When Stephin Merritt arrived at my apartment, a three-story walk-up, he wheezed for several minutes, too breathless and speechless to introduce himself. He seemed nonplussed by the effort that the situation required of him. He drank a glass of water, set down his shoulder bag, used the bathroom, and when he was ready to talk, we began.
Merritt is notorious for his calcified, curmudgeonly temperament, one suited more to a hermetic Victorian writer than a beloved touring musician such as himself. In photos, he wears a long, dour face; in interviews, he critiques the questions asked of him; and all the while his fan base remains enamored by his disposition and its delightful musical reflection.
Pop music is often a reflection of the artist’s persona, and its songwriting is often confessional—or at least expressive—but Merritt keeps a keen emotional distance from his subject matter. He deflates sentimentality with pessimism and deflects wallowing with an unrefined, nonchalant vocal style that hints at but never indulges in sardonicism. His droll lyrics and lilting, addictively satisfying melodies recall older generations of popular music, when musical theater was the form and composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin filled their songs with winking humor and charming romance. He is a master of the American song form.
His primary group, the Magnetic Fields, plays in a variety of musical styles, including peppy synthesizer dance tunes, chamber pop, and lugubrious ballads, on which Merritt usually strums a ukulele. The group is best known for its 170-minute album 69 Love Songs, which Merritt has described as “an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” He’s also written for film, musicals (including the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline), commercials, and an accompaniment to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. His most recent project, a book of poems, 101 Two-Letter Words (with illustrations by Roz Chast), serves as a mnemonic aid for avid Scrabble players, such as himself, who struggle to remember that qi and za are valid, high-scoring options.
When I have seen Merritt perform live, I have often noticed him plugging his ears during the audience’s applause. At first, the gesture seemed like another expression of his misanthropic facade, but I later learned that it serves to dampen the resonating feedback of hyperacusis, a rare, deteriorative condition of the ear. We discussed his hearing, reading, and songwriting when Merritt visited me from his current home, in upstate New York.
I. EXPLOITING JOAN DIDION
THE BELIEVER: How did your relationship with reading and language begin?
STEPHIN MERRITT: I think I started reading at the usual age, or maybe a few weeks earlier because my mother was an English teacher. I have here the contents of my bag, what I’m reading right now, starting with my own book, 101 Two-Letter Words; three of the novellas from the Melville House Art of the Novella series: Christopher Morley’s two books, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. Here’s The Horla by Guy de Maupassant—that is a very skinny book because it’s a little novella. Then there’s this sort of atheist propaganda, There Was No Jesus, There Is No God by Raphael Lataster. It’s a refutation of the case for a historical Jesus Christ figure. I don’t usually read about early Christianity, because I’m not interested, but I was interested in how the fact that you can now talk about how it is impossible to prove the case for a historical Jesus makes it outlandishly unlikely that there was one. Supernatural stuff aside, you’d think everyone would have been writing about it, but no, no one was writing about it. That’s my train reading for today.
BLVR: Are you always dancing through multiple books at once?
SM: I try not to read multiple books at once. I recently started subscribing to a lot of magazines because I actually live somewhere now, and the brain space formerly taken up by reading five books at a time is now taken up by reading twenty magazines and one book.
BLVR: Do you mostly read fiction?
SM: I alternate. I’ve been reading a lot of George Orwell, the nonfiction; I think ten Philip K. Dick novels in the last month—I’m on a Dick kick—and a lot of magazines.
BLVR: Do you often have kicks?
SM: A few months ago I had some ingrown-toenail problems and I had to lie in the bathtub for hours on end, and when I did that, who better than Philip Larkin to lie in the tub with? I was feeling sorry for myself in a very British way, so it seemed like a Phil Larkin kind of moment.
BLVR: Ingrown toenails seem like a British malady.
SM: Awkward enough that only Philip Larkin really conveys that degree of spiritual debasement.
BLVR: I’ve heard you enjoy science fiction.
SM: I would like to be making the esoteric musical scores for esoteric science-fiction movies. But it’s really almost a nonexistent category.
