B&E: Sufjan Stevens

Breaking & Entering: A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Sufjan Stevens.

Profiling acts breaking at radio and/or retail and entering Billboard's charts.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Sufjan Stevens! The quirky singer-songwriter has soared onto the Billboard charts with his album, "Illinois," which piqued much interest recently because it featured an unlicensed image of Superman on the cover.

The singer's label, Asthmatic Kitty, tried to stop the album from reaching store shelves to avoid any legal ramifications, but copies had already been shipped. And it seems as though the controversy only helped boost sales of "Illinois," as the album debuted last week at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart.

With a sound that's rooted in American folk and classical music, Stevens focuses on narrative stories and using such instruments as the banjo, piano and guitar. In 2003, the Detroit-born artist released "Michigan," the first in a series of albums focusing on tales from each of the 50 U.S. states. But how does one come up with such an ambitious idea?

"In third grade I had to an oral report on the state of Oregon," Stevens recalls. "I brought up Big Foot sightings, and I remember there was an argument about whether or not Big Foot was valid history. Ever since then I've been thinking about how subjective history is. I guess when I did 'Michigan' it was really a record of memory and looking back at my home state, and it really spawned the whole idea."

"Illinois" is the second in the series, and features songs such as "John Wayne Gacy Jr." and "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL." Since Stevens has never lived in the state, the project was mostly based on researching newspapers, biographical books and historical documents. But his "most valuable resource" was conversations with friends who had lived there.

He is currently working on projects about Rhode Island, Oregon and New Jersey, but whether or not he'll get to record an album for all 50 states remains to be seen. "I don't know if it's realistic," he says. "What I think I'm gonna do is franchise and start farming [states] out to other bands. Like I'll start collaborations and then I'll start commissioning, so I'll get 10%."

As for the success of "Illinois," Stevens says, "I'm still doing everything pretty independently and releasing things on my own label. Most of the decisions that I make aren't based on sales success or money, they're based on sustaining my art and being true to the original goal and vision. So I think the kind of success that's coming out of it is a real surprise and a real blessing, but I never expected it."

In the meantime, Stevens can breathe easy about having to worry about any possible legal action. According to Asthmatic Kitty's Web site, the label recently reached an agreement with DC Comics regarding the use of Superman's image. Albums that have already been printed can continue to be sold, but the image will be removed from future pressings.

As previously reported, some retailers believe that the Superman snafu may have helped boost sales of the album -- copies of the original set have sold on eBay for as much as $75 -- but Stevens is not so sure. "I certainly hope that's not what was motivating people to buy it," he says.

Stevens is currently on tour with labelmate Liz Janes.

Artist site: www.sufjan.com
Label site: www.asthmatickitty.com


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