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Everything you always wanted to know about Stephin Merritt but were afraid to ask. And if you know anything about Stephin Merritt, you have good reason to be afraid

by Steven Foster • Photo by Marcelo Krasilcic

Almost as much is made of Stephin Merritt’s talent as his famously prickly reputation. Words such as genius, poet, raconteur, and Renaissance man cuddle and wrestle with more critical descriptors like crank, sourpuss, curmudgeon, and, well, asshole. Still, he is often compared to Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, sobriquets Merritt appreciates (his dog is named Irving) and abhors (he claims such associations indolent). But if he’s brusque, perhaps it is because he is loathe to take time away from his work, which so far this year has included a new album, an off-Broadway score, documentary, film score, and song for a big-box retailer scheduled to break for Christmas. We were glad—and slightly nervous—when he found time to talk to us.

He’s with the Band(s)

Stephin Merritt’s output of songwriting is so prolific that he records with four bands—The 6ths, Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and his most famous sonic cabal, the critically revered The Magnetic Fields. That’s in addition to his solo work. The penultimate example of his remarkable output is the 1999 masterpiece 69 Love Songs which is, yes, 69 love songs of impeccable lyricism, each brilliantly realized. Even trickier, the songs feature a stylistic cavalcade of pop, rock, jazz, folk, torch, country, punk—every musical style but hip hop. (Merritt famously loathes hip hop, a declaration that erroneously got him labeled a racist.) 69 also boasts some of the most unabashedly homo pop songs ever recorded—works like “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” “Come Back to San Francisco,” and “When My Boy Walks Down the Street,” the latter tripping the lyrics:

“Amazing, he’s a whole new formof life

Blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife.”

The band’s latest work is Realism, released earlier this year, to the usual critical fanfare.

He Can Settle a Score

Merritt has put words and music to two independent films, Pieces of April (great flick, great music) and Eban and Charlie (awful film, wonderful music). He wrote theme songs for every one of the 13
volumes of the series by Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. friend and bandmate Daniel Handler. He received an Obie for the off-Broadway musical of Neil Gaiman’s dark fairy tale Coraline. At this stage in the game, Merritt could score any project he wants.

So what does he choose?

Well, he opts for live original compositions to accompany the black-and-white silent film version of the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

“I thought even though it’s a 150-year-old story, it’s a science fiction movie and deserves a strange score,” explains Merritt after a breakfast omelet of goat cheese, spinach, and tomato at an outdoor cafe. That strange score incorporated, among other things, tuba, accordion, megaphones, and the Castro Paramount’s famous organ. Merritt even composed songs for the silent film’s characters, singing them live and even matching the lip movements, giving the evening an almost Mystery Science Theatre comedic flair.

The Obie-winning Coraline, however, is scored using only piano, albeit three types: main piano, toy piano, and prepared piano (which involves screws, erasers, and paperclips jammed between the wires to alter, distort, and warp the chords into otherworldly, almost demented sounds befitting the fairy tale’s darker, more disturbing notes). Although he and Gaiman are close, Merritt has no difficulty disagreeing with the author’s interpretation of his own character.

“We disagree pretty violently about what age Coraline should be. Neil sees Coraline as a nine-year-old, which I find absurd.” He bristles.

“She’s about to be a teenager. She’s 13.”

And He’s Got a Score to Settle

In 2007, NPR concocted a challenge: compose a song inspired by (a) one of a handful of pre-selected photographs, and (b) a phrase or word from a provided list, then (c) record the song in two days. Merritt was the first composer NPR asked, followed by such hipsters as Nellie McKay (in the November 2009 OutSmart), Moby, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. As if this exercise in creative sadism isn’t enough, the entire process is filmed.

“The problem wasn’t that [I only had] two days,” grouses Merritt. “But it was two consecutive days. Had they been a week or two apart, the result would have been a whole lot clearer. [The song is] not really quite complete. There should be another section. I should have done it at another studio. NPR’s not really set up, for example, to do looping. They lack a lot of features that would be in any recording studio. They’re set up for text recording or dialog recording, and I didn’t know that when I started.”

The first lab rat, Merritt became the de facto guinea pig for all later artists in the experiment to learn from.

“I gather Nellie McKay cheated,” he says ruefully. Then, realizing, he brightens (well, as much as Stephin Merritt can brighten). “I should have cheated too.”

Despite McKay slipping in an extra day for the project, and show-off Moby finishing early and recording three versions of his tune, each experiment provides a fascinating glimpse into the creative process. Watching Merritt work is no exception. His near-catatonic demeanor is far from warm, but the awe-inspiring speed with which he can construct intricate word puzzles, and then fold the poem into cunning layers of intriguing sound textures to form an entirely organic and memorable song, is riveting.

