Some people see the devil in the details; Sufjan Stevens sees the divine. “I kind of find everyday objects to have profound meanings,” says the diffident, dark-haired singer-songwriter, twisting his baseball cap in his hands. “I mean, like, shirt collars to me are really interesting, and ceiling fans and air conditioners and bangles and bracelets and things like that, that’s the material of people, the material of folk music.” In his own modest way, Stevens has quietly become a master of micro over six years and five albums; his ornately detailed compositions hold a magnifying glass to the dusty ephemera in his curious scope—and, intermittently, the center creases of his U.S. atlas.
Though he’s lived in Brooklyn for years, the 30-year-old Michigan native has stayed strictly Midwestern in his geographic explorations so far—Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty) is the second in a series of state-centric albums (2003’s Michigan was the first). Don’t expect his work to find its way into junior high history curricula, however. “I kind of stayed away from the prevalent, popular themes, like the Mafia, the sports teams,” Stevens admits. “But I did go to the library. I kind of knew what I wanted, specific history books and historical surveys. I did a lot of browsing.”
And when Stevens entreats listeners, “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” he means it—the album’s seams burst with, among other things, glockenspiel, Wurlitzer, banjo, flute, vibraphone, sleigh bells, and an electric church organ, as well as numerous backup singers. His live performances (he’ll spend this summer touring behind Illinois) are often more joyful, cacophonous happenings than straight performance, and fans respond accordingly. “People who like my music often want to talk about their stories,” he says. “And usually they’re very unique and unusual, and it kind of reminds me that there’s an endless resource of storytelling. I’m just curious about people’s ways of doing things. I mean, there’s 10,000 different ways to prepare eggs in this country, depending where you are.”
Which means, one assumes, that he’s got two states down and only 48 to go until the story of the people (and their omelets) is complete. “Not necessarily,” Stevens laughs. “No one ever really finishes what they start. Think of all the failed marriages and the abandoned children, the novels left unfinished. I don’t really think it’s about the product anyway, I think it’s about the adventure and the process, don’t you?”