How 200 Musicians Joined Forces to Complete Sufjan Stevens’ Unfulfilled 50 States Project

Zach Schonfeld
·7 min read

Joey Clift never considered himself to be much of a Sufjan Stevens fan. But during the early weeks of the pandemic, the 36-year-old comedian and television writer recalled an idea he’d been weighing for years: What if he recruited an assortment of people to record albums about all 50 U.S. states, finishing the job Stevens had once vowed—and famously failed—to complete?

Clift had been introduced to Stevens’ work in 2005, when the singer’s breakout album Illinois was as inescapable as capri pants. Even though Clift didn’t love the music, he was drawn into the imaginative spectacle of the 50 States Project and the possibility that Stevens would eventually make a record about his home state of Washington. Clift sat on the idea for years until this past March, when the world stopped, and he got laid off from his job writing for the Quibi show Useless Celebrity History. “I remember driving home my last day on the job,” he says, “thinking about how any creative person is probably unemployed and looking for stuff to do.”

The resulting stockpile of music—which Clift dubbed “Our Fifty States Project”—lives on a mountainous SoundCloud page. The songs skew silly and parodic: for Florida, a sordid ode to the mythical “Florida Man”; for Louisiana, a ripping metal song sung by an alligator; for Vermont, a novelty rap performed by a Bernie Sanders impersonator. But there are also glimpses of vulnerability, earnest regional pride, and an overarching sense of community, all filtered through DIY aesthetics.

The project launched amid chaos. On March 19, as the coronavirus spread across the world, Clift posted a galvanizing call to action via Twitter and Instagram, inviting people of all musical abilities to record songs about U.S. states. “Together, we can finish this crazy abandoned project [and] forget about the imminent horrors of disease for a while,” he wrote. Within a day, he had nearly 200 emails expressing interest. He asked contributors to pitch him a state and three or four song ideas, then he’d assign his favorites, scrupulously organizing them into spreadsheets. The project began to feel bigger than its snarky origins. “I think it was a kind of group therapy for all of us,” says Clift. “Since Sufjan Stevens didn’t make an album to honor these people’s states, they largely had to do it themselves.”

Some tracks are unabashedly amateur. Others were helmed by professional musicians, like Stelth Ulvang, a touring member of the Lumineers and a longtime Stevens fan who heard about the project from his friend, Broadway actress Brittain Ashford. At the time, Ulvang had already committed to writing a song a day for 100 days. “I was elated, writing my bandmates in the Lumineers, like, ‘Check out this project I’m gonna do, this is hilarious,’” says Ulvang.

Deb Edattel, an audio producer in Virginia, caught wind of the project and recorded a song with her three elementary school-aged children. Edattel isn’t musical, but she bought a bell kit for her 7-year-old son and hired a music teacher to guide him over Zoom. The whole family joined in, and they recorded a wholesome tune called “I Want to Go to Louisiana.” “The kids were out of school,” says Edattel, “and I was just trying to figure out things to keep them busy. I asked them if they would want to try to write a song, and they said yes.”

For Edattel, there’s a more personal element. Her sister introduced her to Stevens’ music, and Edattel met her husband at one of his concerts in 2005. When her sister died in 2015, it felt meaningful to play Stevens’ songs at the funeral. Edattel says, “Subconsciously, I am sure I was using this project to keep my sister’s spirit in my and my kids’ lives.”

On May 27, Clift declared his mission complete. By the end, about 200 contributors made 510 songs total, resulting in an album for each of the 50 states (including new ones for Michigan and Illinois), plus one for the U.S. territories and one for the moon. (“There’s a flag up there, so I figured I gotta do it,” says Clift.)

Sifting through the music is like sampling fragmented scraps of patriotism. The stylistic variation is dizzying—the Wisconsin album veers from a delicate tune about getting drunk at Chris Farley’s grave to a chintzy trap song that lists cheeses. The Michigan one ranges from an ode to Motown founder Berry Gordy to a strangely delightful inventory of local lighthouses.

It’s not clear whether Sufjan Stevens knows or cares about this rogue, homespun endeavor. (A representative for Stevens did not respond to a request for comment.) Clift considered burning all the albums onto CDs and mailing them to his label, Asthmatic Kitty, but he likely won’t. Although the title of Stevens’ recent single, “America,” triggered a new round of wisecracks from fans, the songwriter has long since moved on from his unfinished undertaking. “That was self-promotion,” he admitted in a recent interview with Mojo around his new album The Ascension. “By the time we got to Illinois I knew it was futile.”

But this joyful bastardization of his project doesn’t really belong to Stevens, no more than the millionth YouTube cover of “Hallelujah” belongs to Leonard Cohen. Nor is it an ordinary fan salute. Our Fifty States Project stands out both as an outlandish expression of quarantine boredom and as a curious distortion of the traditional tribute album: Fans are not covering his songs but instead creating their own Sufjan-style songs en masse to finish what he started. There’s a history of cult fandoms attempting to complete a musical visionary’s unfinished work—Beach Boys obsessives spent years exchanging bootlegged versions of Smile—but Clift’s project is distinguished by its immense scope.

Curiously, it’s not the only time Stevens fans have made their own state albums. Last winter, a Maine father named John Picone and his three kids released a folk album about their home state called Welcome to MAINIA: The Way Life Should Be. Picone says his teenage kids were “clinically insane over Sufjan” and performed his songs at a hippie bakery. “My daughter told us about the legend of the 50 States Project, but that it would take Sufjan over 100 years to finish the other 48 states,” Picone tells me. “Researching the project inspired us to try to help Sufjan out.”

Months later, the prolific songwriter known as Mr. Husband released a Sufjan-inspired album of his own titled Hey Sufjan, You Took Too Long So I Went Ahead and Made West Virginia. It’s a low-stakes, countryfied tribute to the rarely celebrated Appalachian state. “I feel like we gave ol’ Sufjan hell,” Mr. Husband drawls on the final track, “but it was all in good fun, so hopefully he’s not too ticked off about it.”

Clift’s project unfolded on a much larger scale and unified hundreds of isolated individuals in pursuit of a common goal. Comedian Mike Hughes contributed six tracks to the Our Fifty States Project despite no musical experience; he simply downloaded royalty-free backing tracks, then recorded new vocals in his car to avoid bugging his roommates. Hughes says it helped him get through the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown: “At the beginning, when everyone was probably the most scared, it did so much to give me a focus—it gave all these people this wonderful outlet at a time when they really needed it.”

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork