Q&A With Stephin Merritt

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“I do a lot of conventional things,” says Stephin Merritt. “But I don’t do them conventionally.” The singer/composer is best known for the pop-leaning Magnetic Fields and Gothic Archies, both of which he’s currently writing for and recording. But his latest album, Showtunes (Nonesuch), compiles songs from his theatrical collaborations with Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng.

Were you fond of musicals as a kid?
I didn’t have much exposure to theater songs growing up. Though, when I lived in Hawaii at age nine, we did have a cassette of the Godspell cast album that I memorized.

That Jesus/Judas duet “All For The Best” never really leaves your system. What attracts you to theater music?
What I like about the form is its emphasis on words above all else; it is the opposite of contemporary popular music we’re trying to get away from.

Were you seeking a musical form in which to be more lyrically precise, or did it find you?
Yes and yes. I wanted to stretch out. And no one wants to sit to a primarily instrumental house track with the occasional shriek of “everybody, everybody” in a theater. Similarly, no one is going to dance wildly to (Stephen Sondheim’s) “The Ladies Who Lunch” on Ecstasy. Well, maybe at the end of a night.

The cast members on Showtunes are more “professional” voices than you’re used to. Did that have an effect on the writing?
I usually go for a very plain, almost bored singing style without any expression of emotion. Let the lyric speak for itself. These songs needed to have a particular exaggeration. I would never give any of the 69 Love Songs singers—all of whom are on this album, loudly on some counts—anything that deliberately overblown.

Knowing how damned tasteful you are, does theater’s obviousness ever get under your skin? Sometimes—as on Showtunes track “What A Fucking Lovely Day!”—it’s a bit much to chew on.
Really? We were going for the giant gesture. Hmm. The man (in the song) did just kill a baby, culminating in the destruction of the 300-member Zhao family. A bored voice would be a different statement. These characters often had to be caricatures. But they didn’t have to reach the back row. Some of these characters are pathetic little girls who are dying grisly deaths, like the mermaid who gets her tail chain-sawed in half by this Home Depot saw: “ggrrrrrrraaarrrrggg.” That sounded more like gargling.

—A.D. Amorosi