Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields Talks Antagonizing Straight People, Possible Christmas EP

Stephin Merritt
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[Photos by PJ Sykes]

If there was a government-issued award for bravery in songwriting (the Purple Heart meets Purple Rain, if you will), then Stephin Merrit would have already won it. The Magnetic Fields brainchild is most famous for creating the epic 69 Love Songs, which was nothing if not gutsy. It was also pretty awesome, and will be released as a remastered vinyl box set in April.

Unfortunately, no such award exists, and Merritt doesn’t seem like the type who would much care for it, anyway. He’s more interested in Irving Berlin and old folk music, both of which figure heavily on Realism, the new Magnetic Fields release and the final album in the so-called “no-synth trilogy.”

Merritt recently talked to Paste about the new album, his love of ABBA and how he tries to avoid antagonizing straight people.

Paste: Realism is supposed to be the third release in your trilogy of “no synth” albums. What made you want to go down that road?
Stephin Merritt: Well, the last record [Distortion] was entirely plugged in, except for the drums. This one is entirely acoustic, in the sense that everything had to be miked. All music is entirely acoustic, of course. I guess the next record will have some synths on it, or I will have failed in my no synth trilogy.

Paste: I’ve heard it described as folk music, but at times it doesn’t feel like American folk music. It almost feels like Victorian folk music or something. Were you going for that?
Merritt: I wanted it to be music that was a pretty wide map, including nods to traditional music of other countries and other times.

Paste: It actually reminded me of a lot of the stuff that is on 69 Love Songs, because many of those songs have that same kind of folk music instrumentation.
Merritt: The problem with 69 Love Songs is that it’s hard for me to do something new after it, because I put so much effort into doing something new during it. I tried to have as many genres as possible, and 69 is a lot of genres. So, I’m not really clear that I could do something startlingly new after that.

Paste: I can understand that. Even though that album is a three-disc set, if you figure an album usually has 10 or 11 songs on it, that’s really six albums in one almost. I don’t know how you didn’t go insane while you were making it.
Merritt: We were doing the Ford assembly line approach. It was really well thought out.

Paste: I think it’s interesting that on Realism you have a song called “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” because the first song on your last album is called “Mr. Mistletoe.” Is there something to the Christmas theme?
Merritt: My idol, Irving Berlin, wrote “White Christmas,” which is the best-selling song of all time—likely to remain so. So, when I think, “What shall I do today?” I inevitably think, “What would Irving do?” And sometimes, it’s “Write a Christmas song.” My two previous Christmas songs were both used for Kiki and Herb shows. They didn’t record them, but they did them live. So, I’ve got four. That’s enough for an EP now.

Paste: Are you saying that’s going to happen—a Christmas EP?
Merritt: Well, I’m not really sure that I can foist a Christmas album onto my atheist public. I obviously hate Christmas and everything to do with it. I don’t know what to do with these Christmas songs, but they have approached the critical mass of an EP.

Paste: There is something on Realism that I’ve noticed in your other work as well. The melodies are extraordinarily hooky. If given a different treatment and different lyrics, I could see many of your melodies being Top 40 pop hits because they get stuck in my head even if I’ve only heard the song once. Do you craft the melodies that way purposefully?
Merritt: When I was a teenager, I read an interview with ABBA, and they said that they never write down the melodies. They write down the words, but not the melodies. That way, they’re guaranteed that they will remember them, and if they forget them, then good, because they weren’t memorable. They only remember the memorable ones. And I have a not-particularly-good musical memory, so not writing them down guarantees that I will only remember the memorable ones.

Paste: Were you interested in pop music during your formative years?
Merritt: I’m still interested in ABBA. I just read a Brian Eno interview in The Guardian where he finally admitted to being into ABBA, retroactively. Also, it was some of the best songwriting and state-of-the-art production for the time. If Brian Eno hadn’t been interested in ABBA for their production, he would not be our Brian Eno.

Paste: Love and relationships seem to figure heavily on Realism as well as most of your work, and one thing that I think makes your love songs interesting is gender ambiguity. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where you can’t tell if it’s written to a man or a woman, or if the narrator is coming from a man or woman’s perspective.
Merritt: As with Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s usually written for no gender in particular.

Paste: Is that something you consciously do?
Merritt: I think it’s a tradition for gay male songwriters to write from all perspectives. If I’m actually writing a boy-boy love song, it’s likely to be made less shocking by the fact that three songs earlier there was a girl-girl love song sung by a boy. I mix up the genders, partly, to avoid antagonizing the straight people, but also to entertain the gay people. And because it’s fun. But, sometimes I come across something that’s only going to rhyme correctly if I put a gender into the song, so I do. Like, “They come on like squares, then get off like squirrels / I hate California girls.” You couldn’t do that with “California boys.” That song would probably be offensive to most people if it were a male singing it, as it originally was. It was a problem. And, where are we going with this? I like mixing the genders. I plan to continue. Thank you for pointing it out.

Paste: It gives it an interesting feel, because most love songs I’ve heard in my life were written from a traditional man-woman perspective. So, when you play with that and turn it on its head, it makes it more memorable.
Merritt: I’ll do almost anything to make it more memorable.

Paste: I get that sense.
Merritt: Actually, hold on. Let me go back to that for a second. Another advantage of that is that it enhances the idea of a story being told. Like, in the New Order song, “1963,” Bernard [Sumner] starts out with “My husband came home,” and you immediately know that you’re in a story because Bernard Sumner isn’t a woman. So, it puts a kind of quotes around the lyrics that you wouldn’t get from another way—disengaging the protagonist from the singer.

Paste: And it also creates a level of distance from the song. Your use of humor creates distance as well. Can we psychoanalyze that? Is there some underlying reason why you create that distance?
Merritt: You could psychoanalyze it, or from a sociological perspective, you could just say that gay men aren’t allowed to own their romantic feelings, so they put them all in quotes. And I am totally in that tradition. But, I also find it fun.

Paste: It seems like there’s also a sort of activism to doing that. People are not used to hearing a love song that’s not just boy-girl, so when you write one, it opens another world and broadens the perspective of what a song can be and who it can be for.
Merritt: Singing in the life of a different gender has always been traditional, particularly in folk music. So, actually you probably notice it less in a folk context than you would in a pop context. On Jean Redpath Sings Robert Burns, she’s not about to change the gender of the songs to her own gender. But, she’s also not going to get a sex change just because she sings Robers Burns’ songs. These are old songs, and you don’t fuck with them. It would be disrespectful to fuck around with them.

Paste: Do you go to those older places for inspiration?
Merritt: Oh, sure. I grew up with folk music. My mother’s twin was in the ’60s folk revival, and then rock. Most of the first music that I remember hearing was folk. We had the BeatlesRevolver, but we also had Judy CollinsWildflowers, and In My Life, and several Bob Dylan records, and a Pete Seeger record for children that I must have liked when I was one, but I hated when I was three. It was the first record I didn’t like.

Paste: What keeps you going? You’ve written more songs than most people do in a career, and that was in one album.
Merritt: It’s not really voluntary.

Paste: So it just comes out?
Merritt: It doesn’t just come out. It’s kind of like the Dracula worm. You ingest a little tiny mite, and then it turns into a parasite inside of you and starts coming out of your foot very painfully and has to be drawn out by being unwound gradually over six weeks, while Jimmy Carter’s photo crew stands around photographing your agony. That’s the process of songwriting.