[Sidebar] September 28 - October 5, 2000
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The song doctor

Stephin Merritt, indie-pop titan

by Lois Maffeo

[Stephin Merritt] "I see popular music as a tradition that doesn't have any breaks in it," explains Stephin Merritt, the NYC-based songwriter who's spent the past decade working under such monikers as the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, and the 6ths. "The breaks are overrated," he continues over the phone from his Manhattan studio apartment -- which is actually his studio as well as his apartment. "Dylan inventing lyrics? The Sex Pistols inventing anger? That's all hype."

It takes a fair amount of self-confidence and, well, a whole lotta balls for a songwriter to take on legacies as hallowed as Dylan and the Pistols. But for Merritt, a indie-pop titan in his own right who's never been shy about speaking his mind, it's all in a day's talk. And as he proved last year with the release of the Magnetic Fields' very ambitious and critically acclaimed three-album set 69 Love Songs (Merge), he knows more than a thing or two about the pop-music tradition. The collection -- a sprawling survey of romantic giddiness, woe, treachery, hard luck, and bliss -- sealed the churlish songwriter's reputation as a composer/lyricist of uncommon humor, economy, and, yes, warmth.

But the prolific Merritt isn't one to rest on his laurels (which included a perfect 10 from Spin magazine). He's the type of musician who if robbed of pencils, paper, and electricity (not to mention his ukulele) would still find a way to write songs, even if it meant humming the melody and scratching the words in the closest patch of sand with a stick. And so he's back, not with another release from the Magnetic Fields but with the second installment from the 6ths, Hyacinths and Thistles (Merge). This project, which he started in the mid '90s, is perhaps most notable for being the one Merritt band in which he doesn't sing at all. Which is not to imply that it doesn't keep him plenty busy -- he writes all the songs and also plays nearly all of the instruments. But he turns the vocal duties over to a wide range of different singers.

The first 6ths album, 1995's Wasps' Nests (Mercury), featured vocalists culled largely from the indie-rock scene to which the Magnetic Fields belonged. With underground stars like Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, and Unrest's Mark Robinson giving their distinctive voices to the project, Wasps' Nest was a veritable who's who of indie rock in the '90s. It's ironic, then, that the disc was Merritt's first -- and remains his only -- major-label release. What's more, Mercury seemed clueless when it came to marketing what might have been his commercial breakthrough to the right audience.

For Hyacinths and Thistles, Merritt went farther afield in his search for guest singers, choosing divas, crooners, and chanteuses who hover in a strata more chic than shabby. The performers include Soft Cell's lascivious Marc Almond, '60s hippie babe Melanie, and new-waver Gary Numan. On paper, at least, this is a higher-profile crew than the first album's retinue. And according to Merritt, they were all on a wish list that has been forming in his mind for years. "I grew up with these singers, so it's no surprise that I wanted them on my album."

Merritt relied on his friend, manager, and fellow Magnetic Field Claudia Gonson to coordinate the project. She's the one who sent out the myriad invitations to his wish list and, in some cases, ended up having to move Heaven and Earth to ensure participation. "At first we didn't know how to gear it in a different direction from the first record," she explains. "One idea was that all the women would be divas -- like Eartha Kitt and Barbra Streisand. I wrote a lot of letters to Eartha Kitt and Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand, and I got a lot of responses that were kind but noncommittal."

Streisand and Minnelli were, to be sure, longshots at best. But the singers who did accept Merritt's invitation bring his razor-sharp lyrics and engaging melodies to life in unexpected ways. British pop wag Momus drops his inevitably droll delivery to whisper the elegiac lyrics of "As You Turn To Go." Accompanied by zitherist Brian Dewan, Momus drifts gracefully through Merritt's elaborate internal rhymes, such as his description of his departing lover's voice as being "something like Bing singing." In Miho Hatori, the Japanese expatriate singer of NYC's Cibo Matto, Merritt finds ample opportunity to indulge in the same perverse passion that's led him to pick maddeningly lisp-inducing names for his side project and albums: as the title, "Lindy Lou," hints, he pushes Hatori's linguistic buttons by giving her a song with an unusually high number of l's and r's -- two consonants that Japanese speakers find difficult to distinguish. Hatori rises to the challenge; the only word she has trouble with is "diamond," which comes out, pleasingly, as "dye-ummed."

