Ten years ago, Stephin Merritt told me, “I do a lot of conventional things, but I don’t do them conventionally.” That makes sense considering Merritt’s newest The Magnetic Fields recording, “50 Song Memoir,” with his longtime musical partner Claudia Gonson.
Rather than pen a run-of-the-mill autobiography, Merritt (at the suggestion of record label boss Robert Hurwitz) wrote one identifying tune for each year of his life, played 100-plus instruments and wound up with his usual Noel Coward-meets-Stephen Sondheim brand of sophisticated pop — only now with more of a confessional (or at least piquantly personal) edge than any time in his past.
Before The Magnetic Fields plays Union Transfer for two nights (March 15-16) and 50 songs (25 each show), Merritt chatted about his new favorite topic: himself. (Actually, Merritt turned 52 last month but started work on the album in 2015, his 50th birthday, so don’t make a thing out of it.)
PGN: I read something where you said gay songwriters rarely write about themselves; how did you decide to break that barrier?
SM: My first objection to the idea of writing about myself was that there were good reasons not to, many at that. I had just come off doing a “This American Life” episode (“This Is as Hard for Me as It is for You,” about a man named Will Ream) talking about someone disentangling himself from the Mormon Church, and I wrote about him, thinking only truthful thoughts, writing truthful things and enjoying the results. So Bob Hurwitz suggested I apply that truth to my own life, that it might be easier and quicker than paraphrasing someone else’s life. It didn’t hurt to write about myself — as long as I could still rhyme, without saying trivial things. I liked the challenge.
PGN: Did you have to dig deep or deeper — not that you hadn’t before — or differently to write something so exclusively personal?
SM: I wrote this, physically, the same I write everything: I sat around in gay bars with a notebook in one hand and a drink in the other. I often write things that I agree with; I just needed to make them specific and stick to that specificity. And that album isn’t entirely about just me, but things that happened — to me. It is about how things affected me, but not in a way that, say, “Vietnam was terrifying to me.” I think my only self-reference to anything Vietnam was that I saw a Jefferson Airplane concert as a kid. My only reference to the AIDS epidemic was that it came along at an inconvenient time for me as a teenager. It’s a very self-centered viewpoint of my outlook on history.
PGN: Hence, “50 Song Memoir” tunes such as “They’re Killing Children Over There,” which found its title from something you heard Grace Slick say about the Vietnam War when your mom took you to see the Airplane in 1970. Looking at a song such as “At the Pyramid,” was there ever a thought in which you must transport yourself to, say, 1987? Could you get there from here?
SM: I was not trying to get there nor was I trying to evoke being there. Early on, I thought that maybe I would make the record be a journey through the musical developments of the last 50 years. Really, though, the last big development was the invention of the synthesizer, with maybe the sampler coming after that. I did not look to conjure up the feeling of those years, save for maybe “Danceteria,” which might feel like that moment — that, and “Hustle 76,” which feels a bit like disco, only without sounding like a Donna Summer record.
PGN: How do you see this as tied to your other long opus, “69 Love Songs,” other than the fact that it pours itself across several physical volumes and hours?
SM: Oh yes, it’s that variety-show approach. It is a response to “69 Love Songs.” Whenever I make a record, I think people compare it to “69 Love Songs,” so that’s not a new experience. It is the “Tusk” to my “Rumors.” You just have to be perceived as not doing something worse.
PGN: Now that you have written from this telling perspective, are you anxious to do it again?
SM: It is an inefficient memoir, a bad memoir, a poorly made memoir. If you really wanted to know about my life, you would be better off calling me and just asking.
The Magnetic Fields plays 8:30 p.m. March 15-16 at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St.