Since 1991’s Distant Plastic Trees, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields has staked out his own territory within American songwriting, combining musical-theater craftsmanship and electronic instrumentation—along with many other styles—with invention, wit, and occasional flashes of sentiment. His most expansive project since 69 Love Songs (1999), the newly released 50 Song Memoir is a five-disc year-by-year autobiography that passes through his upbringing in Germany, Hawaii, and elsewhere; his clubbing days in New York (“Danceteria!” and “At the Pyramid”); the AIDS crisis; and his own romantic and creative life. It’s a surprising move for an artist who has generally emphasized the constructed artifice of pop genres over the confessional sincerity of the singer-songwriter tradition. Yet the result is as ludic—and as catchy—as anything in Merritt’s canon. We spoke by phone about a handful of individual songs, the album’s overarching design, and issues of song form and record production.
Franklin Bruno The first thing I heard about 50 Song Memoir, your new album with Magnetic Fields, was that it began as a birthday commission from Nonesuch Records. Is that right?
Stephin Merritt Yes, Robert Hurwitz sat me down at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station and told me about his idea to celebrate my fiftieth birthday with an album of songs about myself. I had just done a musicalization of an episode of This American Life where I had to write completely true things about a guy who had been separated from his wife and kids in the process of leaving a Mormon sect. I wrote lyrics that closely followed actual quotes from the radio interview. I couldn’t go back and interview him again myself, so it was done from the existing material. I had to represent him accurately so that his kids could listen to it without a problem. Robert ran with that idea and said, “You could do that with yourself, and do an autobiographical album.” So I did.
FB Ultimately, you ended up with one song corresponding to each year of your life. When did you start writing the record?
SM I started recording on February 9, 2015, my fiftieth birthday. I spent some time writing before we started recording anything. We threw out some things, so there was a need to write up to the last two weeks of recording. I finished the recording this past summer, 2016. 69 Love Songs took a year and two weeks. 50 Song Memoirtook a year and a half.
FB But didn’t 69 Love Songs include some trunk songs, as they say in the theater?
SM Oh yes, both of them had quite a lot of trunk songs as part of the concept. But in the case of 50 Song Memoir, you hear actual recordings of me in 1986 playing my Roland TB-303 bass computer.
FB Does “The Day I Finally… ” fall into that category? It’s very raw-sounding, almost a field recording, with you singing a cappella and banging on various percussion instruments, most of which I can’t identify.
SM Yes. “The Day I Finally… ” “Ethan Frome,” and “At the Pyramid” are songs written in the years in which they are set, 1991, 1988, and 1987 respectively.
FB Does the first song on the first disc correspond to “year zero,” before your first birthday?
SM I was born in 1965, so it begins in 1966.
FB How did you approach writing about the first few years of your life, before you have specific memories to work with?
SM Well, the first song is “Wonder Where I’m From.” It doesn’t claim to remember anything. I was having problems answering the question, “Where am I from?” so in that song I go from being a sperm and an egg to being a newborn in Yonkers to being a toddler in Germany. I was in a number of places, so I don’t start out with my first memory, which wouldn’t have been until I was one, anyway.
FB That’s an effective setup. It raises the expectation that you, or the “you” of the record, will discover who you are as you go along. You don’t start off by locking down your identity. The next song, “Come Back As a Cockroach,” is largely about reincarnation, so I suppose that serves a similar function.
SM I can tell you about what I deduce was happening: my mother was inculcating me with her own rather bifurcated sense of how the world works. She was raised Catholic and Protestant and rebelled into a series of Eastern religions, climaxing with Tibetan Buddhism, so I was taught schizophrenically.
FB You have a trick rhyme in that song that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before: “Ever since I be-gan / I was mostly ve-gan.”
SM Yeah, we were vegetarian for almost all of my childhood.
FB So some aspects of your mother’s teaching have stuck with you?
