Head of State

 

When Sufjan Stevens started playing live — which wasn’t really until Michigan, the first album in his ambitious states project, hit the radar — he suffered from debilitating stage fright.

“It wasn’t fear of performance or of the public,” Stevens tells the Pitch. “It was more of a hyper-self-consciousness. Knowing people were watching me … I had an inability to be relaxed and natural onstage.”

Pretty reasonable for someone who never intended to become a musician. His first entrée into musical performance, like that of many, was the middle school band (“It was a requirement, so we rejected it,” he says), where he took up the notoriously difficult oboe. And although he continued to study the instrument through high school and into college, his interest in it was merely technical, not creative.

“Fiction was my first love, the first thing I was infatuated with outside of myself,” he says. That makes sense — his albums are arguably grander feats of storytelling than of musical composition. Granted, on his 2005 Asthmatic Kitty release, Illinois, Stevens plays guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, electric bass, drums, sax, flute, banjo and, um, glockenspiel. But it’s on the heartbreaking “John Wayne Gacy” — when we hear the tragedy swelling and we urgently want the story to end differently than we know it will — that Stevens’ strengths become apparent. Or when he sings about God without being preachy (which kind of makes us want to start going to church again). Or when he finds 13 rhymes — all of them relevant — for the city name Decatur. Decatur.

Just don’t expect his brilliant literary skills to manifest themselves when it comes time to take on, say, Oregon — widely anticipated to be the next installment in his survey of the country. Not yet.

“I don’t know about the next album,” he says. “You have to honor the organic progression of things. There’s a natural sequence of events, and all things will be revealed in time, and there’s a healthy, particular design to everything” — we get it, Sufjan, you’re a fatalist — “so if it’s necessary to take a break, then I will.” He bemoans the overextension of artists by the publicity system, complaining that it leads to creative depletion. But that won’t happen with him, he says, because he participates in every level of his workload management — record releases, public appearances … and those blasted tours.

Which brings us back to the live performances — and how he has redirected his stage fright. Stevens and his Illinoisemaker Band don costumes, emphasizing the theatricality of concerts. For example, they often adopt personas as cheerleaders. “Superficially it probably looks like a lot of gimmicks, but it’s been really good for us,” he says of the “cathartic” clapping and chanting the group breaks into between songs. “It’s disarming, I think, to put on sweat pants and a cheerleading shirt. And, you know, wave pompoms.”

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