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Playing in Traffic

Then he received a proposition to do just that. Joseph Melillo, executive producer of BAM and the first producer of the Next Wave Festival, happened upon Stevens’s 2006 “American Songbook” concert at Lincoln Center. “I have a Geiger counter for originality,” Melillo says. “It hit me fast in the face: This is original. This is off-center. There’s subtext here. It was beautifully interpreted, well-crafted music.” Melillo immediately began plotting ways to book Stevens himself. “I got in touch with him, and I said, ‘You should have a relationship with this institution. [It’s] here to service you as an artist. I want you to have these resources available to you.’ He said yes, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m now going to commission you.’ He didn’t know what that meant, so I had to go through the definition of what the verb to commission means.”

Melillo doesn’t think there’s anything cynical about using Stevens to bring kids into his academy. “Philip Glass is 70 years old,” he says. “Steve Reich is 71 years old. Laurie Anderson is 60. Those are the facts. I’m trying to pass the baton to another generation, who should have the same opportunities that this senior generation had 20, 30 years ago.”

But Stevens sees his classical sojourn as an exercise, not a long-term career goal. “I have a suspicion against new-music personalities,” he says. “There’s a certain kind of pretension. And I cannot pretend to be part of that environment, because I don’t have the experience, the skills, or the abilities. My music—even this kind of chamber music—is still very much based on pop idioms. It’s not based on new-music theory. But I enjoy pretending to be a composer. I’m sort of a hack at it. It’s fun to indulge in that.”

For all his free-flowing self-deprecation, Stevens loves talking about work. He’s big on research—the BQE project sent him scurrying for info about its architect, Robert Moses. “The Robert Caro biography is extremely thorough and extremely interesting, but there’s very little about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” he says. “The Cross Bronx Expressway was the bigger story. That was the poster child for Moses’s bad urban-planning schemes. There isn’t as much scholarship around the BQE, which may be why it interested me.”

Shift to more personal lines of inquiry, though, and Stevens gets all fidgety. He grew up in Michigan? “Yeah.” Brothers and sisters? “Mm-hmm.” How many? “Two brothers and three sisters.” Stevens likes to say that his childhood has little bearing on his work. “My upbringing was very mundane,” he says. “It was about making ends meet and putting food on the table and doing the chores.” What did his parents do? Blank look. “What did they do?” he repeats. Vocationally, I say. “They had different jobs,” he responds, with growing discomfort. “They weren’t career people at all. They didn’t have vocations. My stepmother was a teacher for a while, she was a massage therapist for a while, she cleaned offices for a while. My dad worked at the state park for a while, he did building and contracting, he was a chef for a while, he baked bread for a food co-op. And now they both—I think they both work at Wal-Mart, I’m not sure. I know my dad does; I don’t know if my stepmother still does.”

Before he was born, his parents participated in a spiritualist organization called Subud. But they divorced when he was a year old, and Subud wasn’t prominent in the house as he grew up. (Stevens has written extensively in his lyrics about faith and his belief in God. In 2006, he released an elegantly reflective five-CD package, Songs for Christmas.) It wasn’t a household that especially nurtured creativity, either. Stevens says he had limited exposure to music other than “a lot of Top 40—really bad, white-bread pop radio.” When he was a teenager, his former stepfather, Lowell Brams, who now helps run his record label, introduced him to more adventurous music, like Nick Drake, Ry Cooder, and Kronos Quartet. Stevens studied classical oboe at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, but returned, discouraged, to public high school after a year. “I wasn’t very committed,” he says. “I grew tired of the fussiness of it. I knew I wasn’t good enough to pursue it professionally.” It was in college that he began working at music in earnest, learning guitar, piano, and banjo and constructing the kind of homemade songs that would eventually end up on his debut album.

What’s noticeably missing from Stevens’s sensibility is rock and roll. He isn’t one for gutsy directness or rough-hewn emotion. He’s a craftsman, a technician, a builder of ships in bottles. It’s significant that the first indie performer of his generation to make the leap to the big-league arts Establishment couldn’t care less about the defining popular music of the past 50 years. “Rock and roll is dead,” he says, voluble again. “Rock and roll is a museum piece. It has no viability anymore. There are great rock bands today—I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs. But it’s a museum piece. You’re watching the History Channel when you go to these clubs. They’re just reenacting an old sentiment. They’re channeling the ghosts of that era—the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever. It’s been done. The rebellion’s over.”

So if rock and roll is dead, what’s classical? He laughs. “Mummified.”