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A Thoughtful Interview With Stephin Merritt Of The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt. (Marcelo Krasilcic)
Stephin Merritt. (Marcelo Krasilcic)
This article is more than 5 years old.

At a recent NPR All Songs Considered listening party at Berklee College of Music in Boston, something surprising and slightly magical occurred: the audience, hearing “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields, started to sing along.

It was a tentative, fleeting moment, a roomful of voices rising softly in concert with singer Stephin Merritt’s plaintive chorus. Perhaps it was illustrative of the unifying power of music, but I think it spoke more pointedly to Merritt’s particular talent of extracting transcendence from understatement. (Though as the interview below shows, he has a contrasting style of speaking: direct and razor-sharp.) Merritt begins “The Book of Love” by bringing a big idea down to earth—“The book of love is long and boring/ No one can lift the damn thing”—and then attacks the same idea, with characteristic coyness, from a tender, unexpectedly personal angle: “But I, I love it when you read to me/ And you, you can read me anything.” Merritt hovers around those “I”s and “you”s, relishing their resonance in his dour baritone. It is so sweet to sing along.

As a panelist for the listening party, I chose “The Book of Love” because I think it is a very nearly perfect song, and I had hoped that the audience, who were supposed to score it on a scale of one to 10, would agree. I didn’t expect that they would already know it, especially since many of them looked young enough to have been children when “The Book of Love” came out, on the three-disc album set “69 Love Songs,” in 1999.

Merritt, who famously dislikes performing live, is currently embarked on a rare tour of the U.S. with cellist and Magnetic Fields member Sam Davol. (The duo stops by the Sinclair in Cambridge on June 9.) With no new record to promote, Merritt instead plans to perform 26 of his own songs each night, ordered alphabetically by title, with one song for each letter.

Such a task may sound daunting, but Merritt has a vast body of work upon which to draw. With Merritt at the helm, The Magnetic Fields released 10 albums between 1991 and 2012. (The band was founded in Boston, where Merritt went to high school, and played their first gig at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge.) The singer-songwriter, who currently lives in upstate New York, has also released two albums as The 6ths, a project for which he taps famous singers to perform his songs; two albums as The Gothic Archies; and two albums with Future Bible Heroes, a collaboration with Magnetic Fields bandmate Claudia Gonson and Boston-based DJ/producer Chris Ewan. In more recent years Merritt has adapted Chinese operas, composed film scores and soundtracks, and written a book in homage to two-letter “Scrabble” words, with illustrations by the cartoonist Roz Chast.

“69 Love Longs” is Merritt’s magnum opus, or at the very least his most popular album. The title speaks both to his love of concepts—The Magnetic Fields’ following three albums were envisioned as a “no-synth” trilogy and recorded using only acoustic instruments—and his sense of humor. No one is funnier and sadder at the same time than Merritt. Though his songs run the gamut from the convincingly sincere to the devilishly misanthropic, all feature the same forthright, lyrical wit and distinctive sonic palette. Merritt is an avowed lover of bubblegum—he cites Abba as a core influence—but his taste nevertheless seems to exist within a vacuum-sealed universe unto itself. (In interviews, the musician has expressed distaste for most of hip-hop and a good deal of contemporary Top 40.) Whether he is working in an acoustic or electronic medium, Merritt rejects the pop signifiers du jour and reliably devotes himself to the chintzy and the strange: the metallic buzz of the mandolin, the percussive sibilance of a drum machine, the cartoonish interjections of who-knows-what type of synthesizer.

In the following interview, which has been excerpted and edited for clarity, Merritt talked about his songwriting process, the importance of mundanity, and why someone should write a song called “California Grrrls.”

I’m curious to hear about the alphabet conceit that you’ve created for these performances that you’re on tour with right now. Why did you decide to structure them that way and sing through the alphabet?

Stephin Merritt: I just wanted there to be some sort of arc. It’s not a dramatic arc, but at least it’s a narrative, so that I’m not just getting up and playing some random selection of songs. I don’t particularly have a new album out, so I’m not playing the songs from the new album.

So how have you found that that constraint affects the performance? Are there challenges to that rubric you’ve created?

I think the only challenge is that we can only have one song from the album “i,” because they all begin with, all the titles begin with the same letter. But there’s also, there’s fun parts like, the audience is doubtless wondering what we’re going to do with the more high-value letters: J, K, Q, and Z.

I know you write songs sitting in bars. What is it about that that helps you be creative, or productive?

Well, alcohol. And being away from home, where I am more or less forced to do nothing for a few hours. Unfortunately, the advent of the smartphone has made that much more difficult.

Because you’re distracted?

Yes, it has seriously hurt my productivity. Because it’s always possible for me to do some other work. I’m trying to establish a rule for myself where I don’t use the smart phone from 9pm to midnight. And it’s really hard to enforce.

