‘I COULD'VE CHOSEN ANYTHING - THE COLOURS OF THE RAINBOW, THE PLANETS OR LANGUAGES'
The state I
What do you look for in a rock star? An obsession with American geography? His knitting ability? Doug Johnstone says look no further than SUFJAN STEVENS.
here do you start with Sufjan Stevens? The
bare fact is that he's a New York-based singer
songwriter. but the reality is infinitely more strange and fantastic than that. His previous jobs have included designing children‘s books. teaching blind people to knit and being a professional scarf maker. He holds a masters in creative writing. His first three records were an electronica concept album based on Chinese astrology. a collection of proggy madrigals and a folk record about Christianity. They‘re all brilliant.
His latest album. Illinoise. is a stunning masterwork of orchestral folk rock. It‘s also the second instalment of his 50 States project. in which he plans to make an album about every state in America. Yes. he‘s serious. He’s in his late 20s now. so at the rate of one album a year he'll be almost 80 when he finishes.
‘At school when we studied American geography for the first time I was obsessed with the maps and the shape of the United States.‘ he says. ‘So I‘ve been obsessed with this since a very early age. and now I‘m using it as a format for songwriting. It‘s kind of an arbitrary concept. I could've chosen anything — the colours of the rainbow. the planets or languages.’
The astonishing thing about Illiimisc and its predecessor Michigan ( Stevens‘ home state) is that both records are full of local history. characters and stories. yet Stevens manages to weave something
simultaneously universal. personal and touching out of
this hotchpotch of information.
Musically. both records are extraordinarily lush affairs. combining folk instrumentation with full-on rock. gospel choirs. strings. woodwind. brass. splashes
of electronica and funk. For this visit to Scotland Stevens is pulling out the stops.
‘There‘s gonna be six or seven of us in the band this time.’ he says. ‘We've still had to make a lot of compromises. of course. You‘re forced to cut your losses because you can’t bring a string quartet or a woodwind section on tour. We’ve done a lot of rearranging and restructuring. trying to do justice to the songs but also trying to create a new experience because the live show is a very unique. exclusive performance and we try to make it more interesting. With that in mind we have a cheerleading outfit. So there's going to be a lot of flourishes and pageantry. and some bad dance moves. too.’
How many other sitiger/songwriters would take cheerleaders on tour‘.’ None. that‘s how many. Which is why Stevens' unique take on the world is so invigorating. After this tour he's taking a brief holiday. then there are hats to knit. the next album to plan. and a collection of short stories to finish. Speaking of which. did his creative writing course affect how he went about songwriting‘.’
‘I think there are a lot of comparisons.‘ he says. ‘The kind of songwriting I do is very traditionally narrative. based on storytelling. Having said that. the big difference between fiction and music for me is that fiction writing is very much about working together with other people and receiving feedback while music is much more personal and instinctive.‘
Long may Stevens remain true to that instinct.
Oran Mor, Glasgow, Wed 12 Oct.
Big Big World The annual festival of international eclectica gets underway with some smart new jazz shapes from F-ire Collective (see preview, page 60), Brazil's newest singing sensation Joyce and loads more. Various venues. Glasgow, Mon 7 7-Sun 30 Oct.
The Go! Team It’s such a good idea, you wonder why someone didn‘t think of it sooner . . . mashing up everything from rockabilly beats to folky pan pipes, indie riffs and lolloping breakbeats into a riotous stew. OMU, Glasgow, Sat 8 Oct.
John Peel Day Musicians from far and wide converge on live venues to pay their respects to the grumpy old goat with the ear for a fine tune. Everyone from Mother and the Addicts and Mogwai to St Judes Infirmary will be on stage or on the decks in tribute. Various venues, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Thu 13 Oct.
Barbara Morrison The American singer has a big voice and a personality to match, and specialises in swinging and expressive interpretations of the Great American Songbook. Ego, Edinburgh, Wed 12 Oct; the Lot, Edinburgh, Thu 73, Sat 15, Mon 77, Wed 79 Oct; Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Sun 16 Oct.
Sufjan Stevens See preview, left. Oran Mor, Glasgow, Wed 72 Oct.
Laura Veirs Not quite country, not quite rocking out and not quite an indie kid, Veirs is a bit more special than any pigeonhole might suggest. See preview, page 60. ABC, Glasgow, Thu 73 Oct.
Abdullah Ibrahim The pianist has built a big following over the years for his melodic grafting of South African music onto American jazz. Queen's Hall, Wed 79 Oct.
(3-20 Oct 2005
THE LIST 59