The Magnetic Fields On The Improbably Autobiographical '50 Song Memoir'

Mar 9, 2017
Originally published on March 9, 2017 6:16 am

Stephin Merritt is a great storyteller with a really analytical perspective — except, maybe, when it comes to his own feelings.

As the driving force behind The Magnetic Fields, Merritt has written hundreds of songs. Almost none of them are autobiographical; it's just not his style. And yet, for his 50th birthday, he decided he was going to write 50 songs, one for each year of his life.

"That was the point of the album," he says. "I'm the least confessional singer songwriter in history, maybe, so why not do the exact opposite of what I usually do — 50 times."

The end result is the new Magnetic Fields album 50 Song Memoir, and it embodies the quirky charm that has brought Merritt so many fans. The songs have this, "Yeah, this is how it happened" kind of feel to them — though according to Merritt, that doesn't necessarily make them any more honest than his earlier work.

"I don't think I'm dishonest about my feelings in other songs — it's just that I'm not claiming those feelings," he says. "I'm saying, 'This is a feeling. Here is a situation that goes with that feeling.' The situation may or may not involve me, Stephin Merritt, but it certainly involves me, music listener. There's a mild expectation that I will actually be searching within my deepest soul for nuggets of self-help-style truth, but that is totally not what I am interested in."

Merritt spoke with NPR's David Greene about his love for ABBA, his childhood on religious communes, and what his latest work does and does not say about his personality. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When I interviewed the musician Stephin Merritt recently, I thanked him for trekking 40 minutes to a studio in Albany. He said, oh, no big deal. I had to come to town anyway to pick up my car from the body shop. He'd had a bit of an accident in a museum parking lot.

STEPHIN MERRITT: They have a fire hydrant in the parking lot of the museum right next to one of the parking spaces, such that if you pull out of the parking space in one of the two available directions...

GREENE: You just rammed the thing, didn't you?

MERRITT: ...You hit it. Yeah, so I rammed it.

GREENE: Ouch. Well, turns out the day we interviewed him, his car wasn't ready to pick up anyway.

MERRITT: So if you'd like to interview me again on Friday, I'll be back here in Albany on Friday.

GREENE: (Laughter) You'll be back. We can do it all again.

That's the thing about Stephin Merritt. He loves talking about the absurdity of life. He also loves talking about music, and he got super animated when I asked why he loves ABBA.

MERRITT: Like Bach, and I don't take that lightly, they are masters at taking, say, four notes and building a cathedral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABBA SONG, "THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL")

MERRITT: So "The Winner Takes It All" goes (singing) da-da-da-da-da-da (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL")

ABBA: (Singing) I don't want to talk.

MERRITT: And that little phrase is sort of like a tile in a mosaic. It couldn't really be more mathematical, musically; whereas the singing and the lyrics are a Greek tragedy. The gods may throw the dice, their minds as cold as ice, and someone way down here loses someone dear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL")

ABBA: (Singing) ...Someone dear. The winner takes it all.

GREENE: So Stephin Merritt, a great storyteller with a really analytical perspective, except maybe when it comes to his own feelings. As the driving force behind the band The Magnetic Fields, Merritt has written hundreds of songs. Almost none of them are autobiographical. It's just not his style.

And yet he decided, whatever, for his 50th birthday, he was going to write 50 songs, one for each year of his life. And the end result embodies the quirky charm that has got him so many fans. The songs have this, yeah-this-is-how-it-happened kind of feel to them. This one's about his childhood cat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'68: A CAT CALLED DIONYSUS")

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) I used to keep him in my box where I kept all my toys and blocks. He hated me, but I loved him.

GREENE: So I asked Merritt the obvious question.

Everything I read about you makes you seem like autobiography, confessional stuff is not what you're all about typically.

MERRITT: I'll say.

GREENE: (Laughter).

