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Stephin Merritt: My Life in 15 Songs

For nearly 25 years, Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter has made character-driven songs his life’s work. Here, he finds a handful of tracks that are (mostly) about him

Stephin Merritt

"There is no virtue in writing true songs, as opposed to fictional songs," Magnetic Fields singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt says, while discussing 15 songs that are autobiographical.

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."

Stephin Merritt

“The Book of Love”

The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (1999)

One of several manifestos on 69 Love Songs, this one pretty much explains the whole game: "long and boring" is the Warholian point, the album is about love songs, not necessarily about love … but, maybe I love you, let's find out. Peter Gabriel's cover of this song paid for the down payment on my house in L.A.

Stephin Merritt

“Punk Love”

The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (1999)

I like to think. This song expresses my view of love, at least gay love, as a thing scrappy and amateurish and cobbled together and undignified, and not at all like a glamorous Douglas Sirk movie. It only lasts a minute, getting more and more desperate as it speeds up and the pitch rises, and then it stops abruptly in the middle of a breath, just as it began.

Stephin Merritt

“Love in the Shadows”

The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (1999)

When I lived in Hoboken [New Jersey], I would take the train home at 4 in the morning from Christopher Street [in Manhattan]. The station is always the wrong temperature, so, in the winter, it was so cold there was no way anyone could wait for the train in the station. So I used to wait in the Christopher Street Bookstore, basically a sex club for zombies. I think I got lucky there exactly once, but I loved the quiet atmosphere of expectation mixed with dread, like in an old vampire movie. And the people were all sleepy and sinister.

Stephin Merritt

“The Dead Only Quickly”

The Gothic Archies' Looming in the Gloom (1996)

Having been raised by my mother, a Buddhist religious fanatic who literally doesn't believe in the physical universe and takes reincarnation absolutely literally, I have a lifelong obsession with skepticism and atheism, even though I know there's nothing really to say. There is a world, it's right here, there's nothing magical or supernatural about it, end of story, and by the way Bigfoot is clearly a myth. But I'm still compelled to blurt out the obvious, as a sort of mantra. The world is the world, death is really death, and wishing won't make it otherwise.

Stephin Merritt

“I Wish I Had an Evil Twin”

The Magnetic Fields' i (2004)

I've always been an insufferable goody-two-shoes. I was one of two people in my druggy high school who hadn't ever smoked pot, and I still have no idea how to buy drugs. I would like to be as badly behaved as normal people, so I wrote this. It's basically a rock version of the Eartha Kitt classic "I Want to Be Evil," by [Raymond] Taylor and [Lester] Judson.

Stephin Merritt

“Smile! No One Cares How You Feel”

Gothic Archies' The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events (2006)

I have a naturally gloomy face, as well as a comical bass voice, so all my life (until I grew a full beard) people would come up to me and cheerfully command me to smile. (By the way, if you ever want anyone to hate you, telling them what facial expression to wear is a great start.) There are several U.S. classic pop songs, mostly produced by Mitch Miller, which do the same thing. Rock songs don't, so I wrote this one, explaining that you should smile if you want to be a more efficient sociopath. In Europe, no one would ever say such a thing.

Stephin Merritt

“Too Drunk to Dream”

The Magnetic Fields' Distortion (2008)

At a few times in my life, notably after having my heart broken twice by the same person, I've had such violently wish-fulfilling dreams that unmedicated sleep is unendurable. And I've always liked drinking songs, so during one such period I wrote these two songs, the intro (or "verse," if you're jazz) and the body of the song (or "refrain") and stuck them together for amplification.

Stephin Merritt

“Goin’ Back to the Country”

The Magnetic Fields' Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012)

Vinyl LPs used to come with paper sleeves advertising other recent albums on the same label. Once, I was reading one of these from about 1970, and I saw that there were three different albums listing songs titled "Goin' Back to the Country" or something nearly identical. So maybe they were all doing the same song, but I think it was just in the air, after George Harrison's purchase of the amazing Friar Park, his 120-room mansion in Henley-on-Thames. So I started this song then (circa 1983) and finished it in L.A. in 2011, thinking it was more or less a joke, until suddenly …

Stephin Merritt

“When Evening Falls on Tinseltown”

Future Bible Heroes' Partygoing (2013)

I played a show (including "Goin' Back to the Country") at Helsinki Hudson, in Hudson, New York, and fell in love with the town. Suddenly, goin' back to the country was exactly what I wanted to do, and I wrote this song about leaving L.A. It ends with me buying a geodesic dome, which is fiction (though I have looked at two of them on house-hunts), but the rest is true. I sold my old pink house, because I hadn't been "home" in months. I hope I never move again but if I do, a geodesic dome sounds great for me. I can hang up instruments from the ceiling on pulleys.

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