“I sit around for hours every day creating an opportunity for writing, whether it happens or not. Routine is essential for me.”
thi wurd spoke to legendary songwriter/singer/musician Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields to ask a few questions about music, writing and artistic processes.
Time was limited due to the Magnetic Fields preparations for their European tour in August/September, so we carefully chose a few questions to put to one of music’s most artful lyricists.
We could have asked about the epic 69 Love Songs, an ambitiously, thematic masterpiece about love songs, and one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Or we could have discussed any – or all – of the magnificent run of records released by the Magnetic Fields over the past 30 years (personal favourites include Holiday (1994), Distortion (2008), Realism (2010), and their most recent release Quickies (2020).)
Maybe it would have been cool to talk about Stephin’s other bands and projects, such as the 6ths, the Gothic Archies or Future Bible Heroes. In the end, we decided on some questions we hadn’t seen asked before. To be honest, we were just thrilled Stephin took a moment of his time to talk to us.
Stephin Merritt Talks to thi wurd
What was the first work of art, be it a piece of music, a painting, film, book, or other work, which shocked you? This could be in a good or a bad way.
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace definitely shocked me. If I hadn’t been with other people, in the middle of a crowded theater, I would have left in disgust. The racist caricatures, especially Jar-Jar Binks, were in awful taste, already by 1999, and I found it incredible that no one had told George Lucas that. I think it’s because Jar-Jar was an all-animated character, there was no actor to say, “Surely you don’t literally want me to do a shuck and jive act, people will see this as racist.” I watch a whole lot of racist movies and listen to racist songs from decades and centuries ago, and some of them are forgivable (by me at least) given the time; and some of them are vicious and were meant to be vicious. It is really hard to believe Jar-Jar was not intentionally vicious. So yes, it shocked me. H.P. Lovecraft’s racism is part of his general hatred of the world, so it doesn’t shock me; but Star Wars is a great big toy commercial.
The images of your notebooks in the film Strange Powers are exciting. Do you actively go to your notebooks for the purpose of writing lyrics? Or do you take notes all the time? How long have you been keeping notebooks?
The first notebook I remember keeping was when I was fifteen, but I’m sure it wasn’t the first. When I’m kicking around new ideas, I like to look at the old ones.
The titles of your songs sometimes sound like stories in themselves. They always seem really considered. At what stage in the songwriting process do the titles come to you?
My titles can sit around for decades in a dusty notebook waiting to suggest a song, as with “The Biggest Tits in History;” or they can be applied to a song written long before, such as “The Nun’s Litany.” There is no pattern. The title often does not come first. I think a great title-writer is Gary Numan. “I Die: You Die.” “She’s Got Claws.” “We Cross a Bridge Over Death.”
Given the level of storytelling within your songs have you ever written fiction (short stories, novels, etc) or have you been interested in writing fiction?
Ask me again in a year.
Looking at the song titles on Magnetic Fields albums, and then listening to the songs, can sometimes feel very similar to engaging with a book of short stories. Your songs often provide immediate glimpses into incredibly well-drawn worlds. The listener becomes immersed and soon it’s onto the next piece. Do you have favourite short stories? Or short story writers?
I like Chekhov, Lydia Davis, Brautigan, Stevie Smith, Tutuola, Snicket, Bern Porter, Calvino, Borges, Gaiman… the greats.
Recently I’ve been loving the DC Comics graphic novels about Hanna-Barbera characters. The Flintstones and Snagglepuss books are better than I could ever have imagined.
Is inspiration something that comes quite easily to you? There are artists who do nothing but think and imagine for years, then work solidly in short bursts. Do you try to create every day or are there days when you choose to make nothing?
I sit around for hours every day creating an opportunity for writing, whether it happens or not. Routine is essential for me.
Do you have a favourite lyricist? And could you mention some favourite lines from that lyricist as examples?
Favorite things are for ten-year-olds. Today I am in a perverse mood, and my favorite lyricist is Art & Language, whose work with the Red Krayola produced such very improbable classics as “Gynaecology in Ancient Greece,” “A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock” (in two parts, one a potted biography of Lenin, the other of Pollock), and “Don’t Talk to Sociologists.”
Did you draw on any specific sources, lyrically or musically, for ‘Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget’?
Well Robert Burns obviously, it’s all written in old Scots dialect ca. 1836; but the one-upping duet, and the shape-shifting duet, are probably a lot older than that. But it’s basically a parody of Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”
It’s very exciting that the Magnetic Fields are doing a UK tour in 2022, and it’s great for us in Glasgow that you’re coming here. Are there bands or artists from the Scottish music scene over the years that you’ve particularly liked?
When I was eleven I was a member of the official Bay City Rollers Fan Club. I had a little tartan scarf and everything. It’s the only fan club I’ve ever joined. And I still know whole Al Stewart albums by heart. But nowadays I’m really into the Poets, the mid-60s Glasgow band who never recorded a proper album. “I Am So Blue” is my theme song.
“Favorite things are for ten-year-olds.”
If you’re new to the work of the Magnetic Fields, there’s no better place to start than 69 Love Songs, and if you prefer your music on vinyl, we recommend the 6-record boxset as a truly beautiful production.
Check out the trailer for the excellent film Strange Powers.
And here’s where to look if you want to watch a wonderful musical moment with Stephin Merritt, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman.
To get you in the mood for those UK shows, give a listen to a short playlist, curated by thi wurd.
Full details here of the Magnetic Fields UK tour.
Thanks to Stephin Merritt for the interview, and a special thanks to Claudia Gonson for being so kind and helpful.
Be sure to follow the Magnetic Fields online:
Photo credits: Marcelo Krasilcic