October 2017

Arts & Letters

Magnetic opus

By Darryn King
Stephin Merritt brings his ‘50 Song Memoir’ to the Melbourne Festival

There aren’t too many rock stars for whom dressing in brown is a trademark. Yet Stephin Merritt’s unvarying sartorial commitment to the colour has been inspiring. In 2008, French footwear label Bluedy introduced “the Stephin”: a line of pointy, mid-top, slim-toed leather and nubuck shoes, in four shades of brown from kobicha to taupe.

Much to Merritt’s annoyance, they didn’t even send him a pair.

“I wear the whole spectrum from white to sepia,” he tells me quietly, seated in the lobby of his hotel in London. “Brown is good for argyle …” He pulls up a khaki trouser leg to reveal his patterned socks.

“I like brown. As with preppy clothing, you can get dressed in the dark with no problem.”

Over the years, Merritt has earned a reputation for being a hard interview. His public Q&A events are regularly punctuated with discomfiting Pinteresque pauses. When pressed for an encore, he and his band once performed John Cage’s ‘4’33’’’. Strike the right topic, though, and he’s positively cuddly. Merritt lights up at the chance to explain the superiority of Act One of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods over Act Two, or describe the qualities of the cittern, his most recent exotic instrument purchase from a music shop in Bristol.

Just don’t ask him if he’s enjoying his current tour and expect him to sugar-coat the answer.

“I don’t like performing, so …” he says, the night after a two-performance stint at the Barbican Centre, “So … no.”

However begrudgingly, in October, Merritt and his ragtag septet, the Magnetic Fields (with a couple of ring-ins), will bring 50 Song Memoir to the Melbourne Festival. The show, and the album of the same name, is Merritt’s personal musical history, one song for each year in the first half-century of his life, starting in 1965.

Till now, Merritt’s songs – baroque, genre-defying pop, easy on the drumbeats – have been often populated by larger-than-life characters: vampires, drag artists, Mary Magdalene. The album marks the first time he has written songs so overtly drawn from his own life, from his nomadic childhood (‘I Think I’ll Make Another World’), early musical aspirations (‘Rock ’n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life’, ‘How to Play Synthesizer’), college experiences (‘How I Failed Ethics’), lifetime of medical ailments (‘Weird Diseases’) through to various adventures and misadventures in love and sex (‘I’m Sad!’, ‘Lovers’ Lies’, ‘The Ex and I’, ‘Cold-blooded Man’, ‘Till You Come Back to Me’, ‘Stupid Tears’).

The effect is more dispassionately documentary-like than soul-baring, though. “I filled this album with proper nouns,” says Merritt. “I had to rhyme the name of my cat. That’s the sort of thing I would not usually do.” (The resulting lyric: “We had a cat called Dionysus / Every day another crisis.”)

The accompanying stage show takes place on a cheerful, colourful set modelled on a vintage dollhouse (Merritt collects them), cluttered with cherished objects from his home: a wooden pig, a jack-in-the-box, a miniature Christmas tree, a grinning robot and a stuffed toy owl among them. “It’s a pleasure to see Hooty every day.”

Merritt sits in the middle of it all, on a purple cushion atop an orange stool, wearing an argyle sweater (yellow and brown), strumming a ukulele, operating a variety of drum machines and singing in his morose bass-baritone. In the pre-beard ’90s, his most prominent feature was his hangdog Buster Keaton eyes. Nowadays he looks more like a smaller, rounder Louis CK, going golfing.

Between songs, Merritt reads aloud autobiographical anecdotes from his notes. Repartee with the multi-instrumental band is non-existent – they’re onstage but separated from Merritt by the dollhouse walls. The band dynamic, Merritt says, has always been more of a benevolent dictatorship than a democracy. In his program notes for the show’s 2016 Brooklyn premiere, he mentions he’s only just met one of the band members and has no idea where he lives.

The vibrant set design, too, is something of a compensation for his stage presence, “or lack thereof”, he admits. He was once voted “Most Lethargic Guitarist” by a music magazine.

“My lack of presence at this point is practically a shtick. An effortless shtick.”

Director José Zayas, Merritt’s partner, envisaged the stage show as something like Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett’s one-act play about a rheumy-eyed sexagenarian listening to old recordings of himself and eating bananas. Does Merritt think of his life as a tragicomedy?

