Sufjan Stevens finds inspiration in Illinois

 

September 16, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

For his fifth album, Michigan native Sufjan Stevens sought inspiration from the state to the west, crafting songs with evocative titles such as "Concerning the U.F.O. Sighting Near Highland, Illinois," "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!" and "Casimir Pulaski Day."

The result has been one of the most lauded albums this year from the indie-rock underground.

Stevens, 30, was raised in Detroit by Persian parents (his first name is pronounced "Soof-yawn"). He started his career as a Christian singer and songwriter, a topic he's reluctant to discuss, since it is often "misconstrued and misunderstood."

"There are certain things that are very personal and sacred that you maybe shouldn't talk about," Stevens says. "I am a Christian, and it is very clear in my writings that these are my beliefs. I think that is fine as a way of understanding the world, but it can be a little dangerous and a little isolating."

SUFJAN STEVENS, LAURA VIERS

  9 tonight

  Metro, 3730 N. Clark

  Tickets, $16

  (773) 549-4140

 

Starting with his fourth album in 2003, Stevens hit upon the idea of recording one disc about each of the 50 states. The second of these, "Illinois," at times veers annoyingly close to sub-They Might Be Giants camp. But Stevens also displays a novelist's flair for revealing details, and his lush pop arrangements are simply gorgeous. We spoke as he prepared to play these songs in Chicago for the first time at Metro tonight.

Q. For your national odyssey, why did you choose Illinois next?

A. I think of it as the stronger older sibling [to Michigan], and I think I had a source of wonder and envy about Chicago. I was born in Detroit, and it was such a failed industrial town that let us down in so many ways. Chicago seemed much more vibrant. I might go to the coast for my next project and tackle Oregon or Maine.

Q. Of course, the album is not really about Illinois.

A. It's more about me and my imagination. I've never pretended to create the comprehensive, historical survey album that people have come to expect of a project of this sort. I think that would be simple and juvenile. I'm using the state as a veneer -- the pretense -- but there is a lot of regional and cultural information there.

Where my strength lies is in observation: I'm a writer, and I studied writing in undergraduate and graduate school. I'm a failed novelist. I don't think I can say I've written one, but I'm working on a novel. But what I learned in writing is the art of observation: using everyday objects around you to represent profound things. I think a lot of my songwriting utilizes the mechanics of fiction writing.

Q. You started out as an oboe player. Why did you turn to rock?

A. I studied oboe and then went to music school and learned piano by ear, and just through the bit of music theory I knew, I made up songs on the piano. But they weren't pop songs or rock songs. They were slow classical songs, Reader's Digest versions of Bach's minuets and Chopin and Rachmaninoff. That was the music that really influenced me early on. It wasn't until I went to college that I really started listening to rock 'n' roll. I learned to play guitar, and I think that is when everything really changed.

Q. When you're writing songs, does the music or the lyric come first?

A. The music always comes first. I'm an instrumentalist and a composer first and foremost. I find that music is my natural instinct. The words come last, but every musical idea or chord progression or melody sort of imposes a kind of meaning or context. The story that I use over the song usually relates strongly to an inherent kind of meaning in the music.

Q. So you seized upon writing songs about different states as a tool?

A. Yeah. I think it's a restriction that imposed guidelines for me: Let's use arbitrary state lines as a context for what I'm doing. I'm writing about place, and I'm writing about people, and I'm writing about specific regional cultures, and I thought, "Why not limit myself to a particular area?" It's an exercise. Painters do this all the time.

Q. Did you wind up with a backlog of things about Illinois that you didn't use?

A. Yeah. I read a lot of Saul Bellow and didn't use him at all. And I wrote many songs about Abraham Lincoln, but they all seemed kind of forced or too melodramatic, so I didn't use any of those. There's a lot of stuff I didn't write about: this large man-made lake called Carlyle Lake, and the super computer at University of Illinois that I was obsessed with for a couple of weeks.

Q. And amazingly, you didn't take any shots at the Daley machine.

A. No, and I don't think the mafia is going to be after me, either.

REASONS FOR LIVING

Chicago has endured three long, hot months full of pop music festivals: Lollapalooza, Intonation, Warped, Ozzfest, Anger Management. But fans of challenging rock music can add one more to the list before summer yields to fall, and it's the darkest gathering of the year, as befits the change of seasons.

Billed as "North America's largest Gothic music festival and expo," Gothicfest comes to the Odeum, 1033 North Villa Ave. in Villa Park, starting at 11 a.m. Saturday and running through midnight (fittingly enough) with 13 hours of dark, symphonic, hard-core and industrial bands from the Goth underground, as well as 50 exhibitors including tattoo and body artists, fashion vendors and Goth-oriented magazines and record labels such as Fangoria, 99th Floor, Projekt Records and Metropolis Records.

Performers include Hanzel Und Gretyl, Slick Idiot and Project .44 (featuring former members of, respectively, KMFDM and the Thrill Kill Kult), Grigori 3, Slave Driver, Deepest Symphony, Ofearia, 13 Winters, Dies Mali, Rosenguard, Withering Soul, Drake, Reverend Agony, Rachael's Surrender, Psionic, Methodical, Terminal Bliss, the Blessed Virgin Larry and Reverend Agony.

Unless you frequent DJ Scary Lady Sara's regular Nocturna events of "dark beautiful music and ritual dance pageantry," you've probably never heard of most of those performers. But Gothicfest promises a good time nonetheless, with prime people watching (nobody outdoes the black lipstick and nail polish crowd when it comes to dressing up for going out and getting down) and deliciously ghoulish sounds that will leave you counting the days until Halloween.

Tickets are $32.50 through Ticketmaster, (312) 559-1212. For more information about this all-ages event, visit www.gothicfest.com.

 

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