Magnetic: Stephin Merritt

I sit around in gay bars with a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other, my little black notebook in my lap, listening to thumping disco music and eavesdropping.


It seems like you can’t read any music magazine or listen to any indie radio station these days without reading about or hearing Stephin Merritt’s music. Merritt is widely known as the driving force behind The Magnetic Fields, a band whose previous album, 69 Love Songs, is still winning over new fans. Their new album, I, is destined to make many critics “best of 2004” lists.

Besides being in the Magnetic Fields, Merritt fronts several other bands, including the 6ths, Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes. He recently composed the music for author Neil Gaiman’s Coraline audiobook and the film Pieces of April. Merritt has also found a nice niche for himself as a critic and reviewer for Time Out New York and The New York Times.

Playback St. Louis spoke with Merritt via e-mail about his work, likes, dislikes, and creative process.

You can’t read a music magazine or Newsweek these days without reading about your new album. How does that feel?

I have recently stopped reading my press.

What does Stephin Merritt like when he is not working on music?

I go to a lot of film festivals and read books. Recently I have been watching all of the Hollywood musicals I can find on DVD, in alphabetical order.

The songs on the new album deal with relationships, be it liking someone and being nervous or just being broken by relationships. Either way, the lyrics invoke honesty. Are the songs autobiographical?

The situations are common ones, and the descriptions are vague enough for there to be no question of autobiography.

Although I has some sad moments, lyrically it is underpinned by is poignant and beautiful melodies. Which do you write first? I ask this because this mix is always an interesting dichotomy.

I always begin music and lyrics at the same time, but the lyrics take longer because they usually change while the music repeats.

What would you do with an evil twin?

I can’t tell you, because I might do it anyway.

Your songs on I have a broad, orchestral feel to them. Are you classically trained?

A little, but it’s not what I studied in college.

“I Looked All Over Town” is about searching and distrust. Are you the type to look all over town for someone, or would you just say the hell with it?


How long did it take to record I?

A year, with many interruptions.

Are you working on new material?

Of course. I’m working on a new 6ths album and a new stage musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

The ticket sales for this tour are doing very well in most markets. Are you excited about playing in any new places?

St. Louis is the only new place we’re playing. I don’t really get excited about things.

I is your first album on Nonesuch. Do you like being on a major label? Does being on a major label change your opinion of your craft?

I is my fourth album on a major label, and I don’t see any difference between working with a major and working with an independent.

Are you surprised at how well 69 Love Songs was received?

If I hadn’t expected 69 Love Songs to be a smash hit, I certainly wouldn’t have spent a year of my life doing nothing else. I’m surprised I don’t have a daily television show.

Speaking of 69 Love Songs, what made you write about Washington D.C. so fondly?

I had a friend who was moving to Washington and couldn’t think of anything nice to say about it. So I wrote a city song for a city about which all the world feels ambivalent.

On “Famous,” when you sing, “Just get out of this town now,” is that a call to arms for people to liberate themselves from a bad place?

That was ten years ago; I have no idea. Anyone who can liberate him or her is already liberated.

What is your songwriting process? Do you set aside specific time to write, or does it just come in bursts of creativity?

I sit around in gay bars with a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other, my little black notebook in my lap, listening to thumping disco music and eavesdropping.

How did the cover of “Human” with Lloyd Cole come about?

We were having lunch in the West Village. I had written a 6ths song for him which he didn’t want to do because it contained the word “fucking,” so we settled on “Human” instead.

Neil Gaiman is a huge fan of yours and has championed you over the years. How did your audiobook project with him come about?

He called me up and asked me to do it. I am very proud of “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home,” which distills my worldview while simultaneously explaining the plot of the book.

Do you write your songs with the specific projects in mind? Or do the songs just find their way to the respective projects?

I almost always write songs for the album I happen to be working on.

Some of your new songs have an almost medieval quality to them and seem very Brecht-like. Is this intentional?

I try to write in a wide variety of styles. The first record I remember hearing was the Alfred Deller Concert performing Elizabethan songs and my mother took me to see Mahogany when I was about five.

You have done some soundtrack work, most recently with Pieces of April. Do you enjoy scoring films?

I enjoy working in a wide variety of media. Ultimately, I would like to make Hollywood musicals.

You have mentioned in past interviews that you read comics. Which ones are your favorites?

I am currently enjoying The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and 1602.

What good books have you read lately?

Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and Barbara Lewalsky’s Life of John Milton.

Finally, what is next for Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields? What would you like to do that you have not done yet?

People capable of long-term planning don’t become musicians.

Some say that Merritt is the new Cole Porter; others say that he is just too busy. Regardless, one thing is perfectly clear: Stephin Merritt is one of the freshest songwriters emerging in contemporary music today.

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