Stephin Merritt Talks About How His Love For Shopping Affects His Songwriting


  • Courtesy of Merge Records

Stephin Merritt isn't the easiest guy to interview. He isn't rude but, at times, it's obvious that he'd much rather be drinking at a bar or playing with his dog than be stuck on the phone with a stranger asking him about his art. But such is life when you are one of the greatest songwriters in indie music. His main musical outlet, the Magnetic Fields, recently released "Love at the Bottom of the Sea" (Merge Records)--its triumphant return to the squealing synthesizer hiss that only The Magnetic Fields can seam together with traditional ukulele pop songs. In anticipation of this Wednesday's show at the Sheldon Concert Hall, we caught up with Merritt to discuss, among other things, shopping.

See also: -Stephin Merritt talks Spice Girls and hating "Imagine" -The Hive Dwellers at Luminary Art Center, 3/27/12: Review, Photos and Setlist -Amanda Palmer, Stephin Merritt, Moby and Neil Gaiman do Rocky Horror -Our 2010 Interview with Stephin Merritt

Michael Dauphin: Thanks for taking the time to do this. I know you're not much of a fan of touring, doing press and other aspects that come with releasing an album.

Stephin Merritt: Oh, no. I'm ok with press. I just don't like touring.

Are there any steps you've learned to take to make touring more tolerable?

[long pause] No.

Fair enough. Your newest album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, marks your return to using synthesizers. Had you been experimenting with these over the last several years, or was most of the gear brand new?

I think I bought almost all of them since Realism. I really love shopping. I could do it for a living.

People do make careers out of that.

I'd be good at it.

Better than you are at writing songs?

I actually think that shopping is very important aspect of my songwriting.

Shopping for gear, or shopping in general?

Well, for example, books. I have a lot of books; most of which I got while shopping. And many of those books, directly or indirectly, turn into songs. And I have a large collection of Hollywood musicals on DVD. Those are a huge help if I'm writing a musical. Like, I just wrote a carioca song. I would not have known about carioca had I not bought the movie "Flying Down to Reno", featuring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Starting with 69 Love Songs and up to Love at the Bottom of the Sea, each album has had some set of parameters in place. Was this an exercise in discipline, or was it a way to push you in a different direction?

Well, with Distortion and Realism it had more to do with the arrangement and direction. With Distortion we had all of the instruments feeding back all of the time. And Realism was recorded like a folk album. It really had nothing to do with the songs or the songwriting though.

When you released Distortion you cited Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy as an inspiration. Have there been any other albums that have inspired you recently--whether it is the production or the songwriting?

No. It was just the production. Specifically, the guitars that sound like vacuum cleaners.

Were you going for a specific model, like an antique Hoover or Electrolux?

Actually, there are some vacuum cleaners that are really quite quiet, and they don't even scare the dog. However, I have an Electrolux that I'm very happy with, but my dog is terrified by it.

While you write all the Magnetic Fields songs, you often tap Claudia [Gonson] (vocals/piano) or Shirley [Simms] (vocals/harp) to handle the vocals. Do you ever feel more or less accountable when you have someone else singing your songs?

I often find it more pleasurable to listen to the songs that I don't sing. When it's me singing, I hear it all as little mistakes. But when it's someone else, it's easier to appreciate the song.

The gender of the antagonists in your songs always seems to fluctuate. How do you usually determine which gender to assign?

Actually, it's often the last thing that's determined. If I'm going to have Shirley sing a song, I don't necessarily decide to have her sing based on the genders in the song. Usually there are assigned genders. But if one rhymes well, or if it fits better, I don't get attached to a specific gender.

Back in the days of Motown, when you had old men writing songs for young women, this was a little more common. It's more rare nowadays.

Well, most of the music I listen to is old. I don't consider myself to take much of a singer/songwriter approach. I'm more of a Brill Building / Tin Pan Alley guy. It wouldn't really bug me if I never sang again.

Could the same be said for songwriting?

No, I really like writing songs. In fact, sometimes I do it by accident. That happened this morning.

Speaking of, you have said that "Andrew in Drag", the first single on your new album, came about in a similar manner.

Yeah, I was hanging out a bar for an extra-long time. And I must have gotten really drunk because I left my car at the bar so I wouldn't, you know, drive home. And I actually didn't remember writing a song or leaving the bar. And the next day I woke up and saw "Andrew in Drag" right there on the notepad. Now, I don't usually do that, but sometimes I do and it's really productive.

I read an interview where you warned gay singer/songwriters about coming out early in their career. Can you elaborate on that?

I don't think I was talking about songwriters as much as singers. [long pause] I wasn't trying to make a political statement, I was just stating that I have observed that the people who have [done it right] are the people who have only come out after they have had success. I think that it would appeal to a wider variety of people if the gay people can figure out you're gay without you having to say so. Like, say, Morrissey.


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