By Philip Runco
A few months ago, on a Monday in February, Stephin Merritt turned 50.
Normally this sort of milestone would be cited as a reminder of time’s unabated march, or to draw attention to the longevity of a musician’s career, but in the case of Merritt, the occasion feels noteworthy – remarkable, even – for a much different reason: It’s hard to believe that one of the world’s premier curmudgeons is just now entering his fifth decade.
This isn’t to suggest that the singer-songwriter’s outward appearance has faded severely in comparison to other quinquagenarians; Merritt has just always been an old soul. The characters in his pop songs are usually at the end of their love stories – abandoning someone, being left behind, sitting by a silent phone, dying all day in thousands of little ways. Even when they do find happiness, it almost always comes after a sustained spell of loneliness and despair. Above all, he’s a realist: Even if you’re using him for his car, that still makes him the luckiest guy on the Lower East Side.
“I know that you were never young,” he sang on the Magnetic Fields’ “gothic country-pop” classic The Charm of Highway Strip. It’s a conviction that could be as easily applied to the man with the impossibly low baritone.
Off record, Merritt is also someone who has famously never suffered fools. “He made Lou Reed look like little orphan Annie,” author Neil Gammon quips in the documentary “Strange Powers”. For most people, exposure to that dry sense of humor and caustic feedback – most often directed at longtime Magnetic Fields collaborator Claudia Gonson – comes in the live setting, where Merritt performs acoustically on account of his hyperacusis.
This weekend, he’ll embark on a brief U.S. tour, accompanied only by cellist Sam Davol. Like most of Merritt’s work, there’s a construct in place: Each set will be 26 songs, arranged alphabetically, with a tune for each letter.
I spoke with Merritt last week, finding him at an outdoor café in Manhattan. The songwriter still has an apartment in the city, but splits his time with a house in upstate New York.
Almost two years have passed since Merritt produced a full batch of music – Future Bible Heroes’ Partygoing – but he’s stayed busy with other endeavors. In December, he wrote the first-ever musical episode of “This American Life”. Earlier in the year, he released 101 Two-Letter Words, a collection of poetry celebrating two-letter words allowed in Scrabble. There’s a big project on the horizon, something he doesn’t discuss in detail, aside to say that it will keep him engaged for the next year or so.
Even after over two decades of making music, Merritt says that he hasn’t settled into any one pattern.
“I don’t have a daily routine,” he tells me. “I should have a daily routine. I guess that hasn’t worked out yet.”
Last year saw the release of 101 Two-Letter Words. Is writing something you imagine taking up more of your time in the future? How much does recording albums and touring behind them still appeal to you?
Well, touring behind records has famously never appealed to me. I don’t like playing live, and I really don’t like touring. I’d be perfectly happy to chuck all of this touring business and put out fantastically well-selling poetry books, but it doesn’t seem probable.
Poetry books, in general, are not fantastically well-selling, so me depending for my livelihood on the sales of poetry seems unwise. Even if I was poet laureate of the United States, it’s not really living, based on reading interviews with people who have been poet laureate of the United States.
That’s too bad.
Not necessarily. Not everything needs to be monetized.
If touring is a chore, what motivated this mini-tour?
I’m at the beginning of a project that will keep me very busy for the next year, and it seemed like a good idea to tour before I’m too busy to tour at all.
A solo tours seems like a much easier, more casual, less formal thing to do. Also, I don’t want to play for a long time; I just want to play short shows. 26 songs with a ukulele and a cello seemed about the right thing to do right now.
Did the construct of alphabetizing each setlist force you to revisit any songs that you hadn’t played recently or at all?
In one case: The song “Very Funny” – which is my only song that begins with a V – is not something that I would ordinarily consider doing live, because it’s in the wrong key for me. We had to change the key, so the cello part suffers. About one-third of all of the rehearsals that we’ve done for this show is going back and forth on adjusting “Very Funny”.
When you write a song, do you write with a particular singer in mind?
It depends on why I’m writing the song. I’m usually writing for a particular project, such as a film score or a musical or a pop album or what have you, so I usually know who I’m writing for.
