Words by: JC McIlwaine | Images by: Beowulf Sheehan
Sufjan Stevens & Wesley Stace :: 12.17.07 :: Southpaw :: Brooklyn, NY
What do writing for music and writing for print have in common? Where do the forms diverge? Which is more appealing for the artist who engages in both? The literary group PEN brought together Sufjan Stevens and Wesley Stace, two prolific musicians and emerging writers, at Brooklyn's Southpaw, to discuss the intersection of the two mediums.
First, a little bit about the artists. Stace, who in the musical world plays under the pseudonym John Wesley Harding, has recorded more than fifteen albums of, as he puts it, "gangsta folk." He has performed with luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. In 2005, he published his first novel, Misfortune, which was met with much critical acclaim and received a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award.
Sufjan Stevens has emerged as one of the most ambitious songwriters of his generation, both in the diversity of his compositions and the scope of his themes. A man not content to act on a small scale, his stated goal is to record an album for every U.S. state. So far he has completed two: Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Come On, Feel The Illinoise. Other interesting theme-related projects include Enjoy Your Rabbit (songs related to the animals of the Chinese zodiac), Songs For Christmas (a five-CD box set of Christmas songs) and most recently, a musical ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway performed with symphonic backing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Until 2000, music was a side project for Stevens, put on the back burner while he completed the Creative Writing Program at the New School in Manhattan. Upon graduation he came out swinging and singing, releasing six albums in six years. In the past couple years, Stevens has returned some of his attention to fiction writing. Asked by moderator Rick Moody about the differences between writing fiction and writing music, both artists agreed that one major difference is the temporal nature of their reception. Writing for music, they claimed, brings a much more immediate reaction when compared to the delayed gratification of fiction writing.
According to Stace, although the two forms require different writing mindsets, both are sourced from the same alliance of creative impulses. But for Stevens the two modes come from completely different parts of his artistic drive. "Writing fiction is at odds with writing music," Stevens said. "Music is so much more social. It feels more natural, more conversational. Fiction is about shutting yourself off, while music is making noise, a social interaction with instruments, where the music is responding to you." Taking the social analogy one step further, he claimed, "I like [to think of] my songs as friends. I like to hang out with them."
| Wesley Stace :: 12.17.07|
And hang out with them he does. Where Stace composes music to fit his lyrics, Stevens starts with the music and the words come almost as an afterthought. This might come as a surprise to anyone who's examined the thoughtfulness of his lyrics, where the feeling inside every word seems carefully created and perfectly placed.
Both men confessed a penchant for inserting themselves as the narrator, using their own feelings and thoughts in a historical context that's not necessarily their own. Asked by Moody about the research he does for his "50 States" albums, Stevens stated, "I believe that literature is a reflection of an experience, but a lived experience is much more valuable [especially when] filtered through my imagination." To this end he takes on the characters in their own settings and situations, "in every small town, every parade." About his Illinoise albu, his Asthmatic Kitty record label bio states, "All research, [Stevens] decided, begins with your imagination and with your intuition, relying heavily on the convictions of the heart."
Pressed by Moody about whether or not there was anything autobiographical about his own songs, Stace spoke of how his own life was often a jumping-off point for his songs, but not the ultimate arbiter of the final lyrical direction. Like Stevens, he expressed a desire to imaginatively reconfigure the world in his written creations, stating, "Just because it isn't from your personal life doesn't mean you aren't invested in it. Frank Sinatra didn't do it his way. He did it Paul Anka's way." Stace asserted that the personalization of lyrics is a somewhat recent phenomenon, emerging in songwriting sometime in the 1960s.
| Sufjan Stevens :: 12.17.07|
One main difference between the artistry of the two men is the scope of the world they create in their songs and stories. Stace's themes are often immediate and easily understood. He sings of relationships, his life on the road, and, well, relationships. As funny as it is whimsical, Stace's music seems to come straight from him, with perhaps a little added embellishment. All in all, pretty straightforward stuff.
Stevens' lyrical landscape is a bit more enigmatic. He documents the human experience, but records it through a slightly opaque filter. He sings of love and heartbreak like anybody else, but also of things like U.F.O.s, dragons and insects, imbuing them with unusual solemnity. It's as if Stevens is telling his life story and writing a fairy tale simultaneously. While focusing on what he calls "the one-inch picture frame," he paints a canvas of epic size and epic detail.
As you may have guessed by now, much of the PEN event's schedule was taken up with talk. The audience was given mere musical snippets, with both artists playing just three songs. Stace reeled off "My Favorite Angel," "The Top of the Bottom" and "Pandora." His execution was simple in style and comical in nature, as he strummed a guitar and sang, telling jokes and stories between selections.
| Sufjan Stevens :: 12.17.07|
Stevens' set was a bit more varied. He played two songs on the piano, "Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL" (the first song on Illinoise) and "Barn Owl, Night Killer," before pulling out the banjo to finish with "The Mistress Witch From McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)."
It's hard to really out your finger on, but there's a quality to Stevens' performance rarely seen in musicians today. The music comes out raw and unvarnished, as if Stevens is merely a conduit channeling some larger source. I found myself wondering how the voice I'd heard on albums could be coming from a real person as it traveled through the microphone and sound system.
What these artists really spoke to over the course of the evening was their insatiable thirst to create. With them, as with many gifted artists, one mode is simply not enough. Yet, by taking in the sum total of their work it's possible to distil the essence of the artistry. At the end of the day, as Stace pointed out, "It's all just one long song."
JamBase | Brooklyn
Go See Live Music!