Sufjan Stevens is nothing if not ambitious. The American indie star first came to wider attention with his great kaleidoscopic 2005 album Illinois, a conceptual set about the state that followed his 2003 ode to his home territory, Michigan, and part of a supposed plan to record 50 albums about the US of A.

That plan went by the wayside. Bit of a gag. But it got him noticed.

Since, he's done a Christmas record - a lavish 42-song set of yuletide covers and his own carols originally recorded as EPs, which he gave to friends and family.

Then there was the semi-orchestral instrumental ode to a strip of motorway The BQE (which originally accompanied an art film about the titular Brooklyn Queens Expressway) and last year's All Delighted People EP which went for an hour despite its supposed short-form status.

Oh and last year's album The Age of Adz - itself inspired by the mad paintings of the late southern "outsider" artist Royal Robertson - ended with Impossible Soul, a 25-minute pop symphony in multiple movements.

"My songs have been getting longer and longer and longer," he laughs down the line from New York.

"On Illinois there are some really long songs. But this is the first time I really decided to let it cultivate - really allow it to grow and blossom naturally and without trying to contain it and censor it."

So when he plays here for the first time next month, Stevens' show should be something.

The word "surreal" pops up frequently in live reviews from his most recent American tour, with him commanding a band of 11 on stage and video extras inspired by Robertson's intense and often disturbing artwork.

Stevens laughs in response to an inquiry about how he can make a cohesive set out of his relatively short but wide-ranging career.

"Well I don't know if cohesive has anything to do with what I do. Obliviously I'm a narrative folk songwriter at heart but I kind of meander. I am all over the place and the live show doesn't try to contain that or disclaim it, we just kind of embrace it and play everything."

Still there is a discipline to his work. Stevens seems to work as a songwriting essayist - pick subject, write album around it.

"I studied fiction writing and I think a lot of my music is influenced by the fiction writing workshop experience.

"I think what I do is I come at things like a researcher would and this is probably because of all the conditioning from high school and university and being taught how to cultivate ideas and form a thesis and develop ideas to support a thesis.

"It's sort of a very scholastic approach. I don't think my music has much scholarship to it. But the process is definitely influenced by that procedure."

However, Age of Adz, he says, was an attempt to get away from the studious approach.

"I think this record is an attempt to do away with the scholarship and the conceptual platform."

Even if the Royal Robertson inspiration brings with it its own dark ideas - his apocalyptic artwork being full of violence and misogyny.

Then again, on Illinois one of the most memorable tracks was John Wayne Gacy Jr, about the early life of the serial killer.

"Well, I'm definitely attracted to the anti-hero."

LOWDOWN

Who:
Sufjan Stevens
When: Bruce Mason Centre, Monday, Feb 7; The Opera House, Wellington, Feb 8
Latest album: The Age of Adz

-TimeOut