The six faces of Stephin Merritt
Thu Jul 27 2000
You know him as a Magnetic Field, but he's also a Gothic Archie, Future Bible Hero and soon, once more, a 6th. TONY deconstructs the many guises of the mastermind behind 69 Love Songs.
STEPHIN MERRITT has been anointed "the Cole Porter of his generation." It's an accurate take: As singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, he's one of the pop scene's most relentless auteurs. He records under a variety of monikers: the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes. He's at work on a screen musical, tentatively titled The Song from Venice. He is also a TONY contributing editor, and he's written some of the most subversive record reviews ever to appear in this magazine's pages. (Did you read his October 1998 assessment of Tony Bennett's The Playground—a children's album he said was perfect for pedophiles and glue sniffers?)
Yet chances are, we'll be reading fewer and fewer of Merritt's TONY witticisms: The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs—a sprawling, three-disc manifesto that established him as not only Cole Porter but also the Prince of 21st-century pop—has sold at least 50,000 copies since its September 1999 release. Merritt's band has graduated from smaller venues like the Knitting Factory and moved up to Irving Plaza and Battery Park's Castle Clinton, where, after a well-received month-long swing through Europe, it will play a quasi-homecoming gig on August 3. Then there are the accolades: Spin rated Love Songs a perfect 10. Rolling Stone called it "the pop symphony the Human League never got to make." Michael Stipe says Courtney Love handed it to him and said, "You gotta hear this." It was second only to Moby's Play in Pazz & Jop, The Village Voice's annual critics' poll. (Of the triumph, Merritt dryly remarks, "Well, it wasn't number one," leaving it unclear as to whether he is modest—or just hates being second to Moby.)
Next on deck isn't another Magnetic Fields record, but a new 6ths album called Hyacinths and Thistles (Merge). Due in September, the project finds Merritt handing out 14 should-be standards among an eclectic group of artists, from Bob Mould and Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell to legendary folk queens Melanie and Odetta.
It seems there is nothing predictable about Merritt—except, of course, that he'll show up toting his omnipresent Chihuahua, Irving (named after Mr. Berlin, of course). He's been described as a recluse, a genius, a misanthrope and more. He counters, "I have a distinct personality." TONY detects closer to a half-dozen of them. Over two pots of tea and half a pack of Camel Lights, we did a little deconstruction work:
THE CULT FIGURE Merritt has two favorite hangouts in the East Village. They are both places where (a) he can—and does—get a lot of writing done, and (b) he's allowed to bring Irving. One is a bar; the other is a caf. Both are thanked in the liner notes of 69 Love Songs (they are the spots where the majority of the album was written, after all). But he's trying to stop dropping their names—especially since a band of 20-year-old Californians approached him at the bar with their CD. "They were called Thumb of the Maiden," Merritt remembers, "which I immediately recognized as being from a Joni Mitchell song."
Coincidences are not lost on him. He says he recently read an article in The New York Times that revealed not only the name of Mitchell's secret hang, but the hours one could catch her there. Would Merritt ever sneak a peek at Joni (an artist he thinks would have been another Mozart—that is, if she played piano and wasn't such a great singer)? "I'd go to see what kind of place she hangs out in," he admits, "but I'd avoid going during the hours."
THE POP ROMANTIC In a time when boy bands and R&B groups have made the airwaves a safe place for l-u-v again, 69 Love Songs is a treasure trove of pop gems just begging to be spit-shined into No. 1 smashes. So far, the best-known acts to cover Merritt's songs are cult groups like Superchunk, the Divine Comedy and White Town. Who else would he love to hear belt his chansons d'amour? "Emmylou Harris, k.d. lang, Dolly Parton. Tom Waits, Julie Andrews. Petula Clark. Mick Jagger. Steve Miller. Rosemary Clooney. Meryl Streep." Meryl Streep? "I really like her singing voice," he deadpans. The list doesn't stop. "Who's the most popular boy band right now?" he wonders. "The Backstreet Boys? 'N Sync? 'I'm sorry I love you' would be ideal for either. With that, Merritt breaks into his best Justin Timberlake impression. "I'm sah-ah-ah-rray I luh-uh-uv you." Irving pops out from under the table. The pooch looks a little freaked.
THE CLUB KID Back in the '80s, Merritt worked in Boston gay clubs with names like Ground Zero, Man Ray and Fantasies. And if there's one thing that inspires him more than Tin Pan Alley and folk music, it's new wave. Gary Numan (of "Cars" fame) contributes vocals toHyacinths and Thistles. So does Soft Cell's Marc Almond and Altered Images' Clare Grogan.
Merritt doesn't actually go to New York clubs (though he did work at the Pyramid on Avenue A—for two weeks), but he'd be into recording an album of house music. "I'd get Cecil Taylor to play some free-jazz piano," he says. "Then I'd chop it up into something resembling a classic house piano riff." Someone get Taylor on the phone, please.
THE SONGSMITH Okay, only one of the songs from the last two 6ths albums was written with specific vocalists in mind. But Merritt doesn't deny that some thought went into giving "Lindy-Lou," a song marked by lots of Ls and Rs, to Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto. "I like giving singers material that showcases their voices," he says. "I point to the Pet Shop Boys writing 'So Sorry, I Said' for Liza Minnelli—knowing full well that she was going to sing, 'sho shorry, I shaid.'"
THE "MISANTHROPE" There are two kinds of music journalists: Those who've met Merritt, and those who haven't. Those who haven't think he only wants to crawl into a box and shut out the rest of society. These are the scribes who use such words as misanthropic, difficult, reclusive and—on a more positive note—genius to describe him. "I wish I could remove these things from my press kit," he say candidly, before adding, "but then that would be dishonest." He takes a slow drag from his Camel Light. "I may do it anyway." Reporters who do spend more than ten minutes with Merritt eventually conclude that he's not mocking them behind their backs and that he actually leaves his house frequently. "I'm not reclusive," he insists. "I'm hard to reach."
THE FLOWER CHILD Merritt describes his formative years as follows: "Constant relocation, a lot of precocious reading and a relatively early start in recording." He says his childhood was weird, hippie-like. (His mother, currently a massage therapist, has dabbled in countless jobs.) He met Yoko Ono at age five, when she was doing an installation at the Syracuse University Children's Museum. John Lennon was there, carving the letter "T" out of ice. They spoke briefly. "I was a huge Beatles fan at the time," Merritt recalls. "Now, I'm more of a Yoko fan—when she's singing quietly."
He got his first "serious" recording device when he was 14; before that, he bounced between cassette decks. These days, he prefers staying at home making music to being on the road—even though touring is offering more than a few surprises after the success of 69 Love Songs. "Now we're more likely to have only straight male 21-year-olds in the front rows," he says. "We're used to having 50-something Asian lesbian couples and straight male college students." There goes the second pot of tea. "I guess our audience is narrowing."