Stephin Merritt: This is not a love song

The songwriter Stephin Merritt is obsessed with romance. But Fiona Sturges finds little to fall for when she meets him
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The Independent Culture

Stephin Merritt - singer, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist par excellence - isn't what you'd call a people person. Fresh off the plane from his native New York to promote his seventh Magnetic Fields album, the unequivocally titled i, he is slumped in his Kensington hotel room, propping his head on his arm and blinking dolefully into a cup of tea. He doesn't do small talk. Yes, he got enough sleep on the flight, and no, he won't be doing any sightseeing. Things don't improve as I press on with the interview. Words come slowly and fitfully, and sentences are peppered with long, Pinteresque pauses. You might describe him as thoughtful, or distracted, though I would suggest rude.

When I ask why he ended up writing pop music rather than, say, poetry or prose, the answer is so long in coming that I wonder whether he has forgotten that I'm in the room. "I think in pop lines," he drawls eventually. "Every time I write poetry, a melody comes into my head." He pauses, reaches for a cigarette and looks out of the window. "Pop... is an irresistible force to me. Besides, many of my novelist friends are less well off than I am." Another pause, followed by a chuckle. "Pop pays better."

Merritt's conversation may not be up to much, but, where songwriting is concerned, he's a hive of activity. The Magnetic Fields is just one for the outlets for this studiously creative mind. Others include the electro-pop trio Future Bible Heroes, the "goth-rock bubblegum" band The Gothic Archies and the collaborative group The 6ths, in which vocals are provided by such diverse singers as Gary Numan, Marc Almond, Sarah Cracknell, and The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon.

His output with The Magnetic Fields alone would keep all but the most industrious artist fully occupied. His 2000 masterwork, 69 Love Songs, was the songwriting equivalent of an EU food mountain, an epic triple album of witty ditties about love. Recorded in a range of styles, from country to cabaret via electro-punk and Swedish reggae, the 69 songs of the title were sifted from a staggering 100 that he had stockpiled over the course of just a few months. As if that was not enough, recent extra-curricular activities have included the soundtrack to Peter Hedges' movie Pieces of April, a score for Chen Shi-Zheng's production of The Orphan of Zhoa and a composition for a new opera, Peach Blossom Fan.

i is Merritt's first album on a major label, and sees him on top form, abandoning his familiar electronic production in favour of an acoustic arrangement of cellos, banjos, piano and ukulele. Like on its predecessor, love forms the basis of his songs, all of which are sung in his familiar, dour, baritone. Unlike 69 Love Songs, however, where he adopted a variety of lyrical guises, this time the tracks are built around personal experience. Each song begins with the letter "I". In "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin" he delights in the possibility of the existence of a wilder, more glamorous version of himself while in the wan "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" he is the spurned lover.

Until recently, Merritt worked as a music critic for Time Out New York. "I stopped doing it because I wasn't able to honestly review anybody's records," he rumbles. "Hard as it may be to believe, I couldn't be as ruthless as I'd like to have been." Now his published work is confined to such arbitrary works as a reference book in which well-known scribes contribute essays on words that interest them. He submitted 24 entries, among them expositions on the words "xylophone", "suburb", "love" and "romance".

"I explained, among other things, why you should never say 'love' in a song unless you can't say 'romance'," he reveals in a rare moment of animation. If you say 'love', the listener is going to be able to predict the next line, whereas with 'romance' they don't know if it is going to be 'pants', 'dance' or 'look askance'. It's quite simple."

Merritt has been writing songs since his teens, when he developed a taste for throwaway pop and industrial rock. His first musical epiphany occurred when he went to see Einsturzende Neubauten; his second was watching Tiny Tim, the 6ft-tall ukulele player who sang "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in a shrieking falsetto. Whose lyrics did he admire when he started listening to music?

"I've always thought people's lyrics were stupid, mostly," he replies, with a sigh. "I thought music was hopeless, but then I started listening to Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Kate Bush and, especially, Stephen Sondheim. For them it wasn't about trying to get people up and dancing. Suddenly I saw the point."

His preferred setting for songwriting is a noisy gay bar near his apartment in New York. "If I'm at home I listen to music because I want to hear it. If I'm in a bar or café I find I can tune out and empty my head of everything I've been listening to. If there's music playing then I don't have anything else running through my head. The only thing that's difficult is writing a minor key song while hearing something on the radio in a major key."

Merritt's father was the folk singer Scott Fagan who recorded albums for RCA and Atlantic records, and who left the family when Merritt was a year old. The young Merritt had a rootless existence, moving around the north-east of America with his mother. By the time he was 24, he had lived in no less than 33 houses. Nowadays he is settled in New York's Lower East Side, where he has lived for 10 years.

Songwriting was not his first choice of career. "When I was young I thought I was going to be a film-maker, though I realised after studying film that I'd be spectacularly untalented. Now I'm doing what I do best even though nobody cares about lyrics. I'm trying to change the music so it appeals more to people who don't understand what I'm talking about."

He says a sense of humour is required to appreciate his lyrics, and it's with a note of condescension that he adds that this is something which a large proportion of his audience are lacking. I suggest that it's perhaps not so much that they are without a sense of humour, they just don't get his. "Maybe," he shrugs. "But to say someone doesn't have a sense of humour isn't an insult. I have no appreciation of sports, ballet, dance in general but I don't feel inferior because of that." After a humourless discussion about what constitutes humour, Merritt concludes, "I try to make The Magnetic Fields enjoyable to those who may not get it. There's a percentage of the audience who think I'm writing sincere songs about my feelings. People don't necessarily understand the references, or understand what's original and what's not. It's a shame because I think they miss out."

Another pause, another cigarette, another sigh. Finally, and dramatically, he announces: "To write and perform is to be always misunderstood."

'i' is out now on Eastwest/Nonesuch. The Magnetic Fields play the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, on 10, 11 & 12 June