Stephin Mer­ritt and his 50 Song Mem­oir

Dar­ryn King on Stephin Mer­ritt and his 50 Song Mem­oir

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Dar­ryn King

There aren’t too many rock stars for whom dress­ing in brown is a trade­mark. Yet Stephin Mer­ritt’s un­vary­ing sar­to­rial com­mit­ment to the colour has been in­spir­ing. In 2008, French footwear la­bel Bluedy in­tro­duced “the Stephin”: a line of pointy, mid-top, slim­toed leather and nubuck shoes, in four shades of brown from ko­bicha to taupe.

Much to Mer­ritt’s an­noy­ance, they didn’t even send him a pair.

“I wear the whole spec­trum from white to sepia,” he tells me qui­etly, seated in the lobby of his ho­tel in Lon­don. “Brown is good for ar­gyle …” He pulls up a khaki trouser leg to re­veal his pat­terned socks.

“I like brown. As with preppy cloth­ing, you can get dressed in the dark with no prob­lem.”

Over the years, Mer­ritt has earned a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a hard in­ter­view. His pub­lic Q&A events are reg­u­larly punc­tu­ated with dis­com­fit­ing Pin­teresque pauses. When pressed for an en­core, he and his band once per­formed John Cage’s ‘4’33’’’. Strike the right topic, though, and he’s pos­i­tively cud­dly. Mer­ritt lights up at the chance to ex­plain the su­pe­ri­or­ity of Act One of Stephen Sond­heim’s Into the Woods over Act Two, or de­scribe the qual­i­ties of the cit­tern, his most re­cent ex­otic in­stru­ment pur­chase from a mu­sic shop in Bris­tol.

Just don’t ask him if he’s en­joy­ing his cur­rent tour and ex­pect him to su­gar-coat the an­swer.

“I don’t like per­form­ing, so …” he says, the night after a two-per­for­mance stint at the Bar­bican Cen­tre, “So … no.”

How­ever be­grudg­ingly, in Oc­to­ber, Mer­ritt and his rag­tag septet, the Mag­netic Fields (with a cou­ple of rin­gins), will bring 50 Song Mem­oir to the Mel­bourne Fes­ti­val. The show, and the al­bum of the same name, is Mer­ritt’s per­sonal mu­si­cal his­tory, one song for each year in the first half-cen­tury of his life, start­ing in 1965.

Till now, Mer­ritt’s songs – baroque, genre-de­fy­ing pop, easy on the drum­beats – have been of­ten pop­u­lated by larger-than-life char­ac­ters: vam­pires, drag artists, Mary Mag­da­lene. The al­bum marks the first time he has writ­ten songs so overtly drawn from his own life, from his no­madic child­hood (‘I Think I’ll Make Another World’), early mu­si­cal as­pi­ra­tions (‘Rock ’n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life’, ‘How to Play Syn­the­sizer’), col­lege ex­pe­ri­ences (‘How I Failed Ethics’), life­time of med­i­cal ail­ments (‘Weird Dis­eases’) through to var­i­ous ad­ven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures in love and sex (‘I’m Sad!’, ‘Lovers’ Lies’, ‘The Ex and I’, ‘Cold­blooded Man’, ‘Till You Come Back to Me’, ‘Stupid Tears’).

The ef­fect is more dis­pas­sion­ately docu­men­tary-like

than soul-bar­ing, though. “I filled this al­bum with proper nouns,” says Mer­ritt. “I had to rhyme the name of my cat. That’s the sort of thing I would not usu­ally do.” (The re­sult­ing lyric: “We had a cat called Diony­sus / Ev­ery day another cri­sis.”)

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing stage show takes place on a cheer­ful, colour­ful set mod­elled on a vin­tage doll­house (Mer­ritt col­lects them), clut­tered with cher­ished ob­jects from his home: a wooden pig, a jack-in-the-box, a minia­ture Christ­mas tree, a grin­ning ro­bot and a stuffed toy owl among them. “It’s a plea­sure to see Hooty ev­ery day.”

