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 UKvisit. “I’ve got ten things to do today” he says, andyet this is a day where he’s already recorded asession for BBC 6music, day one of two in the briefest ofexcursions from his native New York.
Unusually he hasto come to terms with a colder temperature – somethingof a turn up. “We’ve been having the warmest winterever on the East coast, the temperature’s up in thesixties! My chihuahua likes it though, it means I cantake him out and he doesn’t need his little coat.”
As a result of jet lag and his hectic schedule,Merritt seems to be coming down with a cold. And yetwhile he’s obviously feeling under the weather hisdark eyes retain a penetrating gaze. His manner isextremely unhurried, refreshing for someone so busy,and each question and point is thoughtfullyconsidered. The impression throughout is that I am onestep from a glimpse of his characteristically sardonicsense of humour, a wit that makes itself known manytimes on his recent collection Showtunes.
Showtunes draws from the diverse material of threeMerritt shows from New York – Peach Blossom Fan, TheOrphan of Zhao and the plotless My Life As A FairyTale – and it features the original casts andinstruments. When talking of the difficulty ofcompiling a CD’s worth of highlights from the showsthe composer notes, “I had to bear in mind that Iwasn’t actually killing my children by not includingthem on the album. I did try to include songs thatstand up on their own lyrically, and without a plot Itried to have balance between the three shows, whichis difficult as one is half the length of the othertwo, so it wouldn’t have made sense to include all ofthat…or would it?” As he adds playfully, “maybe weshould have done”.
The Orphan of Zhao uses Chinese music, but whenasked if any of the tunes sourced are traditionalMerritt responds “Absolutely not. I ignored theexistence of Chinese music as a sort of joke, exceptfor making the theme pentatonic as a reference. So Idid a little ‘Chinoiserie’, and the result issomething that really sounds more like Country andEastern. The instruments are an autoharp and theChinese equivalent of fiddle and banjo, so it’s notfar off bluegrass instrumentation. It was fun flittingback and forth between the two and blending thesounds.”
The music could be interpreted as having a Medievalfeel 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’tconscious of having gone for that, it certainlywouldn’t be anachronistic. I did a radio show a fewdays ago for the BBC (Radio 3’s Private Passions) inwhich they wanted me to come up with my favourite’classical’ pieces. Mine jumped straight from theRenaissance to the 20th century; I didn’t really haveanything after Shakespeare!
His selections included a toy piano piece byMargaret Leng Tan and a song, O May The RedRose 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 anddisturbing”.
Merritt secures exceptionally vivid colours fromthe unlikely ensemble he has for the Orphan of Zhao.When I ask of possible influences in his orchestrationtechniques he points out that “it’s hard to describeinfluences when you’re working on combinations ofmusical instruments that haven’t been used before!
“There’s so little previous mixing of Chinese andWestern or non-Western instruments that there areseveral items in these plays that have combinationsthat haven’t been used before. With Zhao and PeachBlossom Fan I googled the instruments and the onlyplace they appeared together was instrumentdictionaries. The inclusion of the strobe violincapped it I think!
“Listening to it was reallysomething,” he continues. “There’s no greater joy than hearingsomething you’ve written for the first time. I wouldwrite the orchestration and two days later come in andthe ensemble would be rehearsing it. It always soundedso different to how I imagined it, and the Chinesehave such different playing techniques. For instancethe pipa has a tremolo that’s always out of tempo (heillustrates with a sound rather different to amandolin) and at first is very difficult as the pipais off on its own tempo.”
Previously to Showtunes, Merritt famouslycompounded the idea of a conventional album releasewith 69 Love Songs, a four-disc epic of intenselypersonal songwriting. However even such a magnum opusas this seemed not to dim the force of creativity.
“Fortunately I went straight from 69 Love Songs to asoundtrack album, a mixture of a few sparsely arrangedinstrumentals and some atonal percussion writing. Thefilm was Eban & Charley, a story of a 30-year-old manand a young teenager having an affair. The nifty thingis you don’t know the film’s perspective until theend, and I had to convey that suspense in themusic.”
And so to Showtunes. “We went for a mixture oftrained and untrained singers, so there’s two men whodo falsetto vocals primarily, and one of them is anopera singer while the other is doing a Mickey Mouseimpression (Matthew Steiner). He’s great, Ithink he should be a star – not just singing, but hisacting too. He was the comic relief in Peach BlossomFan, playing the Emperor.”
So how does Merritt feel moving from a popenvironment to the stage? “Well obviously it’s not meon stage, but I do feel my musical life is one longvariety show anyway, so I don’t feel I have anycontinuity problems! I like to get more and morevaried, and I think variety is maybe my primarymusical failure. Music is also the source of a lot ofhumour for me though.”
When asked if there is a lack of humour in music,Merritt agrees, and expands by saying that “there’s alack of humour in much of the world, including mylife. People should have more of a sense of what’shappening to them, and that applies to me also.”
Hisvoice barely audible now, he says, “I’m a bit of aclown really”. It’s a poignant moment, but not oneborne out of exaggeration or navel gazing. It merelyserves to illustrate what an emotional characterMerritt is, and how much of that quality he brings tohis music.
He clearly also enjoys a close relationship withhis mother, and quotes her observations on Manhattan,where he has now lived for thirteen years. “She saysthere’s going to be a realistic crash there soon -she’s been saying that for a long time. It’s gotten soexpensive there’s nowhere in Manhattan where youngpeople can live these days, so the dynamic has movedto Brooklyn and is getting ever farther out. It doesseem 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 ninetasks for the day, reaches for the teabags. The lasttask? Seeing the musical Billy Elliott, before an early morningcall for his return to New York. But then, as he sayswith a resilient smile, “I like working 16 hoursa day.”