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Stephin Merritt Talks About Magnetic Fields' New Album
Stephin Merritt I Photo by: Marcelo Krasilcic
Enigmatic mastermind behind the Magnetic Fields, Stephen Merritt is notoriously difficult to interview, so we knew it wasn't going to be easy. Anyone familiar with the brutal honesty of his love songs knows that he has absolutely no interest in sugar coating. Anything. Period. If he doesn't feel like talking about something, then by God, he's not going to, which suits us just fine.
Merritt's finest work is writing about the emotions we don't like to admit we have and would never talk about. It would have almost been a let down if Mr. Merritt wasn't as sharp and prickly as reported. We called him last Friday morning to talk about his newest release, Realism. As expected, nothing went according to plan. Here is some of what was said.The Magnetic Fields - You Must Be Out Of Your Mind
When did you first pick up an instrument?
I think my mother bought me a recorder when I was young. I'm pretty sure someone else taught me, though.
Do you ever still use it?
Of course! There are recorders and penny whistles all over this album.
Is there any reason why you chose Distortion to have a male figure and Realism to have a female figure on the album cover? Is it a statement about gender?
It's the same figure. One's just in pants and the other is in a dress. It's not male or female. It's unisex. We just wanted the albums to relate visually. Distortion's cover is more of a zombie boy theme. His head isn't connected to his body. Where as realism is more about a drag queen or gay prostitutes.
Do you know an album's concept before going into the studio or does it develop during the session?
I don't start recording without knowing exactly what I'm doing. That would be expensive.
When you're writing a love song, do you know it's going to be about a male or a female before or after you write it?
I never write about a gendered protagonist or antagonist. It's more convenient not to.
What inspired "You Must Be Out of Your Mind"?
It's so old. I have no idea.
Have you ever written an album without using old songs?
I've never written from scratch.
As your career goes on, do you find it increasingly difficult to pen new love songs?
If I did, I would have stopped writing them.
Where do you write best?
I sit around in gay bars with a notebook in one hand, a cocktail in the other, and a pen in the third hand. (laughs) Then I just eavesdrop on people's conversations. I try to choose bars without televisions because I'm not immune to them and I'll just end up watching them. There's not much more to it then that.
Do you write the music at the same time?
No, I don't write down the melody. The melody and the lyrics come later. However, if I have some music playing in the background, it helps.
How autobiographical are your lyrics?
The autobiographical nature of my lyrics are no more important than those that are non autobiographical. However if I use people's street addresses in the songs I usually take those out.
When you perform live, how do you balance old and new material - is it simply based on how you feel that particular day, or is it an active compromise between what you know the audience wants to hear and the new material?
I've published over 250 songs. That's not including the 100 songs I've written for theater. If we tried to keep those all rehearsed, we'd be lunatics. We usually practice 45 or 50 songs before a tour that we're able to play and figure out two sets that alternate. There are few songs in common between the two, so we don't get bored. Also it makes it more exciting for the people who come to see us on more than one night.
Do you ever listen to your own records?
When I'm done with a record and it's just come out, I'll listen to it a couple dozen times for fun. I try to listen to it the way that the audience will listen to it, which is of course, impossible. I will never be able to hear it the way other people hear it. I also need to remember which lyrics I ended up with. That's why I read from a lyric sheet at my shows. Otherwise I'll end up singing the lyrics I didn't use. It's really sad when you can't memorize your own songs, but I've written so many songs and so many versions. I used to try and perform without a lyric sheet and just memorize it the night before, but I always ended up messing up. It was really embarrassing and detracted from the rest of the show, so now I always bring the lyrics with me on stage.
Stephin Merritt I Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic
If you have so many different versions of a song, how do you know when a song is done? Do you have someone who tells you?
No. I don't. I don't know when anything is done. How do you know when an article is done?
I have deadlines.
Well, I do too. Even self imposed ones help.
How did you get involved with writing the music for Coraline the musical?
I can't remember. It was seven years ago.
What's the strangest thing you've ever seen in the audience?
Amy Tan brought her dogs with her to one of my shows once in a bag. She had to leave in the middle of the show.
Is it more satisfying to perform your songs yourself or to see your music performed by other people in a theater performance?
It's only satisfying to see my work in the theater. It's not satisfying at all touring. I don't like concerts. I can't edit them. I just don't have a aesthetic. I don't like to perform or tour.
Well hopefully, someday you won't have to.
That seems increasingly unlikely, since there doesn't seem to be any intellectual property anymore. I think people will stop putting out records eventually.
Really? Isn't there something satisfying putting out an album?
It's expensive. People stopped making pyramids because it was expensive.
So, aside from Magnetic Fields you've got four other bands. Is there a reason you felt the need to branch out and form other groups? What was it that couldn't be included in the Magnetic Fields sphere?
I'm tired of answering this question. Just Google it.
Well, thank you so much for talking with us.