Mer­ritt sits in the mid­dle of it all, on a pur­ple cush­ion atop an or­ange stool, wear­ing an ar­gyle sweater (yel­low and brown), strum­ming a ukulele, op­er­at­ing a va­ri­ety of drum ma­chines and singing in his mo­rose bass-bari­tone. In the pre-beard ’90s, his most prom­i­nent fea­ture was his hang­dog Buster Keaton eyes. Nowa­days he looks more like a smaller, rounder Louis CK, go­ing golf­ing.

Be­tween songs, Mer­ritt reads aloud au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal anec­dotes from his notes. Repar­tee with the mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal band is non-ex­is­tent – they’re on­stage but sep­a­rated from Mer­ritt by the doll­house walls. The band dy­namic, Mer­ritt says, has al­ways been more of a benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor­ship than a democ­racy. In his pro­gram notes for the show’s 2016 Brook­lyn premiere, he men­tions he’s only just met one of the band mem­bers and has no idea where he lives.

The vi­brant set de­sign, too, is some­thing of a com­pen­sa­tion for his stage pres­ence, “or lack thereof”, he ad­mits. He was once voted “Most Lethar­gic Gui­tarist” by a mu­sic mag­a­zine.

“My lack of pres­ence at this point is prac­ti­cally a shtick. An ef­fort­less shtick.”

Di­rec­tor José Zayas, Mer­ritt’s part­ner, en­vis­aged the stage show as some­thing like Krapp’s Last Tape, Sa­muel Beck­ett’s one-act play about a rheumy-eyed sex­a­ge­nar­ian lis­ten­ing to old record­ings of him­self and eat­ing ba­nanas. Does Mer­ritt think of his life as a tragi­com­edy?

“Sure. Yeah. Krapp’s Last Tape in par­tic­u­lar be­cause I live in my record­ing stu­dio.”

Eat­ing ba­nanas?

“In fact: yeah. My doc­tor has told me I sud­denly have high blood pres­sure on top of ev­ery­thing else, and I have to eat lots of ba­nanas. Ba­nanas and raisins. No salt. Ba­nanas and raisins all day long.”

Cer­tainly, he’s hap­pi­est when writ­ing songs. Since the first Mag­netic Fields record in 1991, he has writ­ten and recorded up­wards of 350 tracks. As well as be­ing the driv­ing force be­hind 11 Mag­netic Fields al­bums and a num­ber of spin-off acts – Fu­ture Bi­ble He­roes, the Gothic Archies, the 6ths – Mer­ritt has oc­cu­pied him­self with nu­mer­ous ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties. He adapted Neil Gaiman’s Co­ra­line for the stage, col­lab­o­rated with Chi­nese opera di­rec­tor Chen Shi-Zheng on three mu­si­cals, wrote songs for the au­dio books and Net­flix pro­duc­tion of A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events by Le­mony Snicket (“We share a sim­i­lar gim­let eye,” says Mer­ritt, of Snicket), com­posed scores for two films, toiled over a mu­si­cal­i­sa­tion of the 1916 si­lent film 20,000 Leagues Un­der the Sea, and cre­ated a “rig­or­ously fact-based mini-mu­si­cal” for the ra­dio show/pod­cast This Amer­i­can Life, and, in 2014, pub­lished 101 po­ems on the two-let­ter words listed in the of­fi­cial Scrab­ble dic­tio­nary.

Of all those projects, it’s prob­a­bly the non-mu­si­cal one, 101 Two-Let­ter Words, which best en­cap­su­lates Mer­ritt’s sen­si­bil­i­ties: es­o­teric, lit­er­ate, witty, neu­rot­i­cally me­thod­i­cal, with an at­trac­tion to es­pe­cially suc­cu­lent syl­la­bles.

