A Conversation With The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

Composer, multi-instrumentalist and bass/baritone vocalist Stephin Merritt may get tagged as maudlin, moody and miserable in his writings, but no one has ever accused him of being unambitious. Far from it; as a psychic sister to his epic and classic 69 Love Songs (1999), Merritt spent 2016 preparing his 50th birthday project for the Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir. Along with longtime Fields partner Claudia Gonson, Merritt played 100-plus instruments and wrote one highly personal song for each of his 50 years, with scenes blossoming forth like shaken Polaroids. Oddly enough, he was as happily crabby as a kid (“’74 No”) as he was as a teen (“’86 How I Failed Ethics”) and so on. Go figure.

When did you decide that the entirety of your life was so damned fascinating that it was worth this magnification—that yours was a better life to examine than those around you? Or was it just turning 50?
It wasn’t my idea. It was Robert Hurwitz, the one-time president of Nonesuch, who took me to the Grand Central Oyster Bar and told me he had an idea for a Magnetic Fields record. Actually, he said “a Stephin Merritt record,” but I wanted it to be otherwise. I don’t pretend to think that my life is particularly interesting. Musicians’ lives are about the same whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Alien Sex Fiend. We record, tour, record. I just happen to have these 50 things to say about my life.

How did he come up with that good idea? That’s certainly not the modern record label boss’ mien.
He’s a pretty creative person. I even gave him a co-producer credit. But no royalties.

How did autobiography and honesty work as a writing option?
My first objection to the idea of writing about myself was that there were good reasons not to, many at that. I had just come off doing a This American Life episode, talking about a man disentangling himself from the Mormons, and I wrote about him, thinking only truthful thoughts, writing truthful things and enjoying the results. So Bob suggested that I apply that truth to my own life and that it might be easier and quicker than paraphrasing someone else’s life. It didn’t hurt to write about myself—as long as I could still rhyme without saying trivial things. I liked the challenge.

I do think that honesty is overrated. Did you have to dig deeper—not that you hadn’t before—or differently to write so exclusively personally?
I wrote this, physically, the same I write everything: I sat around in gay bars with a notebook in one hand and a drink in the other. I often write things that I agree with. I just needed to make them specific and stick to that specificity. And that album isn’t entirely about just me but things that happened—to me. It’s how things affected me, but not in a way that, say, Vietnam was terrifying to me. I think my only self-reference to anything Vietnam was that I saw a Jefferson Airplane concert as a kid. My only reference to the AIDS epidemic was that it came along at an inconvenient time for me as a teenager.

You say Hurwitz wanted this to be a Stephin Merritt record. So why make it a Magnetic Fields project as opposed to a Future Bible Heroes or a Gothic Archies project—other than, say, commercial considerations?
Well, commercial considerations were paramount. I didn’t want to do a great amount of work and not sell a great amount of records. Who knows if this will sell any records anyway, but I wanted it to have at least that fighting chance. If I had made it one of those other bands, it wouldn’t be all my singing and that was the point of it, that it needed me singing. You couldn’t have someone else singing 10 songs in a row about me without sounding random.

Owing to the fact that you’ve known Claudia Gonson forever, do you think she registered surprise as to how you portrayed yourself throughout 50 Song Memoir or that that was how you felt about something?
Claudia did register surprise at one song she thought I should take off the record: “Life Ain’t All Bad.” She thought that song was too angry and that I shouldn’t be presenting myself that way. Claudia is currently the mother of a five-year-old child, and I think that she occasionally looks at the world as it might appear to a five-year-old child. To a five-year-old child, yes, it is angry. To a 50-year-old-man, it sounds just fine. I don’t want to seem as if I’m criticizing Claudia.

Not at all, but you know you sound like a five-year-old child saying all that. I recall much of my childhood through the lens of my father’s home movies of me, so much so that I wonder if I’m not just living the movie—that the movie was my life. Do you have things to remind you of your life, totems such as old photos, or did you just work from memory?
I have very few photos of myself outside of publicity stills. I say as much in “I Wish I Had Pictures.” A series of accidents and misfortunes caused me to lose those photographs of my childhood and teen years. I had to ask my mother and Claudia what they remembered about me because I don’t always remember what happened when, to the point of me asking them each to write out their own timelines for me—of what they knew about. My mom has one half of the album’s timeline and Claudia the other.

I think that’s fabulous, that you involved your mother. Do you mind if I ask what your mom thinks of 50 Song Memoir?
She would have been happier if I had not mentioned her. I did let her listen to the songs that she appeared on. I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t all make her burst into tears or want to sue me, for that matter. She was the only person I did that with. I was careful to not be cruel. Wait, we did send one other song out: “John Foxx.” I sent that to John Foxx of Ultravox.

And what did he say?
Flattered and delighted. Why not?

—A.D. Amorosi