This article was published in the Guardian on October 28, 2009.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway – or BQE, as it is known to New Yorkers – is a miserable stretch of road. It has narrow lanes, no hard shoulder, countless potholes and is usually one long traffic jam. As sources of artistic inspiration go, it’s hardly the most promising, but when Sufjan Stevens was commissioned to write a symphony about the city he calls home, the crumbling concrete flyover became his muse.
“It inspires loathing, resentment, anger,” he admits. “I attempted to develop intimate relations. It was a wilful romance with an object of scorn.” The closest British equivalent would be London’s North Circular or the M60 in Manchester. These are, as yet, untapped wellsprings of creativity, but if anyone can write a great song about crawling past the IKEA at Brent Cross on a Sunday afternoon, Stevens can.
In the past, he has hymned author Saul Bellow, the industrial decay of Detroit, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Abraham, Superman, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and the ghost of poet Carl Sandburg. He has used these themes as a starting point for explorations of his own faith, yearning and spiritual confusion, in arrangements that often begin as simple folksongs, before flowering into ornate chamber pop, with an array of banjos, horns, oboes and glockenspiels.
According to the website Metacritic, which aggregates newspaper and magazine reviews, his concept album, Illinois, was the most critically-praised record of 2005. Elton John nominated him for the New Pantheon Music Prize the same year. Pete Townshend and Gwyneth Paltrow are fans. When conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks decried hipster parents who “force-feed Brian Eno, Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens” to their toddlers, it was proof he had arrived in the mainstream, despite releasing his records on Asthmatic Kitty, a tiny independent label he founded with his step-father.
When we meet, Stevens has been driving up and down the BQE all day. His tour finished last night in Williamsburg and, as he never has roadies, he had to pack up the equipment himself and ferry it back to his studio, in the fashionable dockside neighbourhood Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, or Dumbo, for short.
His film about the expressway, due out on DVD later this month, was shot on 8mm and 16mm, giving it the warm, fuzzy look of an old home movie. Its score, which recalls Claude Debussy, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, is the unabashedly optimistic sound of skyscrapers going up. “It’s excessively romantic, with lots of dramatic, sweeping gestures,” he says. “I wanted it to be overblown, a little heightened. It’s an affectionate experience for the viewer, transforming an object of resentment into an object of beauty.”
Stevens cites Igor Stravinsky and Johann Strauss as inspirations, adding modestly that he stole from every composer covered by his limited musical studies at Hope College, Michigan, where he got an arts degree. “I don’t have incredible facility for composing and arranging,” he says. “I’m really slow and clumsy. All I have is my ear and all that time spent obsessing, writing with piano and guitar.”
As he produces and arranges his own albums, playing most of the instruments himself, this humility rings a little false, but he certainly had an unconventional education. His name was chosen by the leader of a worship community called Subud that his parents briefly belonged to. His first school, following the principles of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, taught him to sew before he could count. He still makes his own stage costumes.
Stevens rebelled against this permissive upbringing by joining the church. His faith has informed many of his best songs, particularly on 2004 breakthrough album Seven Swans, which closes with a description of the transfiguration of Christ. It’s the only thing he won’t discuss.
At the penultimate show of his tour, Stevens was swooned over by men and women, particularly when he was at his most vulnerable, singing Casimir Pulaski Day, about the death of his teenage sweetheart. It was otherwise an odd gig, though, being an opportunity to “workshop” some new songs. These turned out to be sprawling, unexpectedly noisy progressive rock. At one point, he took an extended guitar solo.
“The new songs are definitely more aggressive,” Stevens says. “I’ve been trying to challenge myself to be more explicit. I’ve always liked punk rock and Sonic Youth. I make a lot of that music privately but I’ve never released it.”
His next two projects are an improvised synth-based album called Music For Insomnia that he made with his step-dad, and a version of Enjoy Your Rabbit, his early electronica record about the Chinese signs of the zodiac, re-arranged for string quartet. There’s no saying when his next album proper will be out.
“I’ve feverishly, consistently, obsessively recorded,” he says. “So now I’ve begun this self-imposed hiatus, where I’ll stop releasing records and focus on writing. It’s healthy for me to shake off all these pretensions and these epic conceptual endeavours.”
This is a white flag for his Fifty States Project, which began with an album about Michigan, continued into Illinois and once promised to become a gigantic song cycle about every state in the USA. “I have no qualms about admitting that it was a promotional gimmick,” he laughs. “I don’t believe in regrets. How often are we held accountable for what we say?”
Fans often corner Stevens to cheerlead their home states. This bothers him, because it suggests too literal an interpretation of his work. “Michigan is nothing to do with Michigan. Illinois is nothing to do with Illinois,” he says. “It’s all just a veneer. My music is not real at all. It’s inflated, dramatic, transcendent.” His BQE symphony is about the wonder he finds in Brooklyn’s rhythms, not the blighted dual-carriageway that cuts through the city.
The evening rush hour is winding down and it’s time for his seventh short car journey of the day, back home. Stevens lives alone, without partner, friends or musical instruments, because his restless imagination needs an off switch. “I was too deeply and personally entrenched in my work for many years and felt a real suffocation,” he says. “ When I’m at home, I’m not creative at all. I like that.”