“I chose the Oprah story”

Stephin Merritt by Marcelo Krasilcic
Stephin Merritt by Marcelo Krasilcic

Stephin Merritt, the mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields, is not a man of many words. And yet, his new album tells the story of his entire life. A conversation about false memories, big post-its and Kate Bush.

As the title indicates, your new album 50 Song Memoir is not just an album but also your autobiography. Each one of the songs mirrors one year in your life. I must admit, I was quite stunned to hear that the least autobiographical person in the music business is about to release one.
I am not the least autobiographical person in music.

So who is?
Kate Bush. Unless she actually robs banks.

Like in her song There goes a Tenner
Or was trapped under ice. But I doubt that. It’s not an experience most people survive.

So this album …
…I wonder what she does all day long … what is her personal life like? I hope she writes a memoir. A song memoir maybe. Like mine. Maybe it becomes a thing. I hope so.

I wonder why musicians would go and write an actual book memoir when they could just do it through music. Why would they choose another medium for this?
[long pause] I don’t know. I did it. But it took some convincing. I would have never done it if my record label would not have suggested it to me – not a chance.

Because it is not something you would have come up with or did you need outside confirmation that it is a good idea?
Both maybe. I think I have a very boring life. All musicians do once they become famous and turn 21. The whole thing is more just a frame for me to work with. It was the same with 69 Love Songs. I mean who wants to listen to 69 love songs?

Was your life more exciting before you became a musician?
Of course. It was more unique.

Because life as a musician always follows the same patterns?
You record, you go on tour, you come home, you break up, you start writing about the break-up, you record, you tour. You miss Canada, you write a song about missing Canada in the middle of which you realize you are actually re-writing White Christmas which is about missing New York. It’s a cliché of a cliché.

You mean Joni Mitchell’s River.
Yes. It’s an example of how being away on tour makes you miss home and then you realize that it is the same for every musician. Touring is an essential part of our life and other people don’t have a clue about it. So what’s the point of writing about it? I spend so much time in airports, I practically live there.

Would you do another song memoir? Like a follow-up?
[pause] 100 song memoir is going to be the next. 75 is too soon.

Have you read Grace Jones’ memoir?
No, I have it but I deliberately made sure to not read any biography-related stuff during the making of this record. When I’m finished with this tour and have nothing to do, I will gladly take it up and read.

Are records not by definition biographical? Lyrics do not form in a vacuum but often reflect situations you lived through.
Your musical taste is in there too. Being influenced by music from your past is also biographical in a way. Every song is autobiographical because it reveals what you want to hear. Unless you just want to make money. There was a rumour in the 90s that Madonna does not like her own stuff and is actually just a funk fan. I hope that is not true because it sounds very bleak.

Listening to the record, I noticed that there are quite a lot of musical references, but none regarding your own music. There is no song about recording an album or things like that. Why?
[Long Pause] There are a lot of things I did not write about. I did not want to write about the other people in the band. I also feel that so much has been written about us already, that I saw no need to add anything. There were more interesting issues.

Like what?
In 1999, our album 69 Love Songs came out. But it was also the year I was put in contact with my real father for the first time. So for 1999 I chose to write about that and do the song Fathers in the clouds. The album had more impact on my life but is it also the better song? I was 34 years old and had never met my father. There is more emotion in that. I basically chose the Oprah Winfrey story. The human interest story always beats the Wikipedia story. It’s the same with other bands. There are no songs about the experience of making or even listening to Pet Sounds or Revolver. You wouldn’t want that to become a thing.

I would.
[Pause] A genre of songs that are actually record reviews. It is a good idea, yes.

Some songs of the record are pretty straight forward but others, I am completely clueless or at least puzzled about.
Which ones?

Judy Garland for example. I know what it is about, but you were four years old and probably not able to understand the significance of Judy Garlands death and the Stonewall riots.
True. The song is actually more about us trying to get to Woodstock and being stuck in traffic. But of course Garlands death and Stonewall became significant to me much later and so I wanted to incorporate it.

Some of these songs are based completely on personal memory, others draw from collective memory …
…my memories from when I was four years old would not fill the lines of a 200-words-song.

Have you seen it in the snow? Is an interesting one because it’s 2001 and it’s New York but it sort of leaves out the big event: 9/11.
That song I actually wrote in 2001. It is an artefact from that year. The same is true for Ethan Frome which is a song from 1988.

Memory is something we use to make sense of the past and to learn for the present and future. Have you reached any conclusions about the past fifty years while working on this album?
[long pause]No, not really. Maybe at some point in the future, I will learn something about my past by listening to this album. I have not gathered deep insights about my life nor can I give advice on ageing.

Were there memories you were reluctant to use because they would put you in a bad place mentally?
[long pause] My first memory is me rolling around in a birdcage under a big piano and on a Persian carpet.

Very visual.
There is every reason to believe, that this memory is completely made-up or from a dream. The other memory from that time is me at a tennis court in Baden-Baden, where we lived, facing a castle in the light of the setting sun.

Sounds a lot less frightening.
But does not make for a good song.

The birdcage on the other hand …
…would make a great video.

Is there a memory from making this album that might be important to you many years from now?
[pause] The importance of whiteboards. And post-its. Colour-coded. Also: having an assistant.

I doubt that will make a good song for your 100 Song Memoir.
I will not, no.

Maybe a good video.
[pause] You can buy really big post-its. Like ten inches. Very practical when you have big group meetings, so even people in the back can read them. As my vision deteriorates, I will probably need those. A whole wall of giant post-its that my assistant will constantly re-arrange.

Maybe there is a song in there after all.
Assistant wanted: must be good with ladders.

Filed under Memory
Max Tholl

Max is a journalist writing about pop culture, society and politics. His free time is spent digging through record bins and perfecting his karaoke version of Elton John's 'Rocket Man'. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram.