Sufjan Stevens

His music is understated, his demeanor modest and his performances are light-hearted.

But it can be hard to convince people of that.

First, Sufjan Stevens employs eight musicians wearing homemade cheerleading outfits who actually do cheers between songs. Stevens is himself a former writing teacher who plays a laundry list of instruments, including banjo, guitar, piano and clarinet.

Every song in the show is dedicated to the state of Illinois. Stevens wants to write 50 albums, each one devoted to a different state in the union. Come On Feel The Illinoise! (or Illinois, depending on what side of the CD disc you look at) is the second, 2003’s Michigan was the first.

The song titles can be whimsical and their titles conjure Walt Whitman (“One Last ‘Whoo-Hoo’ for the Pullman”). Some are longer than a Fiona Apple album title. The subject matter includes John Wayne Gacy, Mary Todd Lincoln and bone cancer. The music can be understated folk or as complex as a Philip Glass tune.

But it works, and works well. Reviews are dotted with words like “staggering,” “daring” and “seductive.” The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have given Stevens full-page spreads, and Rolling Stone featured the musician in a four-star review.

Stevens (first name pronounced Soof-yen) has put out his music on Asthmatic Kitty, a label owned by him and his stepdad. The Fighting Illini outfits were sewn by Sufjen and his brother. He doesn’t have a manager.

“We kind of try to figure out what the inquiry is about and then direct it accordingly,” Stevens told Pollstar.

His publicist, agent or stepdad will take the calls.

“For each situation, there is a particular person who works as management, but I’m a little suspicious of that role and that term,” he said.

For instance, tour manager Lisa Moran, who actually manages The Constantines, is currently dubbed “matriarch.”

“Or, Mrs. Moneybags,” Stevens joked.

At the time of the interview, the musician and his two-van caravan were in Washington after playing a pair of sold-out shows at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and a gig at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre that was at capacity three weeks in advance.

Upcoming was five sold-out shows at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom (each one with a different theme, including Formal Prom Night, Fake Injury Night and Backwards Night, where the band wore its sweaters backwards), and two sold-out shows at Chicago’s Metro.

Stevens insists on $10 CDs at his merch table. Tickets have climbed to as much as $15 against his wishes. He will advertise in smaller fanzines to help them out rather than the larger trades.

“I don’t want to do anything that’s too ambitious or that’s thwarting the original goal, which is to create a sustainable career that supports my art and supports the artists around me,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain because when an opportunity arises, people think you need to jump on it.

“And I think it’s a little deluded. I think we’re a little too desperate and a little too nearsighted about how this will work … and the music industry really suffers from a lack of patience and a lack of modesty.”

Sufjan Stevens

That’s why Stevens has stayed on his own label, as well as because it’s still a learning experience.

“It means playing multiple shows at a smaller venue like Bowery instead of going to Irving Plaza or something. It’s a little idealistic and maybe a little naive, but I guess that’s our privilege at this point because we’re just learning as we go.”

According to his agent, Billions Corporation’s Ali Giampino, there are no plans for Stevens to tour after the current run, but she is trying to persuade him to hit the Texas markets in February. Giampino got wind of this guy in 2003, and signed him after listening to Michigan non-stop.

Stevens said he liked and trusted her immediately. She books about 20 artists including Joanna Newsom, Neko Case, Calexico, and The New Pornographers, so there was already a philosophical bond with her roster.

So they shook on it before Giampino saw him play live, something she rarely does. There was some trepidation when she saw him for the first time at an in-store performance at South By Southwest.

“He was really rushed and it wasn’t the greatest set,” she said. The next time she saw Stevens play, there was lousy sound and “that was just all right as well.”

But the third time was the charm.

“I was absolutely blown away and so excited. I knew I had something that would do well.”

She said the audience loves the cheers between songs, especially if they get screwed up.

Stevens defended the choreography.

“We didn’t get enough time to practice,” he said. “The songs themselves are so challenging that we ran out of time, so we’ve been learning them in the car as we go along.

They’ve been getting better, but it’s a little jarring to go from a song to a cheer, and it changes the mood and the spirit in the room immediately. … It’s really a lot of fun.

“We’ve been getting a lot better, actually. We’re working toward a human pyramid.

That’s our goal by the end of the tour. Someone can hold a flag. We’ll need a spotter, of course.

But I don’t think a lot of us have health insurance and we’re a little worried about that.”