most striking about The Age of Adzis how different it sounds from the work for which Stevens is best known. Huge, lush arrangements watermark the Greetings from Michiganand Illinoisealbums, even on the sparsest songs. They boast an orchestra’s worth of instruments, complex arrangements and intricate stories in the lyrics. All of that remains, but the approach is more experimental and there are similarities with earlier work, such as the album Enjoy Your Rabbit.Fundamentally, though, there is a feeling of Stevens stalking out across his own landscape in search of something new.
“It was a conscious decision to do away with the ordinary tools of making a record,” he says. “I wanted to ditch the old habits of working with acoustic instruments and just focus on electronics and synthesised sounds.”
Lyrically, the album also feels more personal. There is no imperative to write about a US state or a New York roadway. It could be the most honest work he’s ever done. Was it liberating to do that, to try something different?
“Yes, liberating is an appropriate word, because I felt burdened by the conceptual weight of my previous records,” Stevens says. “I just wanted to be straightforward, and it was necessary for me to shake it up a little bit. It is more personal, because I didn’t have an object to project meaning on to, so I was left with my own instincts, my own emotional impulses. I was very consciously refining the language . . . Well, not refining it, but reducing it to core, fundamental principles about love and loneliness. It was about allowing myself to express those feelings in very matter-of-fact, almost cliched terms. The size of the album” – it has 11 tracks – “is a response to all the theatrical clutter that characterised all my previous work. I was getting tired of that self-conscious, rambling psychobabble. I got really sick of myself and my own flawed, epic approach to everything.”
One thing he relinquished was the pressure, as with Illinoise, to play everything on the album. Having got an advance stream of The Age of Adz,I don’t have the credits to hand, and wonder if there was more delegation of instruments on it than is usual with Stevens.
“Yes, there are actually a lot of people on this album, and a lot of strings and brass and woodwind,” he says. “This is also the first record where there are no credits, partly because these songs are in progress for so long that I can’t remember who played on what. It was recorded in different studios, but most of it is a record of my time alone, just experimenting with software and drum machines.”
Earlier this year Stevens appeared on David Letterman’s TV show with the US band The National. I ask him if the rumour about them guesting on the album is true. He becomes coy and vague. “Some of it is recorded at their studio, because Bryce and Aaron let me use their studio while they were touring. At one point, they were here playing with us, but I don’t think any of that made it to the record . . . But their energy is definitely around.”
With this newfound respect for pithiness, I wonder if he regrets his declaration that he was planning a “50 states” project. Or just regrets saying it out loud. He laughs. “I don’t regret it,” he says. “It was hyberbole, to be honest. We say a lot of things we don’t mean; it’s just part of life. I wanted to be a fireman when I was it a kid, but it never happened.”
Over the summer he also released an EP for download, All Delighted People. The last track, Djohariah, is named after his sister, and he was once in a band named Marzuki after his brother. He comes from a large family but says that he is “the only one interested in music”, which is not entirely true. He co-founded his record label, Asthmatic Kitty, with his stepfather, Lowell Brams, and last year the two collaborated on an improvised sound project about insomnia. After his experiences of recent years, I’m almost afraid to ask what’s next. Well, bizarrely, and quite endearingly, Stevens likes to spend his downtime knitting.
“Yes, I still knit,” he says, laughing. “I’m part of a knitting group of mostly women, but there are a couple of guys who crochet. It’s pretty casual, but I like to do hats and scarves. Occasionally I’ll try something harder, like a sweater.”
It makes sense, this creative overlap.
Sufjan Stevens, the crafter of exquisite, brilliant albums such as Illinoisecan probably paint, write film scripts and pen novels too. But after the difficult birth of The Age of Adz, does he even want to write music again? “Right now, I feel really motivated about work and have a lot of ideas, so I don’t think it’s going to take as long this time.”
The Age of Adzis on Asthmatic Kitty
More from Sufjan
Stream The Age of Adz: http://j.mp/b2LOTn
Watch Sufjan Stevens’s BQEfilm: http://j.mp/2zUhrH
Listen to DM Smith, My Brightest Diamond,and Shapes and Sizes,on Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label: asthmatickitty.com