Sufjan Stevens doesn't really do awards shows. The 42-year-old singer-songwriter behind celebrated concept albums like Illinois and Carrie & Lowell has thrived on the periphery of the mainstream for the better part of the past two decades. So a conversation about his first Oscar nomination, for one of three songs he contributed to Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name, quickly devolves into a debate about whether the singer should even attend the ceremony. He also offers his take on Tonya Harding's apparent distaste for his new single about her.
Do you know if you'll be performing "Mystery of Love" at the show?
They've only asked if I'm going to attend. If I can find something to wear, I will probably attend.
Have you given any thought to what you might like to do if you get the opportunity to perform?
The only problem is that I've never played the song live. I'd have to figure that out. The other day I was YouTube-ing people who've covered it, and I was so impressed by how many have figured it out. There's one guy that did a medley, with the flute, the harp and an accordion. It was really sophisticated. If I can't figure it out, I'm just going to hire him to perform it in my place.
You surrender some creative control in handing these songs over to the film. What did you think of the way Luca used them?
The final scene left me heartbroken and devastated. That's more of a testament to Timothee [Chalamet]'s performance. I could have watched that scene in silence, and it would have been just as powerful. You know, I generally dislike music in film. It can be manipulative and disruptive, but somehow Luca gets away with it.
Are there any soundtracks that you like?
I think Bernard Hermann's work with Hitchcock is impeccable — whether it's Straussian, Wagnerian, slasher strings or no music at all. In The Birds, it's just bird sounds. Of course, John Williams is the king of Hollywood pop opera. You can't have cinema without John Williams. I love Star Wars.
You just released a song about Tonya Harding. And, in a New York Times interview, she got pretty riled about you using her name.
I loved that. I went out and got a physical copy of the newspaper, put it in Saran Wrap and archived it away. That's something I'm going to enjoy showing my grandchildren. She's just tough as nails. It's all so problematic. She's obviously quite possessive of herself and her brand. I loved that story, but I felt the writer was being very generous [to her].
That was one of the last pieces before she started telling reporters they can't ask about her past.
She had her 15 minutes of fame — again! She's complicated. I'm just glad to know that she's fine. She's a survivor, and she's going to be OK. I wish I could write her a letter to let her know I'm not making any money off of the song or capitalizing on anyone. I'm a creative person. I write songs about people, historical people, living or dead, mythological or not. It's my job. My job is to write a song about Tonya Harding or Abraham Lincoln or John Wayne Gacy or Moses or Venus. (Laughs.) It's my job!
A lot of people assume the song is on the I, Tonya soundtrack.
The song is in no way affiliated with the movie, but I certainly rushed to release it in tandem. I sent them a copy while they were still editing: "Hey, y'all, I know that you're working on the movie. I've been working on this song for about 10 years." That's true. I've been trying to write a Tonya Harding song for a long time. The musical director got back to us and said, "Um, we're kind of going in a different direction."
You seem to be uncharacteristically prolific of late.
Have I been? I think I used to release a record and go into hiding. I needed to recede and have solitude. But now, I'm putting less emphasis on the album and tour cycles and more emphasis on being productive and engaged — and doing it in a way that's healthy and in moderation. I feel less ambitious and more curious. I'm more interested in just creating without objective.
What are you working on right now?
I am trying to figure out what to wear to the Oscars. I should go, right? I have to go. How am I 42 and I've never worn a tuxedo? I guess I'll give it a try. If I can meet Mary J. Blige, I will go for that alone.
What are the odds that they pronounce your name correctly?
I don't think they even acknowledge the singer's name. This is what's so exciting about this category that no one ever talks about. It's the song that's nominated, not the singer or songwriter. Isn't that awesome? Intellectual property wins an Oscar!
This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.