Sufjan Stevens Opens Up About Abandoning the 50 States Project

"At some point, I realize how absurd and unhealthy and unsustainable it is, so I am fine moving on"

BY Allie GregoryPublished Nov 30, 2022

It's been approximately one million years since Sufjan Stevens started his 50 states project — delivering only two (or four, depending on who you ask) with 2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois — and yet, the artist is still questioned about the status of the other 48 to this day.

Vulture writer and music critic Craig Jenkins bravely questioned Stevens about this very topic in a new, wide-ranging Q&A that also delves into his abandoned Christmas music project, Christianity in general, touring sustainability, Beyoncé and much more.

When probed about the 50 States in particular, and whether the project "demanded superhuman time and focus [he] didn't have to spare," the artist responded:

I feel like my whole music career has been an exercise in calling my own bluff. I go on all these excursions and I feel they're indulgent and slightly megalomaniacal in their approach. At some point, I realize how absurd and unhealthy and unsustainable it is, so I am fine moving on. I think it's the original impulse that generates the work and allows me to bear down in isolation and create as lavishly as I can, but at some point, you have to go.

Stevens also reflected on why he (sort of) ended his Christmas music project:

At some point, I think one has to confront one's absurd obsessions and sort of OCD behavioral pathologies. Unfortunately, my own pathologies are often an explanation for my work, and the motivation for my work. When I start to really become self-conscious about where this is coming from, I start to realize it's obsessive and unhealthy and then I have to force myself to put an end to it and move on. There's no better feeling than moving on to something else.

Stevens continued on the topic of Christmas:

Christmas, in general, is ultimately about mortality and the fact that we are all eventually going to die. The orthodoxy of the Christian story of the incarnation of God is that Jesus was created to be murdered. I think in celebrating that, we have to understand our own mortality. Obviously, it's all been appropriated, and it occurs during winter, the darkest season of the year, at least for the northern hemisphere, when we are forced to contemplate death because all of the natural world is dormant and dead. In spite of that, we drag a tree into our homes and dress it up and worship it because it gives us hope, so that we can celebrate the life that we have in spite of all of the indications of mortality surrounding us. I think that's what it's mostly about. In the moment we're avid consumers and just buying lots of crap and wrapping it up and giving it away to our friends and family. It seems disparate and counterintuitive, but that's just our way to say, "In spite of this evidence of death, we are celebrating life and materialism," you know? It's pretty weird.

Elsewhere in the interview, Stevens reflected on his influences, which range from Nina Simone to Prince, and paid tribute to both Beyoncé (and her year-end-list-worthy 2022 album RENAISSANCE) and the late Coolio ("may perpetual light shine upon [him]").

In further considering Mrs. Knowles-Carter, Stevens — in a roundabout way — compared the rigours of touring to the former Destiny's Child member's notoriously high-production concerts, but not before weighing in on the touring sustainability discourse.

He explained:

It's a huge expense. It requires a lot of money, time, resources, and energy. It isn't necessarily healthy or sustainable. When you tour on a bus, you're basically sleeping in a coffin. Then you get up in the morning and you're in some strange location and you have to find your bearings, figure out where you are, and then read the script for the day and they set up the stage and then you rehearse for two hours and then you have to stay in shape somehow so you can fit your uniform and you play for two hours and you're exhausted and you have Papa John's hoagies backstage and bus calls at 2 a.m. It's really, really unglamorous. That's part of the job. Whenever I've done it, I've always been 100 percent invested in that part of it and I love it, because it's sort of a somewhat military lifestyle.

"And the time away allows you to come back refreshed?" Jenkins asked, to which Stevens responded:

Yeah, but I also am not preternaturally designed as a performer. I don't really get as much out of performing as I think most of my peers do. There's something visceral and tactile and emotional that they get out of the live performance. For some reason, I'm not made that way. I don't find it exciting by default to be onstage in front of people. I find it awkward and weird and abnormal. I have to really put a lot of energy and effort into making it exciting and visceral for me.

A lot of it is investing in the show business aspect and putting on these materials and costumes and effects and video and media to remind ourselves that we're here to entertain the audience. You also have to master the performance and technicality of the music, which is hard enough on its own when you add all these other dimensions to it. There's a really great sense of teamwork and camaraderie when you have a large group of creative people coming together. That's really exciting, so you have visuals and lights and sound and choreography. At some point, I realize nothing I do is ever going to come anywhere close to Beyoncé, so why am I even trying?

Read the full interview here.

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