Over his Magnetic Fields career, Stephin Merritt has never performed the same experiment twice. After creating the iconic break-up triple record 69 Love Songs, he put out the reverb-drenched Distortion, a Jesus and Mary Chain homage, which found a companion in this year’s Realism. Then there’s his Lemony Snickett soundtrack The Gothic Archies, and his work on last year’s Coraline off-Broadway musical. Through all this he has emerged as a distinct voice for a generation’s worth of heartbreak.
The Varsity: I remember an interview you did with Daniel Handler for the 69 Love Songs box set where he compared something you did to Simon and Garfunkel and you visibly cringed. But Realism is this eclectic folk album—has something changed, or is this a different kind of folk?
Stephin Merritt: I have nothing against Simon and Garfunkel—I quite like Cecilia. I just can’t stand Bridge Over Troubled Waters. I don’t particularly mind that comparison, but generally I don’t like being compared to anybody. I prefer to be eclectic enough that I’m not directly comparable.
TV: It seems like much of your output has had a tension between romanticism and realism in a way. Do you think that’s fair?
SM: Well, I don’t believe in the category of realism in the first place. I use it as a general term, like Distortion. We use it as a false god—as is folk itself. I don’t believe in folk and I don’t believe in realism. That’s why I titled this record that way: I find the ideas of both of those things highly problematic. I think the marketing category of folk is essentially racism. It’s a way of selling white people singing English, especially in non-standard accents—things that are traditional or sound vaguely that they are traditional, and anything outside of the boundaries of that are called blues or world. Realism has its own problems, but it’s at least not that socially-, sociologically-constructed.
TV: I heard you were going to name the records [Realism and Distortion] True and False, but that you backed out on that. This goes back to that idea of coming up with imperial, binary categories.
SM: I thought it would be annoying to call the folk record True, and the distorted one was called False, but it would be cloying the other way around. So I went with Distortion and Realism, which are actually much better at describing what’s wrong with each record. I want the title to reflect what people are most likely to complain about. As with 69 Love Songs—Tom Lehrer says that 69 Love Songs was 65 love songs too many. He doesn’t like the idea of love songs, but how can you complain when the title is already 69 Love Songs? And with i, all of the track names start with the letter. You can’t complain about that because that’s the title of the record.
TV: I remember an interview you did with Guy Maddin where at one point you said that it didn’t make sense to try to represent oneself realistically in music or film. Do you feel Realism the record is like that?
SM: Actually, the realism of the title just refers to the recording process and if there is any additional resonance to that in the lyrics, it is entirely accidental. I’ve never tried to write autobiographically. Well, that’s not true. I tried to write autobiographically on one record and nobody noticed, so I have never brought it up.
TV: Do you think somebody could figure out which one that is someday?
SM: I suppose someone could delve deep. It’s the only record without any vampire songs.
TV: So it’s not a Gothic Archies record.
SM: No. But that’s pretty autobiographical in a certain way, because it’s about my voice and if that doesn’t reflect my personality, then I don’t know what does. In that way, it’s about me in some way. But it’s more about the three fictional children and the books that were written about them.
TV: With the Magnetic Fields, I find that your music is associated with unrequited love by a lot of people. Do you worry about people projecting their aspirations for what love might be onto your music?
SM: Well, I can’t control what people do with my records. I also don’t know what people do with my records. People write me fan letters saying “I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.” I have no idea what that means.
TV: You have to understand on some level what that means.
SM: I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album. We almost all didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.
TV: A lot of people find something very personal in the idea of the Magnetic Fields, probably much more than most pop music, I think.
SM: Hm… I don’t know what to say to that. I think most people who’ve ever heard of Magnetic Fields are probably early adopters, who latch on to something they feel like they have found, as opposed to having something jammed down their throat. That probably gives me a more personal connection. But other than the fact that I’m not very famous, I can’t think of a particular personal connection. I don’t know what that is.
TV: Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?
SM: No. I don’t think I know what that means. There’s confusion between the Romantic period, the Romantic movement, and lower case “r” romantic. I don’t know where to begin untangling that. Sorry.
The Magnetic Fields play tonight with Laura Barrett at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre.