Pitchfork: You studied in the creative writing program at the New School in New York. Did your training as a fiction writer influence your songwriting process in any significant way, or do you keep those mentalities separate?

Sufjan: I think they're very similar, writing fiction and writing music. They require different skills, and different ears, but there is a certain music to fiction, to the sentence-- the rhythm of words put together. And I think it's the same in songwriting as well.

Pitchfork: Most writing programs are rooted pretty heavily in the collaborative "workshop" process. Did that activity-- which is so inherently compromising-- change the way you think about recording?

Sufjan: If I learned anything from the workshops, it's to do a lot of self-scrutiny, and to spend as much time editing and cutting away as producing. I can apply that to songwriting because I tend to produce a lot of material and then distance myself from it, garner some kind of objectivity. I try to approach it with different ears and different eyes, and then cut away at it, trying to find the shape of the song. You do a lot of that in fiction writing. Something else that you do in the workshop that is very unusual is work with other people. It becomes a social process, you're sharing your work-in-progress with other people, and then they're offering feedback.

Pitchfork: Seven Swans was the first record that you didn't record by yourself. Was it strange for you to have Daniel Smith in the studio as producer?

Sufjan: Yeah, it was really unusual. It was uncomfortable at first. It was a collaborative project; I was bringing to the table sketches of songs that had been previously written. And then Daniel Smith was recording them, engineering them, and processing them somehow, figuring out arrangements with me. He had a certain kind of vision, and I had a certain kind of vision, and the whole project was about accommodating both of our visions, finding the commonness between different views-- and it was uncomfortable at first, but it became more of a relational thing, and less of a creative thing, by the end.

Pitchfork: Can you talk a little bit more about how you first got involved with Daniel Smith and the entire Danielson Famile community?

Sufjan: Yeah, they're definitely a community-- it extends even beyond the Famile, but the Famile is the core. I met Daniel in 1999, when I first moved to New York. My roommate and I were putting on this music festival in New York, and we invited the Famile to play it. I had never seen them before. That's when I met him and saw them play live for the first time. But it was such a busy event, and Daniel was starting a family, his wife was pregnant-- things were really starting to change for him and his career. So I never really got to develop a relationship with him until a year or so later, when I sent him some of my music.

I don't really know how it happened exactly, but we started talking more, and he approached me because one of his band members couldn't make some dates on his tour, and he knew that I could play the piano and organ. So he asked me to fill in. I had to go down to South Jersey and learn the parts for these songs, which wasn't an easy task. It was so much time and so much effort, getting to know everybody-- it was just as much about my ability to play these songs as it was about my ability to interact with them. We just got along really well, it was really natural-- I come from a really big family, and I felt right at home. I did that tour, and then later on he invited me to play banjo here and there. Eventually I became an adopted sibling-- at least for the live shows. It was kind of unofficial-- I'm not part of the band at all-- but if he's ever in the area, and I'm available, we usually play together.

Pitchfork: Given that the Famile has such a strong and specific religious component to what they do, did you have to acclimate yourself to that in some way, in order to be comfortable being out on tour with them?

Sufjan: Well, they're a Christian family, and I'm a Christian. That was already inherent. I think it would be very difficult-- but not impossible-- to be playing in that band, performing some of the music, that material and that content, if you didn't have a similar kind of ideology. We are characteristically and aesthetically very different. And even our liturgies-- we're ecumenically very different, because I'm more Episcopalian and they're more non-denominational.

Pitchfork: Seven Swans spurred a lot of interesting conversation about Christian themes in rock and folk music. Especially about how those songs are generally received so differently than a gospel song or a hip-hop track, and the racial implications of that-- how black gospel can be haphazardly glorified, while white Christian rock is almost unilaterally vilified. Maybe it's as simple as rock fans having a real, instinctual aversion to the religious components. Which in some ways is really natural-- to be distrustful of any kind of art that feels too didactic or overtly instructional. There's a big fear of Christian music out there.

Sufjan: I haven't really heard that. I know what you're saying about the stereotypes and the prejudices against certain kinds of Christian music. And the criticism is often just against the aesthetic, the artistry, the lack of substance in a lot of Christian pop music. That's really easy to deconstruct. Why is black gospel music accepted and enjoyed by people of all religions? I don't know. There might be a little bit of racism inherent in that. I don't know-- you'd have to be a cultural theorist. But I do have to reckon with the material I'm singing about. And I want to be responsible for what I'm singing about. But I can't be responsible for an entire culture, or an entire church. I can't be responsible for Christendom, and all of its messes and all of its destruction and all of its mistakes. That's not my burden to bear.

I think that when people react reflexively to material that is religious, they're reacting to the culture of religion. And I think an enlightened person is capable, on some level, of making the distinction between the institution of the culture and the culture itself. The institution of Christianity, the way that it's set up, it's institutionalized and comodified, and anytime that happens, anytime it's incorporated, it leads to disaster. I'm on the same page as everyone. I have the same knee-jerk reaction to that kind of culture. Maybe I'm a little more empathetic to it because we have similar fundamental beliefs. But culturally and aesthetically, some of it is really embarrassing.

Pitchfork: I can understand how it could be frustrating for you, since it very quickly became the central quirk with your record, even though God and religion are talked about all the time in other genres of music. A hip-hop artist can write a song about Jesus and not have to answer to 50 journalists asking about the Christian themes on their record-- of course, I'm playing into that right now...

