The Quantum Sufjan: simultaneously ready and not ready for a photograph.

The Quantum Sufjan: simultaneously ready and not ready for a photograph.

I walk into the studio and my phone buzzes with an email from my wife. She's sent it from her parents' computer in Oregon, which is where she lives now. Sufjan Stevens is with me, looking on from under the brim of his cap, hovering over me as I hesitate. His ears hear. His eyes know. His stubble feels. When I say nothing he begins the interview.

'There there,' he says. 'Pain is a beautiful thing, don't you know? I won the state spelling bee during elementary school. I spelled 'indecision' to win, and that's something that has really stuck with me. It's always on my mind, whenever I'm picking between brass or a choir, I think--Sufjan, listen up, this isn't some stupid spelling bee, this is real life. And real life is pain. If that choir doesn't get a part on this track, then so be it. Do you like my cap?'

The rest of the interview was largely a monologue. I didn't have much to say because I was trying to read on my phone, and I was staring down at my shaking hands. As such, I have only put on record Sufjan's half of the conversation.

'One time I went down into the back gully, out behind where my step-father would smoke in the evenings, and my brother would watch him and play a detuned guitar, trying to breathe in whatever he could. Actually, I wonder if birds can choke on cigarette smoke? Not that I'm a vegan, of course, or anything of the sort, but I am feeling rather peckish right now--ha ha. Down in that gully I saw a dead horse. I had never even seen a horse before, so it really was a revelation. What is this? Are these things always dead? Do you think it likes my cap?'

'This was during the war, don't you know. No, I'm not older than I look. The cap is deceiving. No, listen, I'm not answering any questions about the cap. Do you want me to fucking leave?'

I didn't say anything to this. But I did look up from my phone. When he looked at me I imagined him reading the text in the reflection on my eyes.

'My new record is out soon,' he said. 'No, it's not based on a state. I realised if I did any more than two state-albums then some of the assholes in the Midwest might start feeling left-out, and have you seen a Nevadan all pissy? It's a nightmare. One time, I was hitch hiking from coast to coast, on the run from a junkie ex--I stole all her coke, don't you know--and anyway, I--oh, the record? It's called Carrie & Lowell. I'm going to do records based on each of the ten most-popular male and female baby names during 1937, which is my favourite year on account of Charlie Chaplin. Yes, I do feel this is less ambitious than the previous concept--it's only ten sets of names. There are fifty-two states, right? Right? Count the stars on the flag on the back of my cap, would you?'

I counted. I told him there were fifty-two stars on the back of his cap and he smiled at me.

'I never used Autotune, no. That's a falsification. I just sang into a trumpet backwards and then messed with the sound a little on my father's old cassette deck. He's dead, of course. Yes, of course he is--why would you think otherwise? He'd've never leant it to me if he was alive.'

I asked a question then.

'My mother? No, no, no. That's right up there with cap-questions. We're not going there. I actually like to think of myself as a bit of a reverse-Jesus where parental roles are concerned. Which is ironic, I guess, since the closest female we have to God is the Virgin Mary, but there you have it. Wait, is God a man? Have they proven it either way yet? Did I write a song about that? Back in school I hid the answers inside my hat. I'd scratch my head like this and take a peek. The questions were much easier back then.'

Sufjan then got up and brushed off whatever dust had settled on him in the time he'd spent in my company. He looked at my eyes, my shaking hands, whatever he could see of my iPhone screen. I wasn't hiding it from him. And when he left I kept the recorder on the coffee table going for another half an hour, breathing in nothing but the sound of static.

Stevens's seventh album, Carrie and Lowell, is out worldwide through Asthmatic Kitty Records on March 31st, which is also the date of my fifth wedding anniversary.

Jonathan O'Brien