For a state with no shortage of artists, it's surprising it took a musician from Detroit to release an album honoring Illinois.
The full-length, aptly titled "Illinois," is the work of Sufjan (pronounced Soof-yen) Stevens, who brings his layered, indie-pop sound to Metro for a pair of sold-out shows.
Stevens, who at 30 resembles a 20-something clerk in a used bookstore, began making records on small independent labels in 2000. In 2003, he released "Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State," the first in a series of albums about each of the 50 states, simply called "The 50 States Project."
"I think the implausibility in some ways redeems me from having to complete it," Stevens says.
Only the second album in the series, "Illinois" offers shout-outs to people, places and things straight out of a board of tourism brochure. The record is so deeply grounded in Illinois history, it includes references to the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Pullman rail car, leading listeners to perhaps mistake it for the soundtrack to a PBS documentary.
Like a jazz musician who riffs on a familiar melody to create a musical composition all his own, Stevens employs icons like the Chicago World's Fair, Mary Todd Lincoln and Carl Sandburg as a backdrop for telling personal stories about road trips, summers by the lake and lost friends. Lush horns, delicate string arrangements and majestic choruses give weight to Stevens' quiet, almost shy, vocals.
Despite the close geographic proximity to his home state, Illinois became the subject of Stevens' second "50 States" record only after he saw an opportunity to expand on the ideas first explored in "Michigan."
"I was working on several states simultaneously," Stevens says. "The tone of the music for Illinois seemed much more exciting and challenging to me. The music itself seemed to evoke a very big character."
Stevens' knowledge of Illinois was limited to punk rock shows he attended in Chicago and a few road trips through the central part of the state. Rather than research the album firsthand, he spent four months immersing himself in books and historical records.
"I wanted there to be an emotional distance," he says.
In describing how he works, Stevens sounds like the typical indie rock artist--one who'd rather be in his bedroom cuddling up to a four-track tape recorder than performing on stage.
But his live shows contradict that stereotype. They're often reminiscent of a high school pep rally, complete with Stevens' band--dubbed the Illinoisemakers--dressed as cheerleaders in Illini orange and blue, leading the audience in choreographed odes to Peoria and Decatur.
"Some of it may seem like a distraction and may seem gimmicky," Stevens explains. "But I do that for myself and for the listener, so that no one takes it too seriously." Whether he finishes "The 50 States Project" or not is a moot point; he sees plenty to be gained in just making the attempt.
"The real work and experience is not so much in exceeding or accomplishing those goals," he says, "but in the exciting thing that happens in the pursuit of those things."
Scott Smith is a metromix special contributor. Originally published Sept. 13, 2005.