And that’s the case even with Magnetic Fields, where you have a number of options?
When I write something for the Magnetic Fields, I pretend that I’m going to sing it. If it doesn’t come out well with me singing it, I have Shirley [Simms] sing it. And if it still doesn’t come out well, I have Claudia [Gonson] sing it. That seems to be the gist of the it. I don’t have an overarching plan for that.
We like the records to go girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl. You know, Fleetwood Mac records were always a little skewed one way or another. Tusk, for example, is five girl songs and ten boy songs, but they don’t particularly alternate.
6ths records take longer, yes. And, yes, I have thought about it. I actually had a particular 6ths record that was going to happen, but then the legal structure fell through. I was doing it in conjunction with a foundation, and the foundation got cold feet. But I will certainly try to do two more 6ths records.
Do you have a grand plan like that for all of your projects?
You’ve talked in the past about how with each record, people try to read into how of your own life is reflected in the material.
A few people will. I don’t have any allusions that most people feel that way. I think that there are a few people who are obsessively like that, yes.
Does that interest surprise you? Is it because you’re often fronting a band that’s on a rock label?
I don’t think that most rock singers are singing about themselves, particularly. It’s the fact that I’m labeled as a singer-songwriter. That label has particular freight that goes with it, and I don’t carry that particular set of expectations very well, so I have to keep explaining to people that I’m not singing about my life like Joni Mitchell was for three years, forty-five years ago.
And, by the way, Joni Mitchell hasn’t done that in a really long time. Most people don’t. It’s just that the phrase “singer-songwriter” confuses people – some people, not most people.
Nobody complains when Queen is not really singing about the ogres in their own lives in “Ogre Battle”. It doesn’t make it more shallow. Led Zeppelin are singing about particular blues songs from the 1930s that they love; they’re not singing about their romantic attachments. Or if they are, you would never be able to tell.
How do you typically engage with others’ music? Do you focus first on the construction, or to use a bad sports metaphor, the X’s and O’s of a songwriter’s approach –
I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand the sports metaphor.
In football, a coach diagrams plays using X’s and O’s.
You think that I know what you’re talking about? In football? Are you crazy? Are you talking about American football or real football?
I suppose that it could apply to either, but let’s not dwell on it. I’m curious about what you focus on when you hear music.
I am also curious about how I hear music. I don’t think that I can explain that.
Do I hear music differently from non-musicians? Probably. Part of being a professional musician is that the usual functions of music are not necessarily the primarily thing you’re working with. If you hear a song that you heard a long time ago, it’s probably not going to make you all warm and fuzzy, thinking, “I remember where I was when I heard this song.” We don’t work that way.
Similarly, the emotional responses that people have to different genres of music don’t usually apply to the musicians who are actually playing those genres of music. Notoriously, musicians have much wider tastes than their listeners do. Madonna, famously, doesn’t particularly like electropop; she’s more into funk. A lot of heavy metal people don’t listen to exclusively heavy metal in the way that their fans might. Generally, heavy metal people are actually into blues, which you can easily hear in their playing.
How did I listen to music? I listen to a really, really large variety of music. Maybe 5% of what I listen to would be considered rock, but 95% of the people who listen to my records probably listen to primarily rock. I am not in the same demographic as my fans. That’s fine with me, but it’s not always fine with them, and it’s not always fine with journalists who think that I share the tastes of the people who like my records.
Ten years ago, I had an interview in which a reporter accused me of lying when I said that I hadn’t heard of Elephant 6. Later, I found out what Elephant 6 was, but I had never heard the phrase before, and I didn’t know the rock groups on the label or the alleged scene that they were from. And considering how local that was, I’m kind of astounded that he assumed that I knew. Why would I know something that’s happening in Virginia?
It was actually Georgia, but point taken. Given the wide-spanning nature of this tour, is there an album or accomplishment that you’re most proud of in your career?
My first album, Distant Plastic Trees. I think the fact that I was able to get it together to do it all was kind of an amazing accomplishment for me at the time. Now I know how to do those things, but at the time, I had to learn every single skill in making a record – all at the same time. That will permanently be the thing that I’m most proud of.