“Sure. Yeah. Krapp’s Last Tape in particular because I live in my recording studio.”

Eating bananas?

“In fact: yeah. My doctor has told me I suddenly have high blood pressure on top of everything else, and I have to eat lots of bananas. Bananas and raisins. No salt. Bananas and raisins all day long.”

Certainly, he’s happiest when writing songs. Since the first Magnetic Fields record in 1991, he has written and recorded upwards of 350 tracks. As well as being the driving force behind 11 Magnetic Fields albums and a number of spin-off acts – Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, the 6ths – Merritt has occupied himself with numerous extracurricular activities. He adapted Neil Gaiman’s Coraline for the stage, collaborated with Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng on three musicals, wrote songs for the audio books and Netflix production of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (“We share a similar gimlet eye,” says Merritt, of Snicket), composed scores for two films, toiled over a musicalisation of the 1916 silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and created a “rigorously fact-based mini-musical” for the radio show/podcast This American Life, and, in 2014, published 101 poems on the two-letter words listed in the official Scrabble dictionary.

Of all those projects, it’s probably the non-musical one, 101 Two-Letter Words, which best encapsulates Merritt’s sensibilities: esoteric, literate, witty, neurotically methodical, with an attraction to especially succulent syllables.

For anyone else, an undertaking such as 50 Song Memoir would be a career-defining achievement, but Merritt already has a magnum opus under his belt, in the 1999 Magnetic Fields record 69 Love Songs – a three-volume pansexual musical orgy spanning styles from country to punk, minstrel act to tin-pan alley, on which 96 different instruments are played. It was a feat that recast songwriting as durational performance art. On the strength of that record particularly, Merritt has been regularly likened to Cole Porter. “Sure,” he says, shrugging off the comparison, “gay white guy with an interest in wordplay.”

Merritt’s distinctive voice has influenced the sorts of songs he writes, too. “Bass voices are generally used for villainy or comedy, or a combination of the two,” he says. “I’m aware that I don’t necessarily sound like a sympathetic character. I don’t want to sound like a wife-beating super-villain, which is what my voice sounds like.” He clarifies: “In speech and in song.”

“There’s one tear-jerker near the end of the album,” Merritt continues, referring to ‘I Wish I Had Pictures’, “which, if it were sung by someone with a different voice, would probably be a maudlin hit in some parallel world.”

Merritt writes in establishments that are as “undistractingly boring as possible”: cafes and bars. The process is different depending on the drug being imbibed. “It is much easier to begin a song on alcohol,” he says. “And it is much easier to focus on caffeine. If I had to pick a way of working, I would begin a song at about ten o’clock, after I’ve had at least one drink. And finish it about noon the next day, after I’ve had enough tea in the morning.”

There’s a deliberate workaday quality to Merritt’s process. Not for him the standard guff about the mystery or magic of musical inspiration. “That’s absolutely bullshit,” he says. “I feel like it’s more akin to putting together a crossword puzzle. Except you decide where the squares go. There’s a reason why Stephen Sondheim is a puzzle fan. Particularly a crossword puzzle fan.”

He feels an affinity with the French literary collective Oulipo, who turn the act of writing itself into a puzzle to be solved, and seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. “I enjoy doing puzzles and games. I definitely regard songwriting as part of that interest.”

In addition to 69 Love Songs and 50 Song Memoir, one Magnetic Fields album consists entirely of songs whose titles begin with “I”; for the musical Peach Blossom Fan (with Chen Shi-Zheng), Merritt painstakingly constructed melodies to accommodate the tonalities of Mandarin Chinese; and for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea project, he devised lyrics for the audience to sing based on the mouth movements of on-screen characters. Even at his earliest gigs, he would only permit himself to play a certain number of guitar notes per song.

After a work the scope of 50 Song Memoir – and the trauma of touring it – it’s reasonable to wonder whether Merritt might consider something more throwaway next time.

“No,” he says, after a pause. “I’m trying to figure out which of two projects I’m working on first.” He smiles. “They’ll both be magnum opi.”

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.

@DarrynKing

© Anthony Pidgeon / Redferns via Getty Images

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