“Being a gay person who writes lyrics is enough to invite comparisons to Morrissey” – The Irish Times

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Stephin Merritt’s reputation as a difficult interviewee precedes him, but the founder and leader of Magnetic Fields has a theory about it. There aren’t many things he regrets, he says, but one is that he wishes he had had a policy early in his career not to talk to student journalists. .

“I got a reputation as a mean interview subject, entirely – as far as I know – because of student interviews I’ve done, where I’m the first person they’ve ever interviewed, and they are nervous and they are antagonistic. He sighs. “So I think it was a mistake to be too promiscuous with my interviews.”

In all honesty, if you’re familiar with Merritt’s creative output – he’s renowned for his musically diverse works, his lyrics so concise they’d go through glass, and his funny song titles to savor (I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again, When the Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit, and The Biggest Tits in History are just a selection from his latest album, Quickies), you probably have an idea of ​​what the New Yorker looks like as a person.

When we talk via Zoom, he’s at home in Manhattan, lying on his bed with his two faithful dogs, Edgar and Agatha, by his side (named after Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, not the Mystery Novel Awards of the same name, as he makes a point of pointing out.)

Merritt’s predilection for answering questions concisely, and usually after a very long pause, means that any interview with him isn’t necessarily a coherent conversation, but rather an unintended rapid-fire round. With that in mind, I start with an easy question: is it true that he has Irish ancestry?

“My mom and dad do, yeah,” he says, referring to cult psych-folk singer Scott Fagan, whom he only first met in 2013. “Do I know what part? I don’t know. They don’t know either. He shrugs. “The grandparents involved are all dead, so there’s no one to ask.”

Merritt’s career has been a patchwork of musical oddities, side projects, indie hits, and offbeat forays into synth-pop and rock music. He won an award for composing the music and lyrics for the off-Broadway adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; he has been involved in many other musical theater and film soundtrack projects, has had his songs featured in cartoons, has been a member of several other bands (including Future Bible Heroes, The Three Terrors and The Gothic Archies) and is generally hailed as an unrecognized genius by many. So, given his experience and extensive catalog, what does he consider his greatest triumph? Another long pause follows.

“69 Love Songs album cover,” he whispers. “Songs? Songs are good too. But I’m not primarily a designer, so I guess I tend to be more proud of things that are harder for me. I’m primarily a songwriter, so I’m not necessarily the most proud of things that I do relatively easily and all day.

Oddly, I’ve never been compared to Marc Almond, who I probably find closer, because I’m famous for my dirty jokes – just like Marc Almond

It is true that this album, released in 1999, has become synonymous with Merritt like no other. Magnetic Fields’ sixth album spawned some of their finest songs, including The Book of Love, which has been covered by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Dublin’s Gavin James, which hit in 2015. He hasn’t heard James’ version, but says his favorite so far “is a seven-year-old girl who sings it on Holland’s Got Talent. The instrumental backing was cheesy, sure, but it really inhabited it in a way you couldn’t imagine a seven-year-old girl doing. Especially the phrase “We’re all too young to know”. He smiles. “Funny.”

Merritt agrees that this album remains his most talked about work – its intention was always to be a “calling card”, he says – even though there have been many other records of Magnetic Fields released over the next 23 years. The album i (2004) was the first of the band’s “non-synthesizer trilogy”, followed by the heavier Distortion (2008), which they claimed was their “second most popular album” (“but the one my mother hate the most”). After that came Folk Realism (2010), while Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012) featured one of their best-known singles, Andrew in Drag. Given his musical palette over the years, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t dwell on one particular style or concept.

“I’m trying to rebel against the album I just made,” he says. “There are two models: there’s Roxy Music, which made the same album over and over again – better and better – until you made Avalon, which is the perfect Roxy Music album and it’s impossible to imagine doing better. Or there’s David Bowie, where you try a different thing every year – and that’s the one that makes sense to me. Plus, because I’m so adrift of a particular genre , I feel like I would probably run out of things to say pretty quickly if I was just doing industrial zydeco, or whatever genre I was lumped into.

One in 26

Being genre adrift also means that Merritt has been tagged with the “perennial underdog” label over the years. He shrugs. “I’m not interested in being a household name. Gary Numan, at the height of his fame, once said that if you’re a household word, it means one in 26 people on the street will recognize you. I don’t know where he got number 26 from, but I like it; it’s easy to remember,” he laughs. “You’ll never be recognized by every person on the street – thank goodness. I’d rather have the money than the fame. And I’d spend the money on instruments and records. He gets recognition from time to time in New York,” says he, but things like selfie requests are rare.”Everyone is too busy being cool,” he sighs.

Merritt writes all of his songs in the same New York bars, but says he hasn’t completed a new song since contracting Covid in early 2020.

“I caught Covid the day the World Health Organization announced the pandemic, which was March 11, 2020,” he says. “I’m waiting for my brain fog to be kicked out of existence. I’m hoping that if I continue my routine of sitting around the same bars, with the same pen… I’ve had the same notebook for two years, because I haven’t finished it. I’m writing ideas, I just don’t feel like I’ve finished the song. He stops, suddenly tearful. “But I don’t blame myself, because the song ideas are the bulk of the song. And I have hundreds of half-written songs lying around, which is a good thing. He sighs again. “I can’t wait to suddenly find out what medicine, or something, will allow me to finish the song.”

His wit and mastery of words have seen him grouped with other acts of a certain generation, like Morrissey, in the past. What does he think of the comparisons with other artists?

I’ve always loved Morrissey as a lyricist. I hope he can regain his public image. He has to be nice to some kids and dogs on national TV

“Well, the similarities between me and Morrissey are basically demographic,” he smiles. “I think just being a gay person writing lyrics is enough to invite comparisons to Morrissey. Strangely, I’ve never been compared to Marc Almond, who I probably find closer, because I’m famous for my dirty jokes, just like Marc Almond. He pauses. “I’ve always liked Morrissey as a lyricist. I hope he can regain his public image; he seems to have fallen recently, in this regard. He must be nice to certain children and dogs on national television, before turns into WC fields.”

Is there no one these most idiosyncratic musicians feel an affinity with these days? He sinks deep into his thoughts again; another long pause follows, before he suddenly responds confidently.

“I think Robyn has wonderful melodies and engaging stories, in a way that people of her presumed ‘gender’ aren’t supposed to have,” he says, referring to the Swedish pop star famous for Dancing on My. Own. “Algorithms put me with New Order and Belle & Sebastian, and I guess that’s also because we don’t do classic rock, and we’re not Gloria Gaynor either. I don’t know.” He stops again, a little less sure this time. “I don’t really like comparing myself to others, because I tend to compare myself to people who are much better than me in this area,” he finally said, still deadpan. “I mean, if I could do the Beyoncé photoshoots, I guess I would do the Beyoncé photoshoots.”

The Magnetic Fields play at the Olympia Theater on September 7

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