It’s almost as fun as watching host Bob Boilen numb himself with a cocktail as Merritt packs up his man-purse like a woman who can’t wait to end a bad date.

“That Darn Stephin Merritt”

“That darn Stephin Merritt seems to work his way into all of my live shows,” is how singer-songwriter and fellow critical darling Sam Phillips (in the January 2010 OutSmart) has introduced her cover of “Underwear,” Merritt’s ambisexual ode to youth and beauty.

“He’s one of the great songwriters. I just think he’s fearless and unafraid to do different things,” observes Phillips.

“He’s a beautiful, smart writer. Like the best of the old Tin Pan Alley, where he’s witty and interesting and funny and conversational—not old-fashioned in his verbiage, but very modern. I think he’s a very elegant writer.”

His Idolatry Is Not Limited to Other Musicians

YouTube tributes to The Magnetic Fields’ songs are legion, with video shout-outs that stand head and shoulders above the usual photomontages from fans who have just mastered iMovie. A smattering of
the best:

The tender “All My Little Words” is set to vintage black-and-white films from the ’50s. Two handicapped children survive old age. A little boy dies in a car wreck. Two roses wither and die. Silver screen lovers dissolve into a circle of fire. It’s disturbing and touching, lovely and achingly honest, just like Merritt’s best work. (In YouTube, search on: All My Little Words.)

Claymation figures act out “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” with tiny Play-Doh puns abounding. The best? Meeting “on the dark night.” Somewhere, Gumby is green with envy. (In YouTube, search on: The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure.)

“I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” is given a goosy sendup, casting Ryan and Michael of NBC’s The Office as the song’s titular homos. (In YouTube, search on: “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend.”)

In the charming vid by casting director/auteur Kate Freund, angsty crayon stick figures dance, gasp, search, and vomit for “I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” one of The Magnetic Fields’ most popular tunes. (In YouTube, search on: I Don’t Want to Get Over You.) Romantic masochism was never so charming.

The Blindside

Merritt’s been known to eat reporters alive with all the emotionless relish of Hannibal Lecter dining on a census taker’s liver. So there is a palpable relief when Merritt turns out to be a pleasant, even enthusiastic, subject—which means his heart rate might have gone above 60 beats a minute and, occasionally, his voice varies from his trademark monotone. It’s taboo to ask about his love life—like the endless comparisons to Porter, he finds romantic questions from gay reporters journalistically lazy. Still, gay subjects must be broached. So after discussing 20,000 Leagues, Coraline, and such, I do what anybody would do. I blindside him. With all the subtlety of a gay Quentin Coryatt.

“When did you first realize you were gay?”

“Um . . .” Merritt pauses. A long pause. “Okay, it wasn’t an earth-shattering experience. I don’t particularly remember it. I think it just sort of faded into view. But it was certainly after everyone else realized.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Merritt deadpans. “It was after I’d been taking dance classes for awhile.”

Sometimes He Wants to Go Where Everybody Knows His Name

In the NPR video, Boilen gives props to Merritt for adding a bar to the studio. This is not some decorative choice on Merritt’s behalf. He’s not Stevie Nicks decorating mic stands with scarves to feel more at home. A bar is as integral to Merritt’s writing process as his tiny notebook.

Do you still write in gay bars?
Uh-huh. I try to write every day.

What do you drink?
Cognac.

You live in both New York and L.A., right?
I have a house in L.A., many rooms of which are larger than my [entire] apartment in New York.

They’re such disparate cities. Do you find your songwriting changes, depending on which city you’re in?
No, I don’t. The cities may be different, but the bars are very similar. If I sit down to write a song at the Eagle in New York, it’s not that different from sitting down to write a song at the Eagle in L.A.

I love that quote.
Well, if you like that quote then [you’re going to love this one:] I’ve actually been thinking of writing a book on the Eagles of North America, in which I go around writing songs in all of the bars called
the Eagle.

That’s awesome. Are you serious?
Uh-huh.

Especially When Nobody Knows His Name

Strange Powers is the decade-in-the-making documentary of The Magnetic Fields, and features such Merritt-loving talking heads as Peter Gabriel, Gaiman, and Sarah Silverman. There is also a New York taxi driver responsible for the following exchange:

Merritt enters the cab, trailed by cameras. “So what are they making a documentary about you for?” asks the cabbie. “Because I’m fascinating,” snaps Merritt. He then clarifies, explaining he writes music—popular music. The cabbie asks his name. Merritt tells him.

“Merritt? Never heard of ya.”

The film just received the Grand Jury Prize at Outfest.

And Merritt, still fascinating, is undoubtedly getting into another cab somewhere, again unrecognized as he heads to another bar, preparing a cocktail of his own: a shot of powerful, challenging pop music. Straight, but decidedly gay.

Steven Foster also talks to author Bill Clegg in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Ste7en Foster

Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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