The albums of the Magnetic Fields are sonically gorgeous accompaniments to heartbreak. As the band's songwriter and vocalist, Stephin Merritt is known for his wry, morose lyrics—from the groundbreaking 69 Love Songs: "The moon to whom the poets croon/has given up and died/Astronomy will have to be revised"—but I was also curious about Merritt's other writing pursuits, which include a period as a music critic for Time Out New York in the 90s. A couple of his musical collaborations have also had a literary edge. He worked with author Daniel Handler to create an album based on Handler's Lemony Snicket series and with writer Neil Gaiman to craft the musical adaptation of Coraline. I spoke with Merritt by phone this weekend in advance of Magnetic Fields' two upcoming New York shows in support of their 12th album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea.
Grace Bello: I really like the song “Andrew in Drag” on your new album. What inspired that song?
Stephin Merritt: Thank you. I don’t know. I don’t remember writing it. I woke up one morning, I noticed that my car wasn’t in the driveway and deduced that I must’ve had a late night—probably writing a song that took so long that I drank enough not to remember writing it. So I looked in my notebook, and there was “Andrew in Drag.” Fortunately, I remembered the melody. And I took a taxi to the local bar, and there was my car. So I have no more knowledge about “Andrew in Drag” than you do.
I read somewhere that you write lyrics as you come up with the melodies. Can you tell me more about that process?
I write the lyrics and melodies at the same time.
And you’re able to recall the melodies that you’re conjuring?
Sometimes not. And then good riddance because if it wasn’t that memorable, then why release it? I’ve always believed in the ABBA theory, that if you don’t remember it, no one else will.
You once said to Rolling Stone that you never write autobiographically; how do you feel about writing biographically?
I’m sure I never said that. But I’m equally sure that they could have easily made it up and printed it. I write generally neither autobiographically nor not autobiographically, in that the lyrics of popular music are generally vague enough so that they can apply to almost anyone. Including myself. Writing autobiographically is something that Joni Mitchell did for two or three songs in 1973, but mostly pop songs are too vague to be considered autobiographical.
Would you explore writing biographically for a conceptual album? Writing songs from the perspective of, I don’t know, Rock Hudson or something?
It hadn’t occurred to me. Do you think that’s a good idea?
I think it’s sometimes fun to write from a persona.
Well, when I write for theater, I’m writing for particular characters who often don’t have that much in common with me. Although their emotional and dramatic situations necessarily have something in common with me in that what we put on stage is what everybody can identify with.
So speaking of writing for the stage, you had collaborated with Neil Gaiman for the music for Coraline. What’s next on the horizon in terms of literary collaborations for you?
I have two musicals I’m working on, one with Daniel Handler and one with Neil Gaiman. Neither one of them is titled yet.
Watching the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, I saw you have a ton of journals with potential song ideas, potential lyrics. So what’s your process for paring down that writing? How do you discern what’s a workable idea versus what’s not a usable idea?
Do you mean how do I decide what I’m going to use in a particular song? I think that almost any idea is workable in some context. One of my favorite movies is Kiss Me, Stupid, in which Ira Gershwin used the songs that he and George Gershwin never finished. And Ira Gershwin had dummy lyrics for them—intentionally stupid lyrics—that would illustrate what the rhyme scheme was supposed to be and how it related to the music. But the lyrics themselves didn’t particularly have that finished air to them that a Gershwin song would. But used in the context of the movie, these dummy lyrics are hilarious. A song that you hear again and again is called “I Am a Poached Egg.” So that’s a big inspiration for me, the feeling that absolutely any idea has some conceivable context in which it’s a good idea.
You wrote something called The Formulist Manifesto [sample here]. What’s the origin of that, and what’s contained in it?
You know, I actually haven’t seen it since the early '90s. So I really don’t even remember what it is. It would be lovely if you could tell me where to find it. Where did you see it?
I actually saw it in Strange Powers. Claudia [Gonson of The Magnetic Fields] is reading from it, but it’s not shown in full.
I haven’t seen the documentary in a few years. [The manifesto] was published in somebody’s zine, but I can't remember the name of the zine, and I haven’t seen it since 1994. So you can imagine how few interesting answers I could possibly have about it.
What books did you read while you were writing your new album? And does literature inspire you at all when you’re writing lyrics?
I can’t answer the first question because I’ve been writing this album for 26 years, so it wouldn’t really make any sense to say what books I had been reading while writing the album. That’s not the way I work. But, yeah, I have a song I have never used called "Ethan Frome," which is a description of the plot and publishing history of Ethan Frome. I think most of my lyrics are inspired by other lyrics rather than by any external source, but a lot of The Charm of the Highway Strip was directly inspired by the movie Carnival of Souls. And I did a musical about a Hans Christian Andersen story and two Chinese operas based on Chinese operas and Coraline based on the Neil Gaiman novel.
But Magnetic Fields songs are rarely inspired by other people's books. “My Husband's Pied-à-terre" on the new album was inspired by a television show. I walked into my favorite bar in New York, and they had the sound down but the captions on. They were watching Oprah Winfrey's television show. She was interviewing a woman whose husband had recently died, and when he died, she discovered that he had a whole secret life including an apartment in the city that she didn't know anything about—and, I think, another family and some criminal past. But I liked the phrase “my husband's pied-à-terre" and thought that would be a good title to run with. A lot of people don't seem to know what the word "pied-à-terre" means.
Yeah, I was just going to say, I had used it in conversation. Someone asked me what it meant, and I suddenly felt really pretentious for knowing what it meant.
You're not pretentious. They're ignorant.
You wrote the introduction to The Paris Review Book of People with Problems. How did that come about, and are there any literary pursuits on the horizon for you? Writing fiction or anything?
Not fiction, no. I have a poetry thing I'm doing.
Yeah, I had seen that you had written a poem that was published in The Village Voice, which I thought was great.
Yeah. In 2005, there was something printed in The Village Voice under Poetry by you.
Maybe I didn't do it for them, and it somehow wound up…
Who knows? Maybe you wrote it for someone, and they handed it to The Village Voice.
I've done a lot of Valentine's Day stuff, obviously. But I don't remember that one.
"Valentine's Day stuff" as in giving friends Valentine's Day poems?
Don't be preposterous! No, I get calls from radio stations and such to do various Valentine's Day things.
So you said your new album is 26 years in the making. You had shelved a lot of these songs?
Well, "God Wants Us to Wait" was based on a backing track that I did for another song—the same melody but different lyrics—in 1986. Most of [the album is from] later than that. I generally have song fragments that have been sitting around for years. "Your Girlfriend's Face" is from 2003. I wrote the whole song that long ago. I don't know why I didn't use it until this year. A lot of these don't have any particular reasons [for waiting until now]; they just sat around waiting to be used. Like many, many other songs.
What has your tour been like so far?
My brain shuts down after about day three. Right now I'm in Toronto, but you'd never know it because out my window what I see is a yellow brick wall. That's what touring is like.
Related: The Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs," In Order