SM Everyone eventually has the sense that they’re turning into their parents, and for me it’s worse because my father is literally a singer-songwriter with Broadway credits and my mother is a weird hippie with bizarre politics and a love of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. So I couldn’t help but turn into my parents, as much as if I were a farmer raised by farmers.
FB A couple of years later, “Judy Garland” (1969) is partly about the Stonewall riots—but also about your mother trying to drive to the Woodstock festival, getting stuck in traffic, and hearing Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s “Je t’aime… moi non plus” on the car radio. How much of that were you conscious of at the time?
SM When I was four, I definitely didn’t hear about the Stonewall riots, but we did try to go to Woodstock, so I was aware of that. And I don’t remember ever not knowing and not loving “Je t’aime.” So I must have heard it pretty early.
FB Did you intend the cultural and musical values associated with Woodstock to conflict with the ones Judy Garland is taken to represent?
SM No, I think Woodstock was eclectic enough not to be an aesthetic monolith. If we’d ever gotten there, we would have seen Melanie; and Melanie has a great deal in common with Judy Garland, especially vocally. No matter what she sings she sounds upset about it, in a beautiful way. So no, Tower of Power has not influenced me in any positive way that I’m aware of but Melanie, definitely. And I like to think that Joni Mitchell and I share the failure to get to Woodstock. And now we’ve both written a song about it.
FB As much as I love Joni Mitchell, I didn’t make that connection. Woodstock doesn’t loom large enough in my imagination.
SM For me, writing an autobiographical album, which is obviously something that I would never do without somebody else thinking of it for me, immediately brings up Joni Mitchell. She’s the only person I admire as a lyricist who has any pretense to autobiography.
FB The only one? See, now I want to find counterexamples.
SM Oh no, when we were recording I started becoming a fan of Sun Kil Moon [Mark Kozelek], whose work is not only pretense to autobiography but often straight autobiography. I had not paid attention to him before.
FB Musical theater and Tin Pan Alley writing aren’t usually thought of as autobiographical, but Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You” (1912) is generally acknowledged to have come directly out of grief over the death of his first wife.
SM The verse of “White Christmas” is plausibly autobiographical. He’s stuck in LA and wishes that he were at home in New York in the snow and having actual weather and depth of feeling. It’s about New York versus LA, which is a tension we are all still fiddling with.
FB A few songs from the aughts (“Surfin’,” “In the Snow White Cottages”) are set in Los Angeles, where you moved for a few years before returning to New York in 2012 (“You Can Never Go Back to New York”). So that’s a tension on this record as well, right?
SM Yes. And on Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which is the centerpiece of Blue, her strongest claim to autobiography.
FB The song for 1971, “I Think I’ll Make Another World,” seems like a crucial moment. You’re five or six years old and coming to an early self-recognition as an artist. The lyrics propose that one motivation for creativity is that the world is largely unsatisfactory. Was that creativity always expressed in terms of music, or songs?
SM I didn’t write songs before I was ten; I did a lot more drawing until then, typically monsters and haunted houses and gothic castles. I wanted to be Walt Disney. I wanted to be the owner of an invitation-only amusement park. I should have written a song about that for the record.
FB The ticket would have to be expensive for that to be a sustainable endeavor.
SM (laughter) Yes. I don’t recall working out the actual business plan for my amusement park. But I definitely had detailed plans for the individual sections. I made multiple maps of the grounds. I was influenced more by the Willy Wonka approach than the Walt Disney approach in that there would be something that happened to you, rather than something that moved you from place to place.
FB Even though that song plants a flag for the imagination, your own life is the album’s explicit subject, and I gather that you’ve constrained yourself as much as possible to the facts. How did that affect the writing process and your decisions about what would and wouldn’t fit into a song?
SM Well, there were legal problems. I had to make sure that I wasn’t saying anything that anybody could sue me for. There were etiquette problems, where I had to make sure that no one would be so upset that they wouldn’t speak to me again. And then there were memory problems, where I would have liked to have written about something, but I just couldn’t remember how it actually happened, and I shouldn’t be lying about it because there are other people involved. That’s all very different from the way I usually work, where I can make up characters from scratch and say anything I want about them. I can make them kill each other or have wild passionate affairs because they don’t exist, they won’t get their feelings hurt, and they won’t sue me. So, I needed to invent my technique more than I usually do.
