Sufjan Stevens 

Taking over one state at a time

Sufjan Stevens is getting a little tired of questions about his faith. The ultra-talented Brooklyn singer/songwriter has faced a barrage of questions about his beliefs since he put them front-and-center on his 2004 release Seven Swans. The album gained universal acclaim from fans and critics, and its merger of two seemingly disparate worlds-Christianity and indie rock-caught the attention of music journalists and bloggers. Few articles in the recent mountain of press about Stevens have left the subject alone. All the attention paid to an intensely personal subject has worn on Stevens, he said in an interview last week from a rehearsal space in San Diego.

"It's a little cumbersome talking about sacred things in a public forum because you find yourself speaking for an entire institution or an entire church or an entire industry and I don't think that's my calling or my inclination or my goal," Stevens said. "At this point, I kind of want to talk less about it and just value the things that are important or personal to me and keep those sacred to me."

Fortunately, Stevens provides plenty of other talking points through his music. He has churned out a slew of top-notch folk-pop songs on five albums over the last five years. In a time when bands release 11 songs and then tour behind them for two years, Stevens' five records average 17 songs and nearly 70 minutes long. And more is to come. He intends to record an album about each of the 50 United States, and he got started in 2003 with a paean to his birthplace called Greetings From Michigan. His second state-themed record, "Come On Feel The Illinoise," has just been released on Stevens' own record label, Asthmatic Kitty. Stevens is prolific, thanks to a combination of natural talent and strong work ethic. He writes music every day and is "careful not to let touring get in the way of writing," he said. He approaches songwriting as a building process, often working through several variations of a song in different keys or using different rhythms. He considers himself a "technician" more than an artist.

"I find that songwriting is often just an exercise. It's just channeling ideas that are already pre-determined or pre-meditated," Stevens said. "I think songwriting requires discipline, daily work, keeping your skills honed and always being prepared for the moment when you are inspired."

Stevens was born in Detroit and at 14 went to a music academy, where he practiced the oboe, studied music theory and even made his own reeds. The intense coursework was difficult, but also gave Stevens a foundation on which to build his career.

By college, he had taught himself how to play the banjo, guitar, bass, drums, piano and several other instruments. He moved to New York City, got a master's degree in creative writing and began recording his own songs. Once Michigan got a gushing review on the influential indie Web site Pitchforkmedia.com, the floodgates opened. Each of his five releases has generated more and more interest, and with Illinois, Stevens is set to break into indie-rock superstardom. The record is a fun journey through the Land of Lincoln, with songs about its native sons, famous landmarks and important events. Subjects include the ghost of poet Carl Sandburg, a UFO sighting, a massive cornfield maze along the Mississippi River and, in the album's prettiest and quietest song, infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. The songs themselves are grand examples of perfect pop music, layered with every instrument imaginable-from saxophone and flute to sleigh bells and a church organ. Stevens uses a string section, rhythmic and stylistic shifts, and colorful narratives to make Illinois feel like a Broadway show pouring from the speakers.

"This record was meant to be for the listener," Stevens said. "I think it's more fully realized and it tackles broader subjects, and I think the songwriting is a little better."

The most astounding thing about both records is the amount of research that clearly went into them. Songs about his native state were based more on personal experience, but Stevens had spent little time in Illinois before starting the project. So he surfed the Internet and read books by Sandburg and Saul Bellow, as well as biographies of Abraham Lincoln. But the most valuable research tool was simply talking to people who lived there, he said.

"I think collecting first-hand accounts is really important. Those are the stories I'm most interested in-the mechanic from Peoria or the school teacher from Rockford," Stevens said. You call them up or they send you accounts of being in the hog queen pageant or the 4-H club. Just talking to people is the most important thing. Americans find great meaning in very small things."

With two states down and 48 to go, Stevens will eventually tackle a state he has never visited-a prospect he calls exciting. But he'll have a head-start on the research, as his growing fame has prompted fans to send him trinkets and information from their home states."I have a database. I have filing cabinets. People are sending me paraphernalia and little stories and postcards already," Stevens said. "I'm just going to store it for now. I'm never going to run out of material, that's for sure."

Sufjan Stevens plays July 27, 9 p.m. at Neurolux Cover is $10, Neurolux. Liz Janes opens.

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