Unanswerable Questions #3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell

These are the questions I must ask little Sufjan.
I am in the midst of conducting the most epic interview ever recorded with musician Sufjan Stevens. The only problem is he doesn't know it's going on yet. Maybe it's because I declared my undying hatred of him a couple of years ago, which isn't actually true. (I was just kidding Sufjan!)

On this blog I have a continuing but infrequent series entitled "Unanswerable Questions" which is where I conduct one sided interviews with people under the assumption that I'll never actually get to interview them. But I have so many questions for Sufjan, I'm hoping to drum up enough interest and attention that maybe one day I'll actually get to have a conversation with him. Little by little I'm going to come up with interview questions based off of each of his albums, as well as a set of general questions.

Some people have questions for God when they die. Me, I just have questions for Sufjan.

Today I am going to focus on Carrie & Lowell, his most recent release. It's his saddest, quietest, most personal, and shortest album to date and there is much that can be asked about it. (Part 2 of my Carrie & Lowell questions can be found here: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell part 2)

PostConsumerReports: In some ways I have a lot of trouble relating to your childhood whereas in other ways I can totally relate. I spent most of my youth paradoxically fearing and hating my father and just wishing he would leave and never come back, but also fearing that my parents would get a divorce and what that would mean for my mom who would have trouble supporting us. My childhood was perpetual tension. I felt abandoned by my father too, even though he was still present in my life. I've had to let go of a lot of resentment. I've always longed for a "real" father. Again, that's not something I can ever get back. I realized recently the trajectory of my whole life is a reaction against who my father is.  But my mother has been a present and powerful force in my life. She has taught me everything good that I know, despite her own flaws and limitations. The main thing she has taught me is to love and cling to God, and to undyingly commit to loving others. Those things are so cliche, but really, what else is there?

I don't know if there's a question here. But maybe here is what I'd ask:
1. Were you a "good kid" growing up and if so, was that a reaction against the instability your mother and father brought to your life? Were you saying "I'll show you!" by choosing to live differently?
2. Do you think it's (ultimately) good for people to grow up with all this trauma? Is a horrible childhood the incubator out of which genius and inspiration springs?
3. Did you feel odd growing up, as if your friends and classmates had "normal" family situations whereas you had this back and forth life with undependable parents? Did you try to make yourself seem more normal to your friends, so they didn't know what life was really like for you at home? (that last question basically sums up my own childhood)

PCR: I read your interview with Pitchfork, which was excellent. I found your reply regarding faith and religion fascinating enough to be worthy of expanding out to entire interview all its own. Here's the quote followed by a few questions/comments:

I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith. Yes, the kingdom of Christianity and the Church has been one of the most destructive forces in history, and there are levels of bastardization of religious beliefs. But the unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It's extremely malleable.

Wow Sufjan. That's some trippy stuff. Not to sound like a jerk, but that kind of sounds like lazy, narcissistic American pseudo-religious gobbledegook. It is certainly a way of speaking about faith and religion that I just roll my eyes at and go, "What does that even mean?" (kind of like the double rainbow guy). The statement, taken at face value, sounds like you're going to just do and believe what you want.

So help us out. What does it mean? For starters, how does one merely "describe" themselves as a Christian? I've been taught differently, not that I have a set of beliefs that I adhere to, but that in some cosmic, spiritual, and even physical way I belong to Christ and am in Christ. I am Christ's. And all the other Christians are in the same boat; we all belong to Christ, and thus we are the Body of Christ. Sure I believe, but my belief is communal, and my belief is also a working and moving and gifting from God.

Also, while I'm definitely for myriad forms of Christian expression and practice and I totally get how our conception of faith and our "relationship" with God changes as we age, there are some pretty basic and built in structures to the Christian life, rather than it being "amorphous". Practices like worshipping in a local community, seeking and knowing and hearing God through prayer and reading Scripture (both communally and personally), living in some kind of community that offers support and accountability, and then serving and telling the world the Good News are pretty par for Christian course. So, unpack in as many words as possible what you mean when you say the Christian faith is "malleable." Give practical and theoretical examples. For him who has ears to hear!

PCR: Up until Age of Adz you didn't use what could be called harsh language on any of your albums, or any "swear words" as some of us more modest Evangelical types call them. As with "I Want to be Well" from Adz, "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross" off of Carrie & Lowell uses a particular offensive word beginning with "f". I'm wondering about how you came to the decision to include that word on both those songs. Did you labor over it, wondering who you'd offend, who of your fanbase you might cause to unfriend you on Facebook or did it naturally, instinctually become part of the song? Another way of putting it might be, was/is the use of that word (or of any "swear" word for that matter) an intentional choice to use the word to powerful effect or did it just kind of flow out of you in the songwriting process? Do you squirm a little having to say the word in performances or is it just whatever?

PCR: Musically speaking, where are you at right now? A few years ago you confessed you had gotten sick of your own sound, but this album has been hailed as a return to your folk roots, which a lot of us fans love (I would argue you never left your folk roots, and that experimenting in other genres or layering electronic sounds doesn't mean you abandoned one kind of music for another, buy anyway...). You have many different "sounds", but have you made peace with the fact that you are a folk artist and that hooks and melodies are your primary medium and that a "folksy" sound is particularly suitable to you as an artist?

PCR: Also musically speaking, did you intentionally hold back on this album? Did you consciously not compose complex and long songs; songs in unorthodox time signatures? What kind of decisions went in to making a shorter more understated record? 

PCR: Did Carrie & Lowell feel like less work as far as the production side of things goes? Not to say the songwriting process wasn't work—every song, especially the lyrics, feels labored over—but it seems like a less time consuming of a project from beginning to end, if only because there was literally less to record. How accurate of an assessment is that?

PCR: There are so many Biblical and Christian references and allusions, especially surrounding the cross and the blood. This is mere speculation but I'm wondering if you intentionally released the album during Holy Week, which consists of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and culminates in Easter. Was the timing of the release intentional?

PCR: What kinds of conversations did you and Lowell have after you told him you'd written a series of songs mainly about your mom and tangentially about him? What was his reaction to his life becoming a concept album?

PCR: Were you ever tempted to have Lowell on the album, playing or singing? 

PCR: Who is "Manelich" in "All of Me Wants All of You"?

PCR: How serious did your drug use get? Was it the kind of thing you did a few times and you were done with it or did you have to deal with the repercussions of addiction? Did you use hard drugs? I think some of us fans might be a little concerned for your well-being.

PCR: How serious are your suicide references over the course of the album? Not to sound trite or to trivialize your experiences, but are suicidal thoughts and tendencies something you've had to deal with since your mother's death or were you being poetic?

PCR: Sometimes throughout the album it's difficult to tell who exactly is singing the song and when in time the song takes place. Usually I can kind of figure it out but I'm wondering how much this matters to you. How much do you want people to know exactly what you've been through and how much are you wanting to simply impress upon people the raw emotion of a memory, the feeling of an event rather than the mere facts of it?

Thanks Sufjan! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer all these questions!

Related Article:
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Stevens Songs
Unanswerable Questions 3a: Sufjan's Silver and Gold
Unanswerable Question 3c.1: General Sufjan Inquiries


Meredith said...

I actually found my first Sufjan album while I was going through something of a suicidal depression. I was fascinated by his sound, though now my brain likes to associate it with my depression, and I have trouble listening to very much of it. It's kind of a shame because when I was healthy, I loved depressing music, and I'm starting to get healthy again. The same thing happened another time, on a lesser depression with Coldplay's X&Y album.

Originally my post was actually too long to post, so you are lucky, and you get a short, list version.

1) When I got so emotionally damaged as to start contemplating suicide, I had difficulty in talking about my situation due to the wreckage of the ordering of my brain. Basically, it's confusing to recount. I still suffer with disordered thinking, especially on topics related to the issue. He may have trouble too.
1a) He was probably actually suicidal. It seemed like an alien concept to me before it happened to me, too, but it did happen, when I lost something I had no idea how to survive without, and I couldn't feel any closeness with God either.
2) I want to know who Manelich is also, but I think Sufjan may think the confusion is a bit funny, if he is aware of it. Whether it's a gay lover, or some character from a play called "Marta of the Lowlands", I'm sure he thinks it's hilarious. I have no idea how I'd feel about it if he turned out to be gay, but I would appreciate the option to know how I feel about that song.
3) I am a writer, so from my perspective the swear words thing seems like this: I'm sure he has wanted to include swear words here and there before, but never felt comfortable until now. When I was depressed, I quit caring about that stuff because I quit caring about much of anything, so that could be part of it, plus, not using swear words feels kinda fake if that's what's real right then.
4) I think you misinterpreted his meaning of "malleable". I think he meant that Christianity doesn't come with it's own culture, and so it can form around other cultures on it's own. Christianity doesn't require you to dress a certain way, be at a certain place at any point in your life, or follow a set of rituals. It may suggest things, but it requires nothing except your full devotion to allowing God to change your heart. Which is complicated by itself, but it's also rather lovely.
4a) On the other hand, I do think he was being rather ambiguous, and he gives off a vibe to me of being critical of the church and of other Christians. I think a degree of correction is okay, yet only in the way you would correct somebody you love. Christians keep condemning each other for things, even for condemning each other and others lol. Still, his heart seems to be in the right place (chasing Jesus). It just needs growing, like every Christian.
5) Chasing the dragon usually means heroine, though technically it could refer to anything that gets you high and has you coming back for more and more. But heroine is a good possibility, in my opinion. Whatever that is worth (which is nothing, but we'll forget that for now).

Anyway, I'm not sure if you're trying to play the role of stereotypical journalist by forming your questions in slightly incredulous tones to trap your victim, or if you're just extremely direct, but... I'd really like to know his answers to these questions too....

PostConsumer Reports said...

Meredith, thanks so much for your comments.

I think my tone is a complicated one. It's a bit wry and ironic, partially because I see Sufjan as being a playful person and would appreciate questions asked in that way. At the same time I don't actually believe Sufjan will ever read let alone answer my questions, so my playfulness (and my directness!) stems from the fact that my questions will forever remain unanswered, forever drifting in the universe, every single one of us pondering what his responses MIGHT have been.

At the same time, I would want to be direct with Sufjan. I have so much respect for him I would want to give him the best questions I could think of, even if they seem like "gotcha" questions at times.

Again, thanks for your comments. I especially appreciate your thoughts on depression/suicide and Christianity.