Busted: Sufjan Stevens

Busted Halo discusses faith's place in art and the public market with one of America's most adventurous singer-songwriters.

In the world of popular music there is perhaps no genre that is more suspicious of Christian faith than indie rock. Having grown out the late 70s punk movement that rejected most traditional ideologies in favor of unfettered personal expression, the independent music scene remains (at least philosophically) defined by its skepticism for mainstream culture and its outsider status in the world of corporate music conglomerates.

Quite possibly the first self-identified Christian to make significant inroads to the usually hostile scene, Sufjan Stevens has earned listeners through his meticulously crafted compositions and pointedly descriptive narratives. The ornately arranged, quasi orchestral folk-pop of 2003’s Michigan (his first in a planned series of 50 albums dedicated to each state in the Union) was an unexpected revelation, so much so that its follow-up, an album of deeply spiritual themes and Biblical allusions entitled Seven Swans was similarly well received.

By 2005, his Illinois was the indie press’ consensus choice for the most distinguished album of the year, winning the inaugural New Pantheon Award and earning raves from tastemakers and hipsters alike. In a genre where integrity and conviction are the signposts for credibility, Stevens has proven himself to be a rare artist, one whose faith is integral to his music but only one of the many diverse threads that inform his distinctively conceptual patchwork. His latest release, a 21-song, 73-minute set of outtakes from Illinois entitled The Avalanche is a stunning reminder of an artist whose music has the power to transcend even the most divisive terms.

Busted Halo: Do you find that as your profile has risen with things like Illinois that you don’t have to explain your faith in every interview?

Sufjan Stevens: Um…yeah, people don’t really ask about that, partly because my publicist, Daniel, asked people not to ask me about it. And maybe at some point people become comfortable with the terminology. I’m not sure. I also think that it has become clear that I have a lot more to talk about musically than just my relationship with God, even though that’s evident in everything that I do, everything that I write about. It’s not something that I want to enter into a dialogue with in the press.

BH: Do you think it’s the sort of thing where people finally realized that you don’t have an agenda with your faith?

SS: Maybe. Yeah. I just wonder if, initially, that kind of thing brings out all kinds of prejudices and misconceptions and fears about religion and fears about an ideology that might be different from their own, and the curiosity about how does one reckon with that in a modern pluralistic world. In my vantage point, there is no conflict in that at all. And I think maybe there’s generally a kind of reconciliation with the fact that you can believe in a divine power, believe in God, and live in a modern enlightened world.

BH: I read a quote from you once where you said that if you had known that Seven Swans was going to be listened to by so many people, you wouldn’t have been so explicit in the Biblical allusions and things like that. Do you still feel that way?

“I’m very suspicious of public declarations of [faith] because I recognize that it’s a very, very personal thing.”

SS: I probably said that because I was recognizing that it was something that was so important to me, and I would rather just reckon with it personally. And a record that is released and heard by many people becomes a public event, and it becomes a public exclamation. And I think I just was unable to manage something that is so sacred to me, so personal to me, on a public level. I still think I’m not really capable of doing that. I mean, obviously, I’m not ashamed of anything, and I make all kinds of declarations about what I believe in, but I’m very suspicious of public declarations of things because I recognize that it’s a very, very personal thing. And it’s a community thing, as well, and it’s something that I feel inclined to express within a community of believers. When you make these expressions to the public, there are all kinds of miscalculations and miscommunications, and there’s just kind of a communication problem. I just didn’t want to be a part of that dialogue at all.

I think it’s an inherent problem in any kind of public discourse. When you have celebrities talking about their failed marriages or their infidelities or their drug problems, it’s just something that’s not the public’s business. I don’t want to know about Christina…er…whatever…I don’t even know any of these names. I don’t want to know about Britney Spears’ baby. It’s personal. It’s none of my business. It’s her family. It’s her private life. I don’t want to know about Nick Lachey’s divorce with Jessica Simpson. It’s not our business. But, obviously, it’s kind of a whole different conversation, because when you have a reality T.V. show about your marriage, I guess you are making it everybody’s business. And when you release a record about your faith, you’re making that everyone’s business.

BH: Do you think that in the future you’ll be more careful or more discreet about how your faith is integrated into your work?

SS: I’d say yes, but I doubt it (laughs). You can monitor yourself only so far, but I have to express what is most important to me. I don’t think I’ll be censoring myself.

BH: I’ve always found it interesting in talking to different indie musicians that some of them are very open to being identified as Christians and seeing their music as a ministry of some sort and others aren’t. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

SS: I think I would have a problem with that term in describing my work. I think the music itself has a ministry, of course, but I don’t self-consciously consider what I do to be evangelical at all. I don’t consider the aftereffects of my songwriting and how it will approach people or appeal to someone, how it will affect a listener. It initially starts out as a very personal and isolated experience, and there definitely is a ministry in the music, but that’s never my intention to be ministering to people. So I don’t know. That’s kind of a tough question, because terms like “Christian” and “evangelism” and “ministry” are convoluted and have all kinds of negative connotations — and positive connotations, too. In some cultures “Christian” would be considered someone who is generous and giving and trustworthy. In another culture, it’s a term for a heretic.