In 1999, singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields released the three-disc set 69 Love Songs. Judged by heft alone, it looked like a forbidding magnum opus, and the fact that it had songs recorded in a few dozen musical genres, from country to jazz (plus a folky number in Scottish dialect), only seemed like confirmation. But Merritt balanced his ambition with an ear for winning melodies, well-turned phrases, dry wit, and an undercurrent of moroseness. Merritt gets a lot of comparisons to Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, but, as an unrepentant pop fan, he seems just as happy when people notice his ABBA influence.
The 69 Love Songs set earned Merritt and The Magnetic Fields more attention than ever, but longtime admirers always knew he had it in him. After The Magnetic Fields' 1990 debut Distant Plastic Trees and its 1991 follow-up, The Wayward Bus, Merritt released a trilogy of concept albums about displacement (The Charm Of The Highway Strip, Holiday, Get Lost) and founded or partnered to form other bands, including The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and the all-star revue The 6ths. His artistry was founded in old-fashioned craftsmanship, and he seems both willing to try anything and capable of accomplishing most of what he sets out to do.
Since 69 Love Songs, Merritt has released a second 6ths album, contributed to several soundtracks, worked with Chen Shi-Zheng on two operas (The Orphan Of Zhao and Peach Blossom Fan), provided songs to accompany audio versions of the Series Of Unfortunate Events books (whose author, Lemony Snicket, is also known as occasional Magnetic Fields member Daniel Handler), and, most recently, released the new Magnetic Fields album i, a set of songs beginning with, naturally enough, the letter "I." Shortly before the new disc's release, Merritt spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his work, his voice, and the agony of the indie-rock ghetto.
The Onion: You write in bars and you smoke. How did New York City's smoking ban affect your work on this album?
Stephin Merritt: Well, I'm hopefully trying to quit smoking. Always. It made me take frequent breaks. I think I probably take frequent breaks anyway, so I don't know that it's affected me as a writer.
O: Does anything tie the songs on i together apart from the letter "I"?
SM: People keep pointing out, I guess since the record is called i, that the songs are in the first person. But "Irma" isn't.
O: Well, they all deal with love, don't they?
SM: "Irma" doesn't. Well, love of chocolate. "Infinitely Late At Night" doesn't, either. "I Was Born" and "I Wish I Had An Evil Twin" don't. "In An Operetta" doesn't. Okay, half of them are love songs. [Laughs.]
O: Did you try to avoid writing love songs after 69 Love Songs?
SM: No, but I did consciously make sure that it wasn't an album entirely of love songs.
O: Is that why you also decided to sing all of these?
SM: I usually sing all the songs on Magnetic Fields albums. I didn't on 69 Love Songs, because who wants to hear me sing for three hours in a row?
O: In the past, you've expressed discomfort with your voice. Has that gotten better?
SM: No. I'm definitely a better singer, but I still don't like hearing my voice recorded. But I'm also better at recording it now, and I had help from [producer/engineer] Charles Newman. When I make Gothic Archies records, I'm perfectly happy with my voice, because it's totally appropriate for the material. The Gothic Archies exists to exploit my gothic voice. I don't usually find music therapeutic, but I do find it therapeutic to hear myself sounding goodsounding appropriate and good.
O: With albums like The Charm Of The Highway Strip, it's hard to imagine anyone else singing the songs.
SM: Well, we're familiar with that type of voice in that sort of material from Johnny Cash records. I think my voice works best in contexts where we've already heard somebody else [with a similar voice] sing. That would be The Charm Of The Highway Strip and The Gothic Archies. But for Holiday and the House Of Tomorrow EP and Get Lost, if I could do them again, I would sing differently. What I would do differently is to do what I did for this record: sing at the top of my range in a cool style. And speed myself up a little.
O: You're on record as being somewhat suspicious of the singer-songwriter mode. Is it because people mistake the singer for the persona in the song?
SM: I love the idea of singer-songwriters, but I also hate the idea of the singer-songwriter, because the association of that with sincerity is silly. Sincerity has no place in popular music, any more than it has in cooking. It just isn't an issue.
O: In the past, you've referred to trying to get out of the "indie-rock ghetto." Do you feel you've succeeded?
SM: I think the indie-rock ghetto has completely disappeared. So... yes?
O: What was regrettable about being in it?
SM: Um... People constantly coming up to me and asking me about obscure, terrible bands and assuming I liked them and wanted to be just like them. Being interviewed by incompetent teenagers was a very painful experience, which has given me a reputation of being nasty to interviewers. I really had some terrible interviews. Like the woman who trailed off at the... And when I asked her what she'd just said, she would say, "Oh, well, what I said was..." There was actually absolutely no way of my hearing the question. So I just guessed what the question might be from the last shred of a noun that I could hear. I feel at this point that it's my job to go out of my way to be nice to interviewers, even when they ask incredibly stupid questions, which is rarer now.
O: What's the stupidest question you've ever been asked?
