The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side: An Interview with Stephin Merritt of
Randall J. Stephens
In a perfect world, when they tally the votes for “best songwriter of the late 20th century,” the overwhelming majority would go to Stephin Merritt. His sprawling body of work consists of seven Magnetic Fields albums, including the colossal 69 Love Songs, as well as releases under the monikers the Gothic Archies, the 6ths, and Future Bible Heroes. Merritt’s acclaim among critics is well documented. He’s received accolades from pop luminaries like Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, and Neil Tennant. If you don’t trust them, there’s always plenty of Merritt fanfare among notable indierati. His 1995 6ths release, Wasps’ Nest, included Merritt-penned songs sung by Lou Barlow, Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher, Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, and Helium’s Mary Timony.
When Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs last year, it added to Merritt’s already impressive vitae and gave critics the perfect record to slot into the # 1 position of their “best of ‘99” lists. The songs on the three-disc album run the gamut, ranging from cavernous cabaret – reminiscent of Jonathan Richman or Ian Curtis in a dungeon – to fuller orchestrations, from sugary pop arrangements to folksy ballads. Merritt’s band mates, who occasionally contribute vocals, wield an impressive array of instruments (piano, mandolin, cello, flute, accordion, and synths), cramming the corners of each luxurious track. 69 Love Songs is a glorious, monumental record. (And this is no hollow panegyric.) It’s curious, then, that Merritt, who has the power to reach multitudes with his music, is himself a misanthrope, notorious for his melancholic demeanor. No matter, the music is what counts.
The completion of 69 Love Songs was a Herculean task, even for a songwriter as prolific as Merritt. “It took about a year,” says Merritt. “I was pressing myself for time, but nobody wanted to pressure me into finishing a three-disc set. It was important for it to be good more than it was important for it to be done.” He remembers approaching North Carolina indie label Merge Records, announcing, “I’m going to do an album of 69 love songs, do you want to be the label to put it out?” The label quickly agreed, with few stipulations. “If they had reservations, they didn’t tell me. They did say that they weren’t going to give me any more of an advance than they would usually give me. I think they… thought I wouldn’t really do it.” They thought he would complete “twenty songs or something and put out a normal album.”
The process became even more complicated given the tumultuous nature of his songwriting. “I’d begin some recordings and not like the directions they’re going in,” and push them aside. “Most of the songs I record go on albums, but not all.” Stylistically, this record is a dissertation on love songs and musical forms. And although Merritt is no stranger to genre hopping, 69 Love Songs is unusual in this regard. “I usually work in one particular genre per record,” he says. “I figured since it was three records I would abandon that (approach).” With all the side projects, it might seem difficult for Merritt to determine which songs go with which projects; hence, a few of the songs were slated to be on the new 6ths album. But Merritt took them off and used them for 69. He also wrote some songs for 69 “that will end up being on a Gothic Archies record because they’re too over-the-top depressive.” He describes these Archies numbers as “cavernous in a cuddly sort of way.”
During the past year, the Magnetic Fields took to the road to promote the new record. Merritt is not particularly fond of playing out like this. In his curmudgeonly opinion, no musician enjoys going on the road. Touring has afforded the band opportunities to play abroad. “Claudia and I have played in London and we’ve done a tour in Spain and a few shows in Scandinavia.” But according to Merritt, even international dates are anything but exciting: “I don’t even remember [the show last year in Oslo]. I don’t generally remember individual shows. I remember being backstage after the show in Oslo, but I guess the show wasn’t unique enough to remember.” Merritt waxed briefly on the popularity conundrum, when asked if he’d be into making a TV appearance as part of the touring process: “Television [performances can help] record sales…[but] it’s not actually going to make you a household word. You become a household word mostly by putting out records for 30 years.” On the other hand, he remarks, “Charo is a household word and she has never sold any records. In fact, I can’t name a Charo record…And Tiny Tim, also on television, but no sales to speak of.” But what of the morose Merritt? “Tiny Tim was a great performer,” he intones, “and so is Charo, and I’m not. I’m not going to do too well on television in that way. I’m a songwriter, not a performer.”
This is an understatement, to say the least. In fact, one might argue that Merritt is the songwriter of this generation. Part of his success comes from his ability to combine musical incongruities with considerable ease. Like Van Dyke Parks, another prolific musical alchemist, Merritt can conjure ABBA, Joy Division, and show tunes in the same breath. Other combinations are equally interesting. With the 6ths, for example, Merritt cleverly plays ventriloquist. His songs come forth from other throats. However, he is selective in his choice of collaborators, and has little patience for the banalities of modern rock: “The musical tastes of college radio are extremely conservative.” And to him, “the fact that college radio is still interested in rock 50 years later,” is pathetic. Things were not always so cut and dry. As a youth, Merritt dabbled in prog-rock. He remembers his penchant for Rush, Yes, “Brian Eno, and Robert Fripp.” The problem was that he “didn’t make the distinction between some of the cool prog-rock and some of the uncool prog-rock.”
Today, he is primarily interested in the ghosts of music past, an obsession reflected in his wildly divergent list of dream collaborators, a list that includes “Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Billie Holiday…the obvious ones. [Also] Julie London, Doris Day, and Charo, in fact.” But would such collaborations have been possible? Merritt’s reputation for being an obdurate artist is no secret. But, if given the producer of his choice, living or dead, would he be willing to relinquish production of Magnetic Fields? Merritt noted, “I probably could have anyone of my choice, if I had any budget of my choice.” But “if I had any budget of my choice, I’d rather be the one doing the production.” However, Merritt’s not beyond imagining such a scenario. “I would have fun working with Lindsey Buckingham, and if I didn’t have to actually be there and deal with him, I wouldn’t mind working with Phil Spector. It would be a hoot to [work] with Mitch Miller. But none of these people are likely to be people I’d get along with very well. If I did a record with Brian Wilson, for example, it would probably take 20 years and end up being eviscerated by someone’s record label.” So perish the thought of any such future (or past) projects.
Merritt continues to foster the collaborative vision, recently releasing the electronic dance rock I’m Lonely (And I Love It) EP with the Future Bible Heroes. He’s also completed a new 6ths album, which came out in September on Merge Records. It includes about 14 musicians, singing a new assortment of Merritt tunes. What can you expect? Most likely the heavy hitters of indie. The first of the performers was self-consciously chosen for college-rock appeal. The second has nothing to do with college rock, says Merritt. In the meantime, the new Future Bible Heroes and 69 Love Songs should tide fans over.