Stephin Merritt, lead singer of cult New York band the Magnetic Fields, slinks into a diner in the East Village, greeting me with a limp handshake. Tired and stubbly, he looks frail in his biker jacket. He carries a red felt bag from which pokes the inquisitive snout of Irving, his chihuahua.
"Hell-ooo. Excuse me, but before we begin I must take the dog to the bathroom."
Is this the deepest voice in pop? Yes. Merrit's latest release, a triple CD called 69 Love Songs, is the underground hit of the last six months, making it to No 2 in the Village Voice's annual critics' list. It's just what the title says it is - 69 amazingly catchy, literate, yet moving songs about falling in love. Songs with titles such as "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be", "A Pretty Girl Is Like" and "Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side".
It was going to be 100. Merritt has a thing about artists who make CDs filled with 10 four-and-a-half-minute songs because of the common contractual clause that they only get paid for the first 10 songs. So he was going to do 100 songs, but then realised that would be five CDs, so he thought, "What's the next sexy number down from 100.Oh, 69."
The Magnetic Fields do pretty much everything without a rhythm section. Merritt is a multi-instrumentalist in the show-off Prince league. It takes a whole side of a jewel case just to list what he plays on CD 1. Aside from the mountains of books and CDs, his apartment is crammed with guitars, ukuleles, banjos, keyboards, computers and percussion, from Gretsch drums to a rain stick.
"Sometimes if I'm getting stuck I'll have someone in to the studio to play a part for me," he says, quietly, almost bored. But if you let him speak, he'll always continue. While Merritt's witty in song, and thoughtful in person, the most biting thing about him is his pooch, which was named after Irving Berlin.
Stephin Merritt - the Stephin was one of several slight pseudonyms he used to track his junk mail, and it stuck - used to have about 25 feet of vinyl but moved so much he one day decided to have a moving sale and got rid of it. No regrets, because CDs leave more room for musical instruments.
"A song can take 20 minutes to write, or 10 years," he murmurs. The 27-second snatch that opens CD 2, for instance, "Roses", was a lyric that had been hanging around in his head for years. "I'd written a lot of other verses for 'Roses', but I threw them all away. The four lines are the best possible presentation of the song."
Another classic came from the heat of a moment. "We were driving in the south somewhere past all these religious billboards - Praise Jesus and all that," says his keyboardist/band manager Claudia Gonson. "We thought, we just have to write something really blasphemous, and Stephin started singing: 'He is my Lord, he is my saviour,/ And he rewards my good behaviour,/My secret soul, I know he's seen it/ He says Come here baby and kiss me like you mean it.'" Sung in a faux Tammy twang by guest Shirley Simms, it's a masterpiece of simplicity and forked desire.
Almost every song contains some element of humour ("I never try not to be funny" he says), but predicting where it'll come, and in what form, is impossible. One song, for example - "Washington DC" - is a sublime profession of love. Over a snare drum intro, then plinky piano and guitar, the cheerleader vocals go "Washington DC/ It's the paradise to me/ It's not because it is the grand old seeeeat/ Of precious freedom and democracy no no no,/ It's not the greenery turning gold, in fall/ The scenery circling the Mall/ It's just that's where my baby lives, that's all."
Merritt has said that all his love songs are about writing love songs, but there is nothing yawn-inducing about this man's postmodernism. It is absorbed. Natural. It works because he has the dexterity to keep you guessing. Indeed the very next track bounces in like an Erasure song, complete with Andy Bell vocals. Along with his zithers and tin whistles, Merritt also loves squelchy synth sounds from the 1980s.
Of his low, low voice, which he can pump full of drama when he wants to, Merritt tells me: "I'm not particularly influenced by Joy Division or Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave or Johnny Cash, the people my voice sounds like." One branch of his influences stems from a seminal summer when he was 15. "My mother was at a Buddhist retreat in Scotland and I was left on my own in London. It was 1980, which is exactly when I wish I could transport myself back to in London: the Blitz kids, the New Romantics. It's the scene I would have just died to be part of, but I didn't know," he says with a sigh.
I tell him how one of his songs, "All My Little Words" sounds like it's about to break into Abba's "Fernando" just after the first verse. He thinks, and sings it to himself, "There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright..." and chuckles. "I have a particular, very strong influence, which is Abba, but my voice is completely unrelated to Abba. Sometimes I can be quite derivative of them but it's so out of context it doesn't sound derivative."
Merritt writes his songs mostly at a table in a gay bar near his apartment in the East Village. One which, he happily admits, has a lot of British synth pop on. And you can hear it. Sometimes he sounds like Morrissey, sometimes Marc Almond. He is gay, yet the songs reach beyond the neutral/ universal to the thoroughly hetero. When he switches pronoun genders and singers on the 69 songs (he sings 48 of them, two female and two male guest singers sing the rest) they gain a new depth and playfulness.
Merritt namechecks a few more influences: he likes Henry Darger, the folk artist/writer who died leaving a million-word fantasy novel about a planet of warring hermaphrodites, complete with kilometres of epic drawings on wallpaper rolls. Bowie, of course. Avant-garde composer Harry Partch. And the musical suspects Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. "It's all pop music to me," he says.
"When I was little I read an interview with Abba where they said they never write music down - if they can't remember it, no one else will," he says, as if suddenly remembering. "And I've taken that to heart."
The Magnetic Fields play live as a foursome. Throw in Chinese-American cellist Sam Davol, a legal aid lawyer, and Korean-American guitarist John Woo, a graphic designer, and you have an odd combo. It all adds up, though. Merritt brings the disparate elements together as only true artist can. And there aren't many of them around.
'69 Love Songs' is available on import on Merge recordsReuse content