The first time Stephin Merritt felt like a songwriter was at age eight. That's partially because someone stole his first tune. His mother's boyfriend had discovered a paper with some rhyming words that the budding Stephen Sondheim had written on it and put them to music in an effort to win over the child and his mother. "He didn't realize I had already set them to music," the songwriter, now 50, says. "What he had actually done was stolen my song and put different music to it. It was not a good way of getting in good graces."
As Merritt has proven over the past quarter century, on dozens of records by genre-leaping groups like the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes, among others, he is perfectly capable of writing tunes himself. Whether hopelessly romantic ("It's Only Time"), humorous ("Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long," and its "You scare me out of my wits/When you do that shih tzu") or downright callous ("How Fucking Romantic"), his songs fit a variety of moods without the typical tropes that adhere themselves to songs about the human condition. When he does employ the occasional cliché, he does so with a wink.
In 1999, his eclectic indie-pop vehicle, the Magnetic Fields, put out 69 Love Songs, a three-disc set that lived up to its title, as Merritt gamely indulged every silly Top 40 platitude he could concoct in every genre he could play — self-deprecating unrequited adoration ("The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side"), one-night stands ("Papa Was a Rodeo"), a homicidal longing for divorce ("Yeah! Oh Yeah!"), unabashed horniness ("Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits") — and he did so with a Warholian, self-aware point of view.
Merritt fashioned the album, which is one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and will be reissued as a triple-vinyl box set next month, to be his calling card, his claim to fame. But looking back, he doesn't think he could do it again. "I can no longer imagine having the chutzpah to convince a record label to do a three-record set," he says in Manhattan. "I'm impressed by my youthful hubris."
Audacity aside, the thing that strikes Merritt most about the hundreds of songs he's written is how few of them are autobiographical. "I don't usually write songs about my own life," he says. "It was hard to find 15 songs that had anything to do with me on my 25 albums. There were several albums that had no songs that had anything to do with me."
When preparing for this article, the singer-songwriter read Rolling Stone's My Life in 15 Songs with James Taylor. "All of his songs are completely about his life, and they're totally true and autobiographical," Merritt says. "That just can't be true, but that's the received wisdom about James Taylor, and it isn't about me." The reason the Magnetic Fields doesn't write about himself, he figures, is because "gay songwriters in general write character songs because they're not really in a position to have mainstream success writing in detail about their own lives. Taylor Swift expects that teenage girls will identify with her songs, and teenage girls are by far the largest market for selling records and that's fine. But I'm not in a position to decide that only gay men are going to be my market." Coincidentally, though, the singer-songwriter is currently working on a collection of "autobiographical and true songs," though he's not sure at this point in time which of his many bands will release it.
Nevertheless, as Merritt pores over the journal in which he wrote the entries for 15 songs that do relate to his life story, he underscores that they are the exception, not the rule for him. "There is no virtue in writing true songs, as opposed to fictional songs," he says. "It's dumb to think otherwise."