For any­one else, an un­der­tak­ing such as 50 Song Mem­oir would be a ca­reer-defin­ing achieve­ment, but Mer­ritt al­ready has a mag­num opus un­der his belt, in the 1999 Mag­netic Fields record 69 Love Songs – a three­vol­ume pan­sex­ual mu­si­cal orgy span­ning styles from coun­try to punk, min­strel act to tin-pan al­ley, on which 96 dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments are played. It was a feat that re­cast song­writ­ing as du­ra­tional per­for­mance art. On

the strength of that record par­tic­u­larly, Mer­ritt has been reg­u­larly likened to Cole Porter. “Sure,” he says, shrug­ging off the com­par­i­son, “gay white guy with an in­ter­est in word­play.”

Mer­ritt’s dis­tinc­tive voice has in­flu­enced the sorts of songs he writes, too. “Bass voices are gen­er­ally used for vil­lainy or com­edy, or a com­bi­na­tion of the two,” he says. “I’m aware that I don’t nec­es­sar­ily sound like a sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter. I don’t want to sound like a wife-beat­ing su­per-vil­lain, which is what my voice sounds like.” He clar­i­fies: “In speech and in song.”

“There’s one tear-jerker near the end of the al­bum,” Mer­ritt con­tin­ues, re­fer­ring to ‘I Wish I Had Pic­tures’, “which, if it were sung by some­one with a dif­fer­ent voice, would prob­a­bly be a maudlin hit in some par­al­lel world.”

Mer­ritt writes in es­tab­lish­ments that are as “undis­tract­ingly bor­ing as pos­si­ble”: cafes and bars. The process is dif­fer­ent de­pend­ing on the drug be­ing im­bibed. “It is much eas­ier to be­gin a song on al­co­hol,” he says. “And it is much eas­ier to fo­cus on caf­feine. If I had to pick a way of work­ing, I would be­gin a song at about ten o’clock, after I’ve had at least one drink. And fin­ish it about noon the next day, after I’ve had enough tea in the morn­ing.”

There’s a de­lib­er­ate worka­day qual­ity to Mer­ritt’s process. Not for him the stan­dard guff about the mys­tery or magic of mu­si­cal in­spi­ra­tion. “That’s ab­so­lutely bull­shit,” he says. “I feel like it’s more akin to putting to­gether a cross­word puz­zle. Ex­cept you de­cide where the squares go. There’s a rea­son why Stephen Sond­heim is a puz­zle fan. Par­tic­u­larly a cross­word puz­zle fan.”

He feels an affin­ity with the French lit­er­ary col­lec­tive Oulipo, who turn the act of writ­ing it­self into a puz­zle to be solved, and seek to cre­ate works us­ing con­strained writ­ing tech­niques. “I en­joy do­ing puz­zles and games. I def­i­nitely re­gard song­writ­ing as part of that in­ter­est.”

In ad­di­tion to 69 Love Songs and 50 Song Mem­oir, one Mag­netic Fields al­bum con­sists en­tirely of songs whose ti­tles be­gin with “I”; for the mu­si­cal Peach Blos­som Fan (with Chen Shi-Zheng), Mer­ritt painstak­ingly con­structed melodies to ac­com­mo­date the tonal­i­ties of Man­darin Chi­nese; and for the 20,000 Leagues Un­der the Sea pro­ject, he de­vised lyrics for the au­di­ence to sing based on the mouth move­ments of on­screen char­ac­ters. Even at his ear­li­est gigs, he would only per­mit him­self to play a cer­tain num­ber of gui­tar notes per song.

After a work the scope of 50 Song Mem­oir – and the trauma of tour­ing it – it’s rea­son­able to won­der whether Mer­ritt might con­sider some­thing more throw­away next time.

“No,” he says, after a pause. “I’m try­ing to fig­ure out which of two projects I’m work­ing on first.” He smiles. “They’ll both be mag­num opi.”

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