FB Do you mention anyone on the album whom it wouldn’t bother you never to speak to again?
SM Yes. But I would prefer that they not sue me. So I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself. I also allowed myself to change a name for a rhyme. Fortunately, there was already a good legal reason to change the name.
FB That sort of decision is right at the crossroads of legal or ethical judgment and issues of craft.
SM Absolutely. It’s much harder to find rhymes for real stuff, and I was nervous that every quatrain on the record was going to begin with something true and then rhyme with “Can’t you see?” But I think I managed not to do that in any conspicuous way. An easy way to do that would be to make a list of two things about my life and then come up with the rhyme for them after three more lines of fillers. Always tempting.
FB ”Life Ain’t All Bad” seems like one of the most negative portraits on the record. Is that discussing one person?
SM Yeah, my mother had a horrible psychotic, alcoholic boyfriend on and off for several years, including 1977, the year I put it in.
FB Just before that, “Hustle 76” is your version of a disco song and arrangement from that era—but through the lens of your eleven-year-old self, ordering a disco compilation album from a TV advertisement. Was that the actual name of the compilation?
SM Hustle 76, no apostrophe.
FB You set out what disco is in the first verse and then in the second verse you respond to it. Was your reaction “What is this, and how can I get more of it in the house?”
SM Yes. (laughter) I was soon to join the Columbia House record club, from which I would receive a monthly catalog, broken down by genre, explaining how music works, in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to get from the record store.
FB Since we’ve come to disco…
SM In the ’70s, who was more influential than Donna Summer? Brian Eno played Donna Summer for David Bowie when they were recording in Berlin and said something like, “This is the future of music.” And he was right. “I Feel Love” is probably the single of the ’70s, but the Rolling Stone history says, as I recall, “Donna Summer and disco slid across the ’70s like a slug leaving a trail of slime.” And just when disco was supposedly out of fashion, Sweet came out with a record called Cut Above The Rest, with a song called “Discophony” about how horrible disco was. It presented a nightmare of disco. And yet, it didn’t sound particularly different from other things that they’d done. So if they were trying to distance themselves from disco, not only were they failing, they were more closely aligning themselves with it.
FB A bunch of rockers had their disco hits at the exact moment it was supposed to be the worst thing in the world, for example, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”…
SM Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”!
FB Exactly, though I think the new-wave stance was a little different. The music writer David Hajdu, in his new book Love For Sale, describes being at a benefit at CBGB’s in 1978 where Blondie covered “I Feel Love” with Robert Fripp sitting in on guitar. Apparently it was shocking at the time, but it doesn’t seem so strange now that “downtown” musicians would understand that this was an intricately structured production, with all the sequencers and the synth lines moving at different rates.
SM Um, they’re not moving at different rates, but they are all going through phase shifters, which are moving at different rates. The filters are going www-ooo-eee-rrr-www so that there’s this sort of epilepsy-inducing moiré effect, going off in multiple directions at once.
FB Conceptually, it isn’t all that different than what Fripp called “Frippertronics,” or his multitrack guitar solo on “Heroes.”
FB You use a wide variety of song forms on this album and others. How do you make those decisions? Part of why I’m asking is that I’m working on a book about the history and function of bridges in pop songs.
SM You are? It’s a good idea.
FB I hope so. A lot of it is about how form relates to genre. In your case, I can think of many songs that have bridges—”Strange Powers,” from Holiday, is one of my favorites—but just as many that don’t. On 50 Song Memoir, you have songs with no repeated lyrics at all (“How I Failed Ethics”), songs that have a verse and a chorus, which is sometimes just the title (“They’re Killing Children Over There” and “Ethan Frome”), and songs with bridges. That first song, “Wonder Where I’m From” is a thirty-two-bar AABA song, for example, and “I Think I’ll Build Another World” has a couple of bridges with different lyrics. How do you make those decisions?
