Music Interviews

The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: “People should have more of a sense of what’s happening to them. That applies to me also” – Interview

The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt

The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt, of variously The Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths and The Gothic Archies, has now released an album under his own name. It is aptly titled Showtunes – formed of an amalgamation of three Merritt-penned, Chinese-influenced musical collaborations. Spotting a chance to meet one of our musical heroes, we caught up with Merritt to talk chihuahuas, 20th century literature and Chinese musical techniques…

Stephin Merritt is in the grip of a whirlwind UK visit. “I’ve got 10 things to do today” he says, and yet this is a day where he’s already recorded a session for BBC 6music, day one of two in the briefest of excursions from his native New York.

Unusually he has to come to terms with a colder temperature – something of a turn up. “We’ve been having the warmest winter ever on the East coast, the temperature’s up in the 60s! My chihuahua likes it though, it means I can take him out and he doesn’t need his little coat.”

Perhaps as a result of jet lag and his hectic schedule, Merritt seems to be coming down with a cold. And yet while he’s obviously feeling under the weather his dark eyes retain a penetrating gaze. His manner is extremely unhurried, refreshing for someone so busy, and each question and point is thoughtfully considered. The impression throughout is that I am one step from a glimpse of his characteristically sardonic sense of humour, a wit that makes itself known many times on his recent collection Showtunes.

Showtunes draws from the diverse material of three Merritt shows from New York – Peach Blossom Fan, The Orphan Of Zhao and the plotless My Life As A Fairy Tale – and it features the original casts and instruments. When talking of the difficulty of compiling a CD’s worth of highlights from the shows the composer notes, “I had to bear in mind that I wasn’t actually killing my children by not including them on the album. I did try to include songs that stand up on their own lyrically, and without a plot I tried to have balance between the three shows, which is difficult as one is half the length of the other two, so it wouldn’t have made sense to include all of that… or would it?” As he adds playfully, “maybe we should have done”.

“My chihuahua likes it… it means I can take him out and he doesn’t need his little coat” – Stephin Merritt on what hot weather means to the founder of Gay And Loud Music…

The Orphan Of Zhao uses Chinese music, but when asked if any of the tunes sourced are traditional Merritt responds “Absolutely not. I ignored the existence of Chinese music as a sort of joke, except for making the theme pentatonic as a reference. So I did a little ‘Chinoiserie’, and the result is something that really sounds more like Country and Eastern. The instruments are an autoharp and the Chinese equivalent of fiddle and banjo, so it’s not far off bluegrass instrumentation. It was fun flitting back and forth between the two and blending the sounds.”

The music could be interpreted as having a Medieval feel to it, though Merritt isn’t quite so convinced. “Well the first two shows have quite Medieval plots, they’re based in the Medieval period, but I wasn’t conscious of having gone for that, it certainly wouldn’t be anachronistic. I did a radio show a few days ago for the BBC (Radio 3’s Private Passions) in which they wanted me to come up with my favourite ‘classical’ pieces. Mine jumped straight from the Renaissance to the 20th century; I didn’t really have anything after Shakespeare!

His selections included a toy piano piece by Margaret Leng Tan and a song, O May The Red Rose Live Alway, belatedly realised as 19th century, and a Max Matthews version of Bicycle Built For Two, “the computer singing the melody – it’s sweet and disturbing”.

“There’s no greater joy than hearing something you’ve written for the first time.” – Stephin Merritt still loves his craft.

Merritt secures exceptionally vivid colours from the unlikely ensemble he has for the Orphan of Zhao.When I ask of possible influences in his orchestration techniques he points out that “it’s hard to describe influences when you’re working on combinations of musical instruments that haven’t been used before!

“There’s so little previous mixing of Chinese and Western or non-Western instruments that there are several items in these plays that have combinations that haven’t been used before. With Zhao and PeachBlossom Fan I googled the instruments and the only place they appeared together was instrument dictionaries. The inclusion of the strobe violin capped it I think!

“Listening to it was really something,” he continues. “There’s no greater joy than hearing something you’ve written for the first time. I would write the orchestration and two days later come in and the ensemble would be rehearsing it. It always sounded so different to how I imagined it, and the Chinese have such different playing techniques. For instance the pipa has a tremolo that’s always out of tempo (he illustrates with a sound rather different to a mandolin) and at first is very difficult as the pipa is off on its own tempo.”

“My musical life is one long variety show.” – Stephin Merritt

Previously to Showtunes, Merritt famously compounded the idea of a conventional album release with 69 Love Songs, a four-disc epic of intensely personal songwriting. However even such a magnum opus as this seemed not to dim the force of creativity.

“Fortunately I went straight from 69 Love Songs to a soundtrack album, a mixture of a few sparsely arranged instrumentals and some atonal percussion writing. The film was Eban & Charley, a story of a 30-year-old man and a young teenager having an affair. The nifty thing is you don’t know the film’s perspective until the end, and I had to convey that suspense in the music.”

And so to Showtunes. “We went for a mixture of trained and untrained singers, so there’s two men who do falsetto vocals primarily, and one of them is an opera singer while the other is doing a Mickey Mouse impression (Matthew Steiner). He’s great, I think he should be a star – not just singing, but his acting too. He was the comic relief in Peach BlossomFan, playing the Emperor.”

So how does Merritt feel moving from a pop environment to the stage? “Well obviously it’s not me on stage, but I do feel my musical life is one long variety show anyway, so I don’t feel I have any continuity problems! I like to get more and more varied, and I think variety is maybe my primary musical failure. Music is also the source of a lot of humour for me though.”

“Music is also the source of a lot of humour for me.” – Stephin Merritt

When asked if there is a lack of humour in music, Merritt agrees, and expands by saying that “there’s a lack of humour in much of the world, including my life. People should have more of a sense of what’s happening to them, and that applies to me also.”

His voice barely audible now, he says, “I’m a bit of a clown really”. It’s a poignant moment, but not one borne out of exaggeration or navel gazing. It merely serves to illustrate what an emotional character Merritt is, and how much of that quality he brings to his music.

He clearly also enjoys a close relationship with his mother, and quotes her observations on Manhattan, where he has now lived for 13 years. “She says there’s going to be a realistic crash there soon -she’s been saying that for a long time. It’s gotten so expensive there’s nowhere in Manhattan where young people can live these days, so the dynamic has moved to Brooklyn and is getting ever farther out. It does seem like it’s driven by genuine demand though – everyone seems to want to move to New York or London. I know I do!”

He’s fading fast now though, and, down to nine tasks for the day, reaches for the teabags. The last task? Seeing the musical Billy Elliott, before an early morning call for his return to New York. But then, as he says with a resilient smile, “I like working 16 hours a day.”

Stephin Merritt’s Showtunes is out now through Nonesuch.

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