Sufjan Stevens on Christmas Music, Holiday Memories

Sufjan Stevens on Christmas Music, Holiday Memories

Illustration: Carolyn Figel

Sufjan Stevens’s catalogue feels wild and untamable. In just a year span, between September 2020 and 2021, the singer-songwriter and Asthmatic Kitty Records founder debuted almost five hours of music: the pensive, electronic album The Ascension; the ambient, mournful Convocations; and the film-obsessed A Beginner’s Mind, where he and artist Angelo De Augustine wrote songs about a string of horror and action-adventure movies. In the aughts, Sufjan’s Michigan and Illinois albums earned a massive following impressed not just by his heartfelt lyrics, elaborate arrangements, and affecting singing, but by the way songs like “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” and “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” imparted a sense of geography and history, however subtle. It was then, in 2006, with Illinois sales sailing past 100,000 units, when he released a delightfully quixotic array of projects, including Songs for Christmas, a five-volume set of holiday tracks the performer had originally gifted to friends. The song selection revealed him as a sophisticated collector of carols, and the expedition in the originals — from the ramshackle folk of “We’re Going to the Country!” to the boisterous big-band sound of “Get Behind Me Santa!” and “Christmas in July” — mapped all the creative turns it took to get from the embryonic ideas in his 1999 debut A Sun Came to the big mainstream breakthrough.

Holiday albums are the back roads in Sufjan Stevens’s catalogue, the less-traveled trails joining the points of interest where the rest of the audience congregates. They’re also a place where the elaborate detail and abrupt stylistic shifts and secular-spiritual dualities in his art feel most unfettered, being products of a friends-and-family tradition the rest of us heard only years after the fact. By the time you figured this out, Sufjan was already miles away. If Illinois was your first encounter, you might’ve scratched your head at the winding, calamitous, synth-drenched tunes on his 2010 album, The Age of Adz, a sharp detour for fans pining for more “Chicago.” Another holiday package — 2012’s 58-song Silver & Gold — traced that evolution, getting from the gorgeous, rustic Dessner brothers collaborations “Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)” and “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One” to the glitchy, psychedelic epic “The Child With the Star on His Head.” It’s a strange journey, but the artist sees his now 100-song seasonal undertaking in a different light; ten years in, Sufjan Stevens, who once met Steven Spielberg and introduced himself as a Christmas songwriter, feels that it’s imperative for him to leave the project behind.

Do you ever feel like a tough artist to follow? Fans see you announce an album and don’t know if it’s gonna be drones or holiday music or songs about monster movies.
I’m all over the place, yeah. My stuff runs the gamut. I understand that can be a little confusing and head scratching for the average listener. I think the people who are really deeply invested and intuitive and interested in the scholarship of my work and its context and the history and all that stuff, those people are okay. They can go along with it pretty easily and understand it’s all coming from the same place, even though it manifests pretty schizophrenically.

You’ve released 100 Christmas songs, which is beyond Pentatonix territory, and closer to Trans-Siberian Orchestra territory. Do you consider yourself a Christmas song catcher? I think you know more carols than I’ve ever heard.
Yeah. That was a period of my life where I was really deeply invested in the catalogue and in trying to make sense of it and indulge in it, but that was from 2000 to 2010. That’s 12 years ago now. A whole decade. It was always a very isolated moment, usually in November-December where I would get together with some friends for a week or two and we’d create without much forethought and improvise and jump into the Christmas catalogue and try and create something as quickly as possible. Sort of like first thought, best thought.

Except for the one you recorded in June. You made “Christmas in July” one summer, right?
There was one where I skipped a year. I think that was when Illinois came out. I had to catch up. I cheated that year. On the second box set, I went back and kind of reproduced a lot of the original stuff. These were really just gifts to friends and family at the time. I would just make these little EPs and send them to friends. They weren’t necessarily meant to be released publicly. After the fact, I would put them together in the box sets.

What made you decide to share these projects you originally kept in your own circles?
It’s the archivist in me wanting to preserve and contain and then ultimately share the work that I had been doing that was on the periphery and for a private audience with the public audience. Everything I’m doing, recording all my work, I’m constantly thinking, Is this meant to be heard and experienced by the public? Most of it isn’t, and then a lot of it is. Once I start thinking about the public, that’s when packaging comes into play. Then I have a project. It gives me something to do. I start to contextualize it. I think from a library-science perspective. These Christmas EPs are an interesting kind of record of history.

On the outside looking in, fans of Illinois pick up The Avalanche and then it’s a few years before there’s another proper album, and by the time they hear from you again, you sound very different. I think Silver & Gold is a snapshot of that evolution. Obviously, the EPs are also interesting as the story of an artist chasing a major critically acclaimed album with dozens of pieces of Christmas music.
You’ve got to stay nimble as an artist. I think it’s important to be open to all possibilities and all options creatively, whether it’s high profile or niche. I take it all very seriously.

How do you come into contact with so many 18th and 19th century carols? I smell church upbringing. A few of those EPs almost feel like Presbyterian Christmas Eve services.
I mean, I did play the piano at a United Methodist Church.

Methodist was my second guess.
There is experience there with liturgical Christmas music. I’m just kind of a hymnal collector. I have Presbyterian hymns and Methodist hymns and early music books. I have a little library. I would just dip into that archive whenever I was working on EPs. I like to mix that kind of stuff with more contemporary secular stuff. I think as the box sets evolve, they get more and more indulged in the secular stuff.

I’ve been listening to a lot of your 2004 album Seven Swans thinking about how certain artists get a hard time for singing about faith, but you don’t. You get space. Is that something you work at?
I definitely have a religious practice. I consider myself a Christian, and I love participating in that culture. The aesthetics of it, the liturgy of it, it’s a very important practice for me, but I don’t feel like it’s singular and isolating. I’m very democratic in how I live and move through the world, understanding that there are many possibilities and explanations for why we’re here. This is just my personal practice. Christmas music gets to the heart of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Christmas music is such a madcap genre because you get the high art, the low art, the deeply sublime, and the sacrilege. You get beautiful traditional hymns about incarnation of God’s son born in a manger surrounded by animals. That’s what I love about it, is it’s completely in the public domain at this point, and there are no rules and regulations when it comes to Christmas culture.

Everything from “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is covered.
Then icky, sexual-predation songs about coercing a companion to stay inside. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is dirty. But is it any dirtier than birth in a manger surrounded by animals? I was really thinking about the word “manger” the other day. It’s where we get “mange,” like a mangy dog.

I keep coming back to “X-Mas Spirit Catcher.” There’s a couplet (“To understand the Son of Man / For the vision is the ending”) that got me thinking about the fatalism in the spirit of the season. A child will come who’s destined to do great things but also to be tortured. As a musician, you get license to cover a lot of ground from that. 
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.

I should’ve expected someone who made a Christmas song called “Eternal Happiness or Woe” to see it this way.
I’ve thought about this stuff way too much. In fact, I had to stop. I put a moratorium on it. I was like, This is getting out of hand, and I need to focus on something else.

Elaborate on why you stopped.
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.

I think that’s the writer’s dilemma: “How deep does this trail go? Am I willing to follow?” Are you just a lore master bouncing between bouts of intense tunnel vision? That’s how it plays out for me. You have to pry yourself away after a while.
It’s important to have deadlines, of course.

I have to ask if that’s what happened with the 50 States project. Did you just kinda realize it demanded superhuman time and focus you didn’t have to spare?
Yeah. 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. You’re an artist, so you understand. There is a kind of sadomasochism inherent in what we do. It requires that we completely give ourselves over to the work.

We’ve been getting a lot of honesty like that from artists, specifically around the costs and demands of touring and how untenable they can get.
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?
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.

Does this explain the crafts aspect, the wings on the Illinois tour and the neon and silver suits at Age of Adz shows? I caught one of the latter, and it looked like a video game. 
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?

You also need to believe you have something to show that a lot of other people should also see, which is sometimes, like you say, a bit of megalomania. I wanted to talk about The Astral Inter Planet Space Captain Christmas Infinity Voyage. I think it’s a gateway into what you were doing with electronic music after Illinois that threw people for a loop. What was up that year?
The title got reduced. It’s just called Christmas Infinity Voyage. You wouldn’t know that because streaming doesn’t allow you to label EPs on box sets for some reason. That would have been … God, when was that? 2008 probably? I was working on Age of Adz during that time. In terms of its aesthetic, it’s more similar to Adz than anything else I’ve done. That was the first time I was using drum machines. Dave Smith launched the Prophet ’08 that year, which was this seminal analog synthesizer that became really popular. I wanted to do Christmas in space. There was vocoder on that, right? That’s when I started to really reacquaint myself with electronic music.

Was there a reason your music swung back in that direction in those years?
I was probably reacting to the acoustic music that I had been making. I just had grown tired of it.

When something gets a lot of positive attention and there’s suddenly an expectation that there will be more work of comparable style and form, does it affect you?
I’m not as self-conscious as most about that stuff, so I don’t care. If something becomes really popular, I’m grateful for it but I also have no interest in being a celebrity. My privacy is important and staying in my lane is important and being a good steward of my work is most important, so if I’m making decisions based on expectation I’ve lost the plot completely. I understand that a lot of these types of albums, songs, and recordings are considered hobby projects or side projects. I’m cool with that.

How did a cover of “Alphabet St.” end up on Infinity Voyage
I have no idea. Obviously, I’m a huge fan, and I always wanted to cover a Prince song. I grew up listening to him. He informed my aesthetic and my psyche in a lot of ways. He’s someone whose work juggles the sacred and the profane. He was a very spiritual person, but his music could be really dirty and sexy.

He found a unified theory. He’d sell a gospel song like “The Cross” and a song like “Dirty Mind” with the same conviction. Did anyone else impact you musically like Prince?
Nina Simone, of course. The depth of terror and the depth of joy and hope and despair, and the deeply sexual, erotic, and sensual moments that are mixed with deeply political and sociological moments. Her stuff is outrageous. She was a master musician but also a master thinker. Her intelligence was vast and she was in touch with realities no one else was aware of. I can’t say that she’s an influence on my work, because she’s out of my league.

You can be inspired by people who seem a universe away.
A lot of these people are really great singers that I love, and I’m not a great singer. It’s hard for me …

I’m sure a lot of people disagree. There are so many properties that make a great singer. Some singers do crazy runs and others have impeccable melodic sensibilities. Everyone doesn’t have to be Beyoncé. There’s a spectrum, and you fit on it.
When I first heard “Plastic Off the Sofa,” I was like, This is ridiculous.

I like Renaissance as a heat check. On top of everything else, it’s a technical marvel. It’s a power move making people strain to follow your vocals in TikTok challenges.
The wizardry on that album is so awesome and frustrating for me as a musician, because even if you took out her vocals, I’m still obsessed; I’m still intrigued by the engineering and production that’s going on and the harmonic relationship between chords. All that stuff is really interesting too. It’s a pretty exciting album.

You mentioned Coolio in the song “Mr. Frosty Man.” Were you a fan?
Of course. Rest in peace. May perpetual light shine upon Coolio.

I used to love Frosty the Snowman as a child, but now I feel like they stole a man’s magic hat and everything else that happened was just fate correcting itself. I have no sympathy for the Frosty kids anymore. Christmas lore is strange.
It’s really messed up.

What bugs you about Christmas in pop culture?
Unimpeded cultural appropriation. It starts to lose its original meaning and becomes something else. Christmas is Frankenstein’s monster. You just start dropping all of the cultural artifacts, you get Charlie Brown, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, lights. Then there’s Santa Claus coming down the chimney. The whole thing is clear evidence of the depth of human pathology, what happens when we let our obsessions run wild.

“Mr. Frosty Man” had that wild Lee Hardcastle video where zombies ate Santa. Are you a horror fan?
Oh God, yeah.

Are you vexed by how puritanical the country is getting about books and art?
I think the binary aspect of morality is false. I think it’s a construct curated by politics and power. In the Christian orthodoxy there’s the devil and there’s God, good and evil, doing right and doing wrong. If you look at the course of the history of humankind, especially at periods represented in the Bible, you realize it’s never just good and evil. Everything is in between. It’s a clumsy and complicated and diverse process, being human.

Bible heroes often start out as scoundrels.
These kings rise up but then they fall from grace or commit a crime or sin. It’s a constant cycle, and I think that that’s what we’re having to contend with now. We still live in a world obsessed with binaries, especially in American politics. We’re all becoming conservative in our approach to behavior and morality. Maybe it’s that to be human is to feel safety in binary conditions, but I think we lose nuance and subtleties. Everything between good and evil is infinite and malleable and constantly changing. We need to be changing with it and learning with those changes.

What does the idyllic Christmas look like for you?
Now that I’ve been out of the city and in the country, and I live close to my brother and he’s got a 12-year-old daughter, we do a little cozy Christmas together that’s really all about her. Most of the gifts are for her. The last few years, we’ve gone in the woods and cut down a really ugly Charlie Brown–looking Christmas tree. A tradition I’ve been doing with my niece the last few years is gifting her ornaments every year for when she’s older. We do a scavenger hunt. I wrap the ornaments and I hide them all over the place and I give her clues. We put the ornaments on the tree but when the tree comes down after New Year’s, I wrap up the ornaments and put them away. She can have them when she’s, like, 30. But when I lived in the city, we’d always go out to Chinatown.

What are your favorite Christmas songs?
In terms of sacred hymns, I love “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming,” the German hymn. I think one of the greatest Christmas songs is Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.”

That specific one, too, because a lot of people try it and come up lacking.
Whenever he did a cover of something, you were always like, Okay, no one needs to do this again.

Even the Beatles. His “Jealous Guy”?
His “Jealous Guy” is outrageous. “Young, Gifted, and Black”? For some reason, they’re playing in 7/8 or something weird. You don’t even notice it. That’s a classic Nina Simone song but his version is pretty spectacular.

Which Christmas movies do you make a point to watch every year?
I love National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I love Gremlins.

Is Christmas even your favorite holiday, or did we get the wrong idea from the box sets?
Is it my favorite holiday? No. I’m not so secretly a Fourth of July person because my birthday is July 1, and I am a pyromaniac. I love fireworks. Every year, I drive to Pennsylvania and drop like $2,000 on illegal fireworks, cross them into New York State, and we do a big show.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Vol. 8 of Silver & Gold.

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