MERRITT: So that was the point of the album is that I am the least confessional singer-songwriter in history maybe, so why not do the exact opposite of what I usually do 50 times?

GREENE: Now, Stephin Merritt has had a pretty interesting life. He was raised by a single mom. She was a spiritual seeker, moved around a lot, hopping from one religious commune to the next.

MERRITT: We spent a few weeks on Stephen Gaskin's farm in Tennessee, called The Farm. We stayed for a while on an ashram in Saratoga.

GREENE: What is your thinking at this point? Take me into the mind of a 12-year-old Stephin.

MERRITT: From an early age, I was a religious skeptic. Now I'm - militant doesn't really describe it. I'm an obnoxious atheist.

GREENE: Which is - on the scale is not quite militant?

MERRITT: No, no, it's more than militant. I...

GREENE: More than militant.

MERRITT: I enjoy ridiculing other people's stupid beliefs.

GREENE: Which got him into trouble in 1986, as he relates in this song called "How I Failed Ethics."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'86: HOW I FAILED ETHICS")

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) Though majoring in visual and environmental studies and minoring in history of sci, I had to retake ethics from my Mennonite professor for whom my skepticism didn't fly.

GREENE: Yeah, the song is about a college ethics class that he failed. Merritt says the teacher passed him the second time around only so he didn't have to deal with him again.

This is amazing. I feel like if anyone is ethically questionable here, it might be the professor for just passing you and not holding you to some sort of standard.

MERRITT: No duh.

GREENE: (Laughter) Well, I mean, these songs - some are very whimsical, and some I hear, like, a bit of vulnerability from you. Is that fair?

MERRITT: Oh, vulnerability shmulnerability (ph). I have no idea. I thought I would probably try to vary the amounts of soul-baring per song from none at all to shocking, but I don't know if I actually got to shocking.

GREENE: You didn't hit shocking.

MERRITT: I don't know. I don't know. I don't really believe in soul-baring.

GREENE: What about 2009, "Till You Come Back To Me"?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'09: TILL YOU COME BACK TO ME")

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) When you come back to me, I will be at the bar. Drinking, I will be, thoroughly, till you come back to me.

GREENE: Who were you waiting for?

MERRITT: Oh, I shouldn't say.

GREENE: Can you speak in general terms? Like, was it a relationship?

MERRITT: You know, yeah, I had a boyfriend who - it wasn't clear what happened. Was he gone? Was he just being flaky? Who knows?

GREENE: Did it say something about you when we listen to the song? Do we learn something about you?

MERRITT: I guess you learn about me that when terrible things happen, my reaction is to go to the Eagle and play pinball.

GREENE: (Laughter) The Eagle is a bar.

MERRITT: Yes, in LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'09: TILL YOU COME BACK TO ME")

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) I'll play pinball at the Eagle till you come back to me.

GREENE: Was it liberating to have this opportunity to just be honest about feelings in some of these songs?

MERRITT: Honest. I don't think I'm dishonest about my feelings in other songs. It's just that I'm not claiming those feelings. I'm saying this is a feeling. Here is a situation that goes with that feeling. The situation may or may not involve me, Stephin Merritt, but it certainly involves me, music listener. There's a mild expectation that I will actually be searching within my deepest soul for nuggets of self-help-style truth, when that is totally not what I am interested in.

GREENE: What - the whole project - I mean, two years looking back on your own life, reflecting, I mean, did you learn something about yourself?

MERRITT: No, no, only that I was capable of doing a 50-song memoir. I thought I probably would be, and I did it. And I am.

GREENE: (Laughter) Stephin Merritt, this has been a real pleasure.

MERRITT: Thank you. See you on Friday.

GREENE: (Laughter) See you on Friday when you pick up your car.

MERRITT: Yeah.

GREENE: Good luck with that, too. Watch out for fire hydrants.

MERRITT: Bye-bye.

GREENE: That was Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. His new album is called "50 Song Memoir." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.