SM It depends on what I’m writing. For albums such as 69 Love Songs or 50 Song Memoir, I’m writing a large number of songs, so they better all have different rules or it’ll get very predictable. On both of those albums I use ballad form, and then Tin Pan Alley style, verse-then-refrain form. And I try for a maximum number of ways of interpreting them, including Renaissance folk styles. When I use the word bridge, I use it for that third part of the song if there’s a verse, a chorus, and something that might as well be called a bridge, unless it’s at the end, and then it’s called a coda. Of course, if it’s at the beginning, it’s called the intro.
FB I’m not trying to state necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as a bridge. I’m more interested in describing a range of devices or structures that can be labeled bridges and that tend to have some common functions. The one-chord bridge in James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” has some pretty obvious differences from the bridge of a George Gershwin or Smokey Robinson song, but they’re not totally unrelated either. They bridge other sections, so they have to show up in the middle of a song or record. So I’d agree with you that a section that occurs only at the beginning is either an intro or what musical theater writers call a “verse.” You have at least one of those on this record, on “Life Ain’t All Bad.” But lots of records open with something that turns out to be part of the bridge—like the line “What a drag it is getting old” at the beginning of “19th Nervous Breakdown.” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” is another example. It’s a fun parlor game to ask “Oh, is this a bridge?,” but that isn’t really the point, and the terminology isn’t consistent.
SM The Beatles called it a “middle eight.”
FB That was a pre-rock term in England—you can find Noël Coward and Philip Larkin using it.
SM I feel like middle eight is from thirty-two bar.
FB Definitely—it’s the third group of eight measures. But Paul McCartney has said in interviews that people would tell him “Oh, that song has a nice middle eight,” but that he and John Lennon didn’t understand until much later that eight measures was the norm. So the bridges of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are thirteen measures.
SM It’s so difficult to talk about form in music. Often it doesn’t want to obey the prescriptive forms, which is why the concept of the bridge is a good one.
FB It is—and it has real musical consequences. It’s convenient to equate an interest in form with “formalism” in some bad sense, but form can play a role in whether listeners hear something as a “folk” song, a pop song, or a rock song.
SM There are several songs on 50 Song Memoir that were particularly difficult to teach to musicians for the tour because the form doesn’t sit still, and there are added beats, or one less repetition than you would expect, or something happens five times instead of four.
FB I noticed that “Me and Fred and Dave and Ted,” a song about your domestic situation circa 1993, drops measures and parts of measures in a way that I would think would be a challenge to perform.
SM Do you think that formal freedom has fallen away due to the advent of mechanical, digital, and electronic ways of writing music? With these clunky modern tools you can’t just add a bar by playing another bar; inconveniently you have to actually put it in.
FB Maybe, but I think any technology encourages some musical and formal possibilities without absolutely determining them. It’s the path of least resistance to write on guitar with standard chords and voicings, but it isn’t as though the instrument makes it impossible to play others.
SM Unlike on the Autoharp, where it’s more or less impossible, and you’re playing a different instrument if you change the tuning.
FB I don’t know if I picked out any Autoharp on 50 Song Memoir, but it seems like this record is also your autobiography as a collector of unusual instruments, new and old. How did that become one of your interests?
SM I grew up with the synthesizer salesman’s claim to make “any sound you can imagine.” That’s a utopian idea, but I still want to live there.
FB Is it my imagination, or do I hear more electric bass on this record than on some of your previous ones?
SM Probably. Originally there were going to be fifty instruments. Forty-nine of them were going to be arranged in groups of seven instruments each playing seven songs. And then “The Day I Finally… ” would be the one where I played the one-man-band. So any time you hear an instrument, you can expect to hear it seven times. That applies to the bass instruments, too. So you hear the upright bass seven times and the ukulele bass seven times, and you probably hear the moog and the banjo basses seven times. Pretty much all the songs probably have some kind of bass on them, which is not true of all my records.