For all the individual charms of the vocal performances on Hyacinths and Thistles -- which include Melanie's chillingly guttural "I've Got New York," Marc Almond's bewitching "Volcana," and Sarah Cracknell's sleekly wistful "Kissing Things" -- the star here is the songwriter. The material for the album was, Merritt explains, written before he took a year off to focus on 69 Love Songs, and in it you can detect the seeds of the grand homage to romances that would take root on the three-album set. "The basic idea of the album was chanson. I wanted it to feel like you were in a Parisian café listening to an extremely unlikely group of singers with pretty unlikely instruments."

Gonson adds, "Stephin finally decided that he wanted it to be a minimalist cabaret record. I loved that idea because it allowed us to branch away from the sound of the Magnetic Fields. It's funny, though, because it was because of this 6ths idea that Stephin came up with the idea for 69 Love Songs."

The result is the kind of album where punk troubadour Bob Mould croons his way through a piano ballad. Gonson laughs when she recalls the genesis of that track. "Stephin had this vision of wanting someone to sing this torch song whose voice was always used for an entirely different purpose. It was one of his many left-field ideas." Merritt adds, "It's unsuitable in the right way. He was the only person who accepted without hearing a tape of the song first. And I'm sure he was surprised when it arrived in the mail."

In another surprise move, Merritt and Gonson rounded up '60s folk star Odetta to sing the woeful "Waltzing Me All the Way Home." "I had a song that I had written for her," explains Merritt, "so I thought I might as well try to get her to sing it." Gonson recalls that Odetta was one of the harder 6ths to wrangle. "For some of the people it was as easy as dialing 411, but for Odetta I had to call the Theater Guild to find out how to reach her. After talking to various people, I finally got this phone call." Slipping into an uncanny impersonation of the imperious folk goddess, she recalls the crisply worded question: "Are you the person who is trying to reach O-dett-a?" Merritt was also cowed by the legendary singer. "She's an empress -- just like she sounds."

Regrets? Merritt is disappointed that Petula Clark was too busy rehearsing a play to participate, and Gonson admits being most wistful about Chris Isaak's refusal. "I was really, really sad about Chris Isaak. We really wanted him to sing. But his agent was like, `Who are you again?' "

But Merritt doesn't leave himself much time to reflect on past disappointments. With 69 Love Songs mostly behind him (though he continues to support the set with two-night-stand performances, one of which will take place at the Somerville [MA] Theatre December 7 and 8) and Hyacinths and Thistles finally in stores, he once again has a full plate. "I'm writing a film musical with [novelist] Daniel Handler called The Song from Venus about an aphrodisiac record from Venus that invades the world. And I'm tossing around ideas for a stage musical with a popular playwright -- there are various producers who want to do 69 Love Songs as a review. I'm working on three possible directions for the new Magnetic Fields album and I've got a Gothic Archies single stuck in my computer that I can't figure how to get out."

Any thoughts of penning a personal memoir? "Oh, my life is too boring for a memoir," he answers dryly. "How I Made 69 Love Songs: I worked all day and night. I hardly left the house . . . I think I'd have to invent a lot." So maybe it will fall to others to write the story of songwriter who's done more than anyone else to bring back the notion of the popular song. Stephin Merritt, it would seem, is simply too busy doing what he does best -- writing songs.

Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields perform 69 Love Songs over two nights, December 7 and 8, at the Somerville [MA] Theatre. Two-night passes are available through the Middle East for $35. Call (617) 864-EAST.

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