Unanswerable Questions 3C.1: General Sufjan Inquiries

As part of the "Unanswerable Questions" series, my ongoing epic "interview" with Sufjan Stevens continues. 

I am serious though—how does one get an interview with Sufjan? As he asks on his new album "What's the point of singing songs if they'll never even hear you?" That's how I feel about these questions. I truly want to be able to ask them to Sufjan and I am truly interested in his answers.

Today begins a segment within a segment, simply called "General Sufjan Inquiries." These are questions that do not pertain to any particular album but instead to him as a person or to his work as a whole.

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

PostConsumerReports: All artists have their own vocation and calling. There are comforters/pastors, there are agitators/prophets and there is everything in between. Barbara Streisand is different from Tom Waits, Rothko from Lichtenstein, Foster Wallace from Easton Ellis. So...what do you feel is your calling? Are you an agitator, a comforter, or a comforagidigitator?

PCR: Here's something I've always wondered about how you make music: I assume you live in an apartment building of some kind. How sensitive are you about the noise you make? How free are you to be as loud as you need to be? Do you keep things quiet out of courtesy? Do you have certain hours of the day you play/record? Have you sound proofed at all? Do the neighbors complain or soak in your perpetual musicality? Do you buy them off with free LPs and concert tickets? It seems you have an "office studio" in a place other than where you live. Is that in a residential or commercial building? How does something like that work? I'm not trying to pry but merely to understand how a working musician such as yourself operates on a day to day basis and is also able to find time and space to be freely creative.

PCR: One of the most powerful musical experiences of my life came on your 2006 tour, where you debuted the strange, beautiful, sad, and epic "Majesty Snowbird." I remember leaving the concert that night running the melodies and counter melodies over and over in my head, memorizing them, ensuring they wouldn't be forgotten. I scoured the internet in the weeks after until someone finally (and thankfully) produced a bootleg of the song and put it up for people to download. I heard somewhere that perhaps you were recording a bird-themed album. Is there or was there a bird album ever in the works? The "Owl and the Tanager" was already released on All Delighted People, so whatever larger work was in process I'm guessing has been scrapped. And why has an official version of "Majesty Snowbird" never been released? You said during the concert that night that it's melody had been in your head for 10 years, haunting you. Why hold on to something so beautiful?

PCR: Over the course of your career you've released a number of long songs that contain (mostly) a single melody that repeats with numerous variations over and over again. These songs often take on epic tones and sometimes feature extended instrumental solos and choral support. I'm thinking of "Sister", "All Delighted People", "Djohariah", "Christmas Unicorn", "Vesuvius", "Majesty Snowbird" (unreleased!), "You are the Blood" (a Castanets song), and maybe even "The Child With the Star on His Head". I am curious to hear about how you choose to compose songs like this. They're so repetitive, the same thing over and over again, at least as far as structure, but they're constantly building and varying themselves. Do you have a fascination with this repetition and with the subsequent variations? Do you ever fear like you'll tax your listener with all the repetition? There are times, for instance with "Christmas Unicorn" or "Djohoriah", where I think "How long can this possibly go on?" At what point do you choose to make a song 10 minutes rather than 4 minutes long or epic rather than minimal? I have faith. Now give me understanding.

PCR: Speaking of, "All Delighted People" is nowhere near one of my favorite songs of yours (and this is not intended as any kind of slight), and yet the song has often run for days in my mind after hearing it, becoming an "ear worm". So in some ways my brain has made it into a favorite. What do you make of this phenomenon, how a song plays and plays for days in someone's brain (I have literally woken up with this song in my head for days on end)? And for that matter, what do you do with knowledge like this, that your own music lives on in other people, an extension of yourself, but a dead extension, like a snipped off fingernail?

PCR: One more "long song" question. Often you have these incredibly long guitar solos in these songs. How do you record these? Is it one long take or many many takes compiled together? How improvised are they and how much are they composed beforehand? Is it only you playing or are there other contributors? What are you going for musically incorporating something so long and drawn out and intentionally messy? 

PCR: I in no way need my art to be monolithic or straightforward or easy to understand, but many of your songs pose a problem for the listener in that (perhaps taking a cue from hip-hop [and then again, perhaps not]) you've written yourself into many of your songs. Even on entire albums based off states and reclusive artists, it would seem you are the main character in almost every song. I love third person narrative works and I love first person singer-songwriter stuff, and I really don't mean to complain—instead, I'm more interested in what you think you're trying to do with your art. Why weave yourself so much into an album about Illinois, an entire state (for that matter, why write a song called "Chicago" and have it hardly be about Chicago at all, but mostly about you, your friends, and New York?)? Do you feel like the best way to tackle universal themes is from the personal? What are we as the audience to do (and does it even matter?) when it comes to hearing about "your" (supposed) love life? Are we supposed to merely hear ourselves in your story or is it your story you're truly desiring to be heard? Boy I hope this line of questioning makes sense. I would ask Kanye West the same exact question, so don't think I've put you on a special hook.

PCR: In seeing you in concert over the years I've noticed you're a proficient piano player. It was surprising to me—not that you could play the piano, but that you were (to my ears/eyes) quite proficient at it. Quite. To what extent have you had to work at that and to what extent have you had formal training over the years? Did you improve a lot in between Illinoise and The BQE for instance? Did you meet the Devil at the crossroads and strike a deal? Are you really not playing at all but only miming, while the real piano player plays backstage?

PCR: Not counting Dave Brubeck, your music introduced me to odd time signatures. It was a revelation to me. I didn't know such things were possible. At first the 5/4, 7/4, 9/8, 5/4+6/4 and whatever else you did just felt off, but then I started counting it all out, realizing you weren't just skipping beats but adhering to a given structure. At first it was irritating and then it was glorious. So how did you first learn about abnormal time signatures? Did someone teach you, did you hear it in other music, or did you stumble upon it yourself while playing? Was is difficult to learn or did it come natural? Do you intentionally write in odd time signatures, do they just come out that way sometimes, or do you write songs in more conventional time and then change it after the fact? And finally, is there a particular joy in playing with odd times?

PCR: You've mentioned various time that you wanted to be a writer and numerous snippets of your writing surface on line from time to time. Would you still want to ever release a book of stories or a novel? Have you ever released anything pseudonymously?

PCR: I assume you are still very much involved in the process when you release an album. What happens in those times? Are you back and forth to Wyoming? Is there an Asthmatic Kitty office/team in Brooklyn? Do you have to hire a lot of temporary workers for packaging? What's it like releasing an album as a small label and how has the process changed over the years?
Related Articles:
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Stevens Songs
Unanswerable Questions 3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)
What the New Sufjan Album is Teaching Me
Remainder: I Still Hate Sufjan Stevens

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