FB I may just be hearing more bass overall, but there’s a prominent electric bass line on “They’re Killing Children Over There,” for example, that I don’t particularly associate with your arrangements.
SM Well, I did use the ukulele bass on seven songs and cranked it really loud. I love the sound of ukulele bass.
FB I’m fond of baritone guitar, which is deeper and twangier than a standard guitar but isn’t quite a bass. It’s been a secret weapon on a couple of my own records. Is that what you used on “Surfin’”?
SM Yes, in fact that is two baritone guitars. On the 69 Love Songs tour, all I played was baritone guitar.
FB Is there a progression on the record of sounds and arrangement styles you allowed yourself to use, corresponding to, say, the period you were writing about? “Hustle 76” is obviously a disco arrangement.
SM And you could have definitely heard “Danceteria!” at the New York club Danceteria on Twenty-First Street. So there are a few places. But I decided early on that I wasn’t going to make it gradually unfold into the present because the development of new sounds that you hear on a record pretty much stopped in the mid-’80s. The last new sound I can say I heard on a record was made by the vacuum cleaner guitars on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy in 1985.
FB I’d try to come up with counterexamples if I were faster on my feet. I want to talk about the penultimate song on the record, “I Wish I Had Pictures.” It’s almost a counterpart to “I Think I’ll Make Another World.” Forty-odd years later, you’re concerned with representing the real world, for lack of a better term, which wasn’t your interest at age five or six.
SM I agree, but it also links up with “Why I’m Not a Teenager,” and my desire to be an underground filmmaker. I wanted to be a visual artist and it never happened. And along the way I lost the vast majority of the pictures I ever took, including the movie footage and video footage. From one perspective, that’s sad—and when I remember even less than I do now, it will be sadder.
FB I’m forgetting the exact structure of the song, but it has a longer sequence of bridge sections about how you would represent the world if you were a filmmaker, a poet, or a visual artist.
SM I think the form is ABABCCCABAB, something like that.
FB Not many of your listeners are going to think, Oh, what a shame Stephin is making music instead of movies. But you raise the issue of the advantages and disadvantages of a given medium. And when you come out of what we’re calling the C section back into the verse, it’s interesting that you say, “But I’m just a singer.” I don’t think you actually mention songwriting per se.
SM Well, when I’m singing “I’m just a singer” there, you can hear my eyes rolling because I’m really barely a singer. And I also say, “If I were a poet,” when, in fact, that year I published a volume of poetry. So there is dramatic irony galloping by. But yeah, I could have been a photographer, I could have been a filmmaker, and I failed to be those things. I never wanted to be an actor, but I did it in high school. If my hearing gets any worse, however, I’ll be stuck being a poet, and I’ll take the world by storm.
FB As poets do.
FB You’re also nearly quoting “Your Song,” aren’t you?
SM I hope you don’t mean the John Denver song.
FB That’s “Annie’s Song.” I mean the Elton John song.
SM Oh, am I? Remind me.
FB ”If I were a sculptor, but then again no.”
SM Oh yes. (laughter) I’m obliquely, absentmindedly quoting Bernie Taupin in easily—and intentionally—the sappiest song on the record, where the strings come in on the second verse, the whole thing. During rehearsals for the tour, several band members lost family members, and that song has become the most difficult song to get through, as people start crying halfway through and can’t stop. So it’s, I guess, the “Book of Love” on this record, where it’s the maudlin ballad that actually works. It’s a joke, but it’s completely heartfelt and actually works. I’m hoping it will become a Kodak commercial.
FB Like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” which is also a song about memory. I guess what I’m getting at—and this might be a good place to wrap things up—is that I was surprised to hear you refer to yourself as a “singer-songwriter” earlier, even though you obviously sing songs that you wrote, because that term has associations that you’ve often gone out of your way to disavow. Are you reconciled to belonging to that category, at least for the duration of this autobiographical project?
SM Hell no!