SM: I'm so glad I will never have to answer the question "Why 69?" again. People would say, "Why 69 ha ha ha ha!" as if it were a joke they were making rather than a joke, you know, I was making. [Laughs.] That would immediately set us off on the wrong foot.
O: Did you feel any pressure, when working on the follow-up, to top 69 Love Songs?
SM: Well, following it up was an impossibility. So, yeah, I did. I didn't want to make a record that would compete with it. And this does compete with it a little bit, in that it's also a variety show. It's only 14 songs and it's got its own little theme, albeit a theme so pointless and trivial that it's uselessif anything, a parody of a theme.
O: When you say "variety show," do you mean in terms of the musical styles?
SM: Yes. I use that as shorthand. People ask me what kind of music I do, and I say "Variety."
O: Can you imagine limiting yourself to a single style in the future?
SM: Sure. But it would be an arbitrary theme, like when David Byrne made his mambo record. I can easily see myself making an exotica record.
O: Do you write more than you record?
SM: Oh, yes.
O: Do you record more than you release?
O: Are those songs lost, or do you have any plans for them?
SM: Well, you put them on movie soundtracks, or you rework them later, or you throw them away or burn the tapes. I gather that ABBA used to try every new song out in 12 different styles before settling on what had been the most obvious. They would do that in the studio with the tape recorder running. Somewhere, there's a tape of "Fernando" as a calypso song.
O: You often cite ABBA as an influence. What do you draw from ABBA?
SM: Well, the variety-show approach. They weren't unique in doing that. In the '70s, even Queen, even Led Zeppelin... No matter how firmly associated with one genre an artist was, in the mid-'70s, it was an absolute requirementto sell any records, they had to at least attempt a Sgt. Pepper's variety show. ABBA excelled at that.
O: In general, do you prefer that in pop music?
SM: Sure. Who wants to listen to the same type of music for more than three minutes? My favorite records are the Phil Spector box set and the Ella Fitzgerald songbook albums.
O: Those were also recorded over the course of many years.
SM: Yes. I don't see any reason why every record can't be recorded like that.
O: Do you have a problem with the current length of albums? Apart from 69 Love Songs, yours tend to be economical.
SM: I think 40 minutes is a little too long, and if I weren't legally required by Warner Bros. to make 40-minute albums, I'd be making 32-minute albums. But at this point, that's considered an EP.
O: How is Nonesuch treating you?
SM: They haven't introduced me to Randy Newman or Stephen Sondheim. So I'm absolutely miserable.
O: When you did 69 Love Songs, you stuck to a three-song-a-day quota. Do you generally keep to that?
SM: Oh, God, no. No way. Of course, many of those songs were godawful. But they mostly contained something I could use.
O: Do you enjoy touring?
SM: I hate touring. You don't get to see the places you go at all. You see the airport.
O: What about performing live?
SM: I liked doing the 69 Love Songs all-out spectaculars. Having nine people on stage doing the same thing for two nights, it's a very different feeling. It was actually fun that the audience knew exactly what they were doing, and what song was going to come next. It was a really different paradigm.
O: A lot of songs on the new album involve a ukulele. What about the instrument appeals to you?
SM: Well, I'm short. It's small. It's portable. It's not a guitar: It doesn't have the genre associations of the guitar, and what genre associations it does have are so far removed from what I'm ever likely to be doing with the ukulele that they don't really hook up. There's a lot of ukulele and a lot of marimba on this one.
O: Have you ever regretted choosing to spell your name with an "I"?
SM: No. The Internet makes my deviant spelling more reasonable. If anybody else starts spelling it with an "I," I'll be in trouble. But it's so easy to look for myself on the Internet, I couldn't possibly regret my spelling. And it's legal now. So, too late.
O: Do you follow your reviews?
SM: About once a year, I'll see what people think. My favorite review of myself was in People magazine. They were reviewing the first 6ths record, and they said that ordinarily, "he sings the songs himself. He has a voice like the wind moaning through a small, relatively leafless tree."
O: How have you enjoyed working in opera?
SM: Well, hell is other people, of course, but I liked the opportunity to write songs that absolutely would never have occurred to me if I weren't being required to write for a particular character. For example, in Peach Blossom Fan, I have songs based on the Chinese pronunciation of Chinese character names. In Chinese, that emphasis does matter, unlike in English. So music with any character name in it has to be planned around the character name. I have several songs for people that were built that way.
O: Do you find that restrictions like that help your songwriting?
SM: Sure, yeah. A page less blank.
O: Do you think that's part of why you tend to tie yourself to concepts when you do albums?
SM: Well, "I" is definitely not a concept. But, yeah, the field of music is so vastand, not to be immodest, but my abilities are such that I don't know where to start. If I'm writing for Future Bible Heroes, I know where to start: an electro-pop group. Chris Ewen has already written the music, so I just have to fill in the lyrics, maybe a melody. But with The Magnetic Fields, am I going to do an exotica song now, or...?
O: Will it be five years before the next Magnetic Fields album?
SM: It depends. I'm juggling two different contradictory ideas for the next Magnetic Fields album. One of them could take a month, and the other one could take a really long time.