Sufjan: No, I think it's a fair and interesting question. Can you be a liberal, enlightened, modern person and still believe in God? That's a really big question! I think that's what people are asking me, and honestly I'm incapable of answering. I have no idea. I'm as confused as they are. It's a much deeper conviction; it's much larger than just you and me.

Pitchfork: Has the experience of playing live changed dramatically for you, given the fairly recent successes of Greetings from Michigan and Seven Swans?

Sufjan: Now when I play a show, there are people there!

Pitchfork: Right, that's a plus.

Sufjan: [Laughs] Before the Michigan record, I hadn't really played live very often. I was just doing special events here and there-- music was just my hobby. I had other interests. And when I did play, it was just me and my friends. Small clubs, free shows. And suddenly I'm playing much larger venues, and I don't recognize anyone in the crowd. And that's really encouraging, but it's a little confusing how this happened. It really changes the way I have to approach my music and my live performance.

Pitchfork: How so? Just by being more cautious? Having to deal with the pressure of knowing that people paid for it?

Sufjan: Yeah, I always think, "Oh my gosh, people have paid for this, it better be interesting!" [Laughs] When you start doing this full-time, for a living, and you start playing shows where people have paid to come, you have a responsibility to the crowd. And I want to be as generous as I can be. Because I'm not actually an entertainer. I don't have those inclinations. I'm not a performer. I'm just a songwriter. So I need to accommodate the listener and really push myself to be as interesting as I can be live. And before I never really considered that, it was just a celebration, just hanging out and being together, it was very relaxed. But now I'm thinking much more about the performance.

Pitchfork: You recently did an interview with Stephen Merritt, where he called Outkast "innocuous party music for suburban teenagers" and you said, "There's so much bad music out there." Can you talk a little bit about contemporary records that you think are worth listening to?

Sufjan: I have a label, Asthmatic Kitty, and we're about to release two records, one by Liz Janes, who's a blues singer from San Diego. I produced and recorded her first record, and we did absolutely no promotion. No one really listened to it. But she's just completed her second record, and it's so exciting that I keep listening to it over and over again. I can't really figure it out; it's very odd. She's got this blues/R&B soulful kind of singing, but she comes from a noise rock background.

Then this other band called The Castanets, which is, like, really gothic country-folk. It's the same kind of thing; it's one kind of music that borrows from other genres, and tries, in some ways, to create a new genre, a new vision, a new kind of sound. Because I'm so connected to the records, I can't be objective about it. But it got me thinking about why I really like them, and it's because they're attempting to converge different types of music, and to find similarities, common ground, between different genres. And to create a new sound. Each of these records has an intonation that's kind of styled, that I really like-- it's very abstract and vague and ambiguous and hard to figure out, but still very listenable.

Pitchfork: Is that a problem that you see in contemporary music, then? That it's too one-dimensional, not forward-thinking enough, too stagnant?

Sufjan: Probably. I don't think we're pushing ourselves enough, I don't think there's the level of sophistication that could be there. I think too many bands are borrowing from other bands and wearing their influences proudly. I think that there's this kind of stream-of-consciousness of song, a free-association where one thing leads to the next thing leads to the next thing. But there's actually no development, no progress. And some of it is very exciting-- I mean I think bands like The Strokes are exciting in a lot of ways, but they're also really nostalgic, as well. They don't seem to be taking any risks. Where I think that a band like Stereolab, at times they were really balancing all these different types of music, creating a hybrid sound that was really exciting, and as emotionally interesting as it was technically interesting.

Pitchfork: Your 50 States project is so compelling, but also insanely ambitious-- I was curious about your methods, about if you're planning on spending time in each of these places before you write about them. Because in some ways, capturing the personality of place demands time, dedication, presence-- just to get some sense of its rhythm, its nuances, all that. But I think it could be equally interesting to write records about places you've never been, to play with the archetypes and rumors of, like, Arizona.

Sufjan: Of course, there are an unlimited number of possibilities, different ways of approaching it. I may be being nearsighted, but right now my approach is to do a lot of observing, listening, research. It's the same kind of research you do when fiction writing. It has so much to do with your own personal history, your own experience, your own relationships. And it has to do with your method of gathering data. So I think I'm starting with states where I've lived, or states that I know really well, and using those memories, and then also borrowing the stereotypes. But really trying less to create a historical picture, or a cultural assessment, and making more of an emotional assessment. It's really my voice and my personality and my character. That's what everything hinges on.

Pitchfork: It's very similar to good literature-- where place is inevitably the central pivot, the main character. Which is what was most interesting about the Michigan record, in that there were characters-- some human, some not-- interacting with this one, unmoving hub.

Sufjan: Michigan was really the test project. Even now, I have a much better understanding of what I'm trying to do. Although I still don't have any idea what I'm doing. [Laughs]

Pitchfork: What state is next?

Sufjan: I'm not sure. But I'm working on Illinois.

Pitchfork: Have you lived in Illinois?

Sufjan: Actually, I never have! But I've been to Chicago so many times. I went to school on the west coast of Michigan, and Chicago is the place we used to go to get away. And I have so many friends there. I'm sort of taking a risk by doing that, I guess. But on the other hand, it's still the Midwest.

Pitchfork: Right. And it's not so much of a risk, really-- I think you could write just as interesting a record based exclusively on a visitors' perspective. I mean, you already did a hometown record. I think an outside perspective on a place like Florida, with all its cultural mythologies, is actually probably much better stuff than the reality of, like, driving all the way through Florida.

Sufjan: Yes. The actual reality is numbing.