I wonder if there’s an app or something for that.

There is, but I want to be able to use [my phone] for research.

What kind of research?

Well, the bad kind of research that I really shouldn’t do is to Google a song title that I’ve thought of and see if anyone else has thought of it. Because really, who cares if someone else has thought of it. Other people have thought of lots of things. There were many, many songs called “Yesterday” before the Beatles wrote one. And ever since then there have been far fewer songs called “Yesterday,” because everyone doesn’t want to compete with that one.

So the challenge would be to write the best song of any given title.

Well, when I wrote “The Book of Love,” I didn’t think of it as a better song than the ‘50s pop standard “The Book of Love.” And when I wrote “California Girls” I didn’t think of it as a better song than the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” In both cases, the listener is supposed to know that there is already a song with that title.

Right. So it’s a reference.

I’d like to triangulate that point but I can’t think of any other of my songs that have pointedly stolen titles. Or pointedly used titles. And then Katy Perry’s song “California Gurls” is spelled with a “u,” which for me, I don’t know if that makes it clear or not that she is winking at you, expecting you to realize that there is already a song called “California Girls.”

Yeah, I wonder if it’s to make it more Googleable.

I assume that she doesn’t know mine. But a chunk of the audience can be assumed to know the Beach Boys song. But right, [maybe] she intentionally misspelled the song so that when people Google it, they won’t see the Beach Boys.

Yeah, I think it’s a savvy choice in that regard, rather than an artistic one. If you’re thinking that way, which I think they would.

It would be good to write a response song to that. An answer song, to be called “California Grrrls,” g-r-r-r-l-s, about the Riot Grrrl alleged movement. One could go on and on with “California Girls,” it’s a pretty large topic, with a lot to say.

I mean, that seems like one of the great pleasures of a lot of your songs, this interacting with a pop pastiche. Or you’ll do this wonderful thing where you’ll employ clichés but you’ll kind of subvert them, or just bring new insight into an idea that seems like it could be really well-worn.

Yes.

I guess my question around that is: Is that how you’re thinking about it? Is that how you’re going about it, when you write about love, for example?

I like to think about Allen Ginsberg, and his refusal to use the definite article. He has whole decades where he doesn’t use the word “the,” not only in poems, but in public pronouncements. He went out of his way to avoid the word “the” altogether. And for me, that seems like a cop-out. Because if you avoid the mundane, what are you saying about everybody’s lives, from moment to moment? Our lives are made up of the mundane and they should be made up of the mundane, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. And transcending it is silly. But maybe he was open to that silliness, I don’t know. In my case, I love the word “the,” I use it all the time in “Words With Friends,” and I certainly use it all the time, even in this sentence.

Right. Although you do give yourself certain constraints from time to time, like if you’re starting every title with an “i” or something like that. You’re not totally averse to creating arbitrary rules or arbitrary-seeming rules.

Well, I’m not starting every title with “j.”

That would sort of be self-sabotaging.

No, but it would be a lot more of a constraint. There are a lot of records where all of the titles are one word. Off the top of my head, I can think of three albums where all of the titles but one are one word. Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music,” and the other one just left my brain. Um... aaaaah. I thought of it, I just forgot it.

I believe you.

I need more tea. I’m in Austin, so it’s earlier here. I thought of what the other album was: Cocteau Twins, “Treasure.” All three of those records, all or all but one of the titles are a single word. And it looks good design-wise, and in fact all three of those people are design-crazy, two of them are visual artists. So they’re clearly looking at the back of the album as an important part of their creative process making the album. I think constraints are great for artists.

I’ve noticed with various people I’ve interviewed that there are a couple different ways that people think about songwriting. For a lot of people it is really a way of expressing their emotions, and getting something out, and that’s the primary project. And for some people there’s the pleasure in crafting something well, which could be the main focus. Which is it for you?

I need to know more or less what I’m working on in order to know what game I’m playing. I need to define ahead of time what I’m trying to do. So when I wrote “i” it wasn’t just that all the song titles would begin with “i,” it was also consciously a soft rock album, because it was the album after “69 Love Songs” and I had to pick a genre, any genre, really. So I went with soft rock.

I guess I just wondered if it was important for you to put your feelings in there, or get them out.

If I need to express something, I express it in ordinary prose. Songwriting is not about expressing something. It’s not about expressing something that you could just as well express another way.

What is it about, then?

Again, expression is not the point.

What is the point?

Songwriting is its own point. It doesn’t require expression to exist, any more than it requires a political viewpoint or a moral—you don’t need to have a moral for every song. Starting with a moral is a constraint, but it’s definitely not a requirement. Or expressing some emotional point of view is a perfectly good constraint, but it has nothing to do with why one is writing a song. You write songs because you enjoy writing songs.

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