BLVR: What are some esoteric science-fiction films?
SM: I would really love to do the score for Fantastic Planet— it was a jazz score, and it should have been more like Forbidden Planet, which is a big favorite of mine.
BLVR: What is science-fiction music?
SM: Hire me to score your film and you’ll find out. Like, a steampunk score would be either nonelectronic or seemingly nonelectronic. I did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the Castro Theatre a couple years ago, and that did involve electronics. But it also involved horns and tubas and accordions and the Castro Theatre organ, which is partly electronic and partly mechanical.
BLVR: You once said there were three great pleasures in life: music, love, and drinking. Do you think reading can bring pleasure in that same way?
SM: I don’t know if I’d call drinking a pleasure.
BLVR: But you did.
SM: Well, I must have been drinking at the time. Or I may have actually been saying that those are three mysterious things that control our lives. Supranatural forces.
BLVR: But in terms of reading being a pleasure—
SM: Well, unlike almost everything else, with reading, if you aren’t having fun, you can just stop. Unless you are in school.
BLVR: I didn’t enjoy reading in school.
SM: Oh, I would love to go back to school, just to have an excuse to read more.
BLVR: Meaning you don’t have time as you get older?
SM: And you don’t necessarily have the vision as you get older. Everything pleasurable takes a toll on the sense with which you apprehend it.
BLVR: Reading isn’t always pleasurable. It can be an exercise.
SM: Well, we do things for reasons other than pleasure. Like the most recent Joan Didion book isn’t read for pleasure necessarily. She definitely didn’t write it for pleasure. I read it because if I hadn’t read it, I’d feel like I was still waiting to get around to reading it.
BLVR: It wasn’t pleasurable, because it was grief-filled?
SM: And because it was so very personal that I felt like I was exploiting Joan Didion by buying her book, and exploiting her relatives, her husband and her daughter, and it’s an ongoing controversy whether she is exploiting her own pain. I’m not on the side of those who think it’s torture porn; I just feel like it’s her, doing what she does. She writes about her life, and it’s something that is so the opposite from what I do. I hold her up as what happens to you if you spend too long as a realist—you have to write about everything you experience, no matter how horrible and no matter how personal.
BLVR: That’s the endgame of earnestness.
SM: You can’t be Joni Mitchell in 1973 forever.
BLVR: It has to affect your personal life, I suppose.
SM: Now it’s happening to Taylor Swift—or so says her publicist— because she keeps writing hit songs about how horrible they [her romantic partners] are, just like Joni Mitchell.
BLVR: You said you do something that’s quite the opposite of Joni Mitchell or Joan Didion.
SM: Right: I don’t write about my life. My lyrics are so vague, and universal, and so short, they don’t have time to apply more to my life than to your life. I don’t have an interesting enough life to want to be autobiographical. I spend my time writing the songs rather than doing the “living” that would prompt me to write songs about how passionately I feel about Jake Gyllenhaal.
BLVR: You say that you never try to write in the heat of the moment.
SM: I write when I have several hours to spare and when I’d rather be writing than doing something else. If I’m upset,
I’d probably rather be suffering in a puddle. If someone hurts me, I don’t go and grab my ukulele.
BLVR: What if you’re elated?
SM: Then I’m too elated to go grab my ukulele! I don’t really write with a ukulele in my hand. I write with a cocktail in my hand.
BLVR: Do you ever write lyrics with an instrument in hand?
SM: Sometimes when I’m writing a musical I’ll write with a piano, but I never write with a guitar. I haven’t written with a guitar in decades. I don’t need an instrument when I’m writing, unless there’s something really complicated going on that needs me to be at the piano.
BLVR: What about paper and pen, do you need those?
SM: Yeah. I can’t remember anything. I can’t remember lyrics, so I always write them down, and if I don’t remember the melodies, then tough cookies.
BLVR: Do you lose the song if you forget?
SM: I guess so.
BLVR: Is there a difference for you between writing poetry and songs?
SM: There’s no overlap, because I don’t usually sit around writing verse. I’m usually writing songs, and if I forget the melody, that doesn’t mean it was poetry. It’s a different genre, a different format.
BLVR: But the two did come out of a kind of similar place historically, right? The divide came later.
SM: Epic poetry was oral, but song was not the primary vocal musical form, and Homer was not singing three-minute ditties. Or none that survived.
BLVR: What about reading lyrics—do you think that’s a worthwhile experience?
SM: I have a book called Reading Lyrics in which there’s a lot of song lyrics printed out. Near the end is Sondheim, who blows everyone else away. Sondheim actually has some printable lyrics, but even in that book—even Sondheim, who is the best case—it’s clear that the lyrics could have been better on the page if he had been trying to make them look good on the page. The song “I’m Still Here” is as close to perfection, maybe, as you can get. But it’s a list song, which is cheating.
II. HM, MM, SH
BLVR: When did you become interested in rhyme?
SM: I don’t think I am interested in rhyme. Actually, I think I have such a bad memory that I can only remember things if they rhyme, so that happens to work well for writing catchy songs. If it isn’t catchy, I can’t remember it. So all my songs are catchy or they just don’t get on the record.
BLVR: Do you think about rhyming as a form of mnemonic device?
SM: That’s what it’s for.
BLVR: What do you mean?
SM: Not only in lyrics but in music, the repetition of the end of a phrase is a form of structuring the music and structuring the text. It organizes it so that you can understand it, and so that you can remember it—which are two aspects of the same thing, at least in music.
BLVR: To create structure is to create something definable and memorable.
SM: I’m not saying that it’s true in architecture, but it’s definitely true in songwriting.
BLVR: The book of poetry that’s coming out—you wrote it essentially as a mnemonic device for playing Scrabble, right?
SM: Yeah. Scrabble and Words with Friends are hard if you have a terrible memory and you can’t remember what the two-letter words are. I think I have trouble remembering the ones that don’t have vowels: hm, and mm, and sh. They’re all nice. Especially qi and za, I guess, because there’s no way of getting around those. Scrabble was a very different game before qi and za came into play. I remember playing twenty years ago when those words were not in the Scrabble dictionary.
BLVR: So you have a long, healthy relationship with the game.
SM: I’ve been playing since I was a kid.
BLVR: Do you feel like that kind of relationship with language bears any similarity to songwriting?
SM: As with Sondheim, I would say songwriting is so much like doing a crossword puzzle. If you’re good at one you’re probably good at the other. Most songwriters do the crossword on a weekly if not a daily basis.
BLVR: Do you know a lot of songwriters who do this?
BLVR: What would you say is similar about the two— a hunting for words?
SM: You have to look for the one word in the entire language that will fit in five different ways into this little box. That’s how you write a song that’s more than two lines long. As soon as you get to the fourth line, you’re doing a crossword puzzle.
BLVR: Do you feel that songs are mechanical in the way that crosswords are for you? You were saying you create distance between your autobiography and your emotions for the sake of making songs.
SM: It is not a metaphor that keeps giving. Constructing a crossword puzzle is extremely different from doing a crossword puzzle, because not only is there not one right answer, there might not be an answer to most of the problems that come up in constructing a crossword puzzle. Often you just have to begin again. Now there are computers that help, but I haven’t done that.
BLVR: Do you make puzzles?
SM: I used to do it a lot, in my youth.
BLVR: What would be the ratio of songs you throw out to ones that you keep?
SM: There isn’t one, because I also throw them back into the pool of available ideas. There’s no such number.
BLVR: You cannibalize them?
SM: Yes, I cannibalize my children into the next children.
BLVR: The children metaphor makes it sound like you have a deep attachment to some songs.
SM: No, I have an attachment to the idea of making fun of songs being someone’s children.
BLVR: You seem to deny any connection you have with the songs.
SM: What? Are you leading the witness? I’m not really sure what you’re asking.
BLVR: I think you understand.
SM: Unless you’re asking a question about my expressing myself through my lyrics. I’m perfectly capable of expressing myself in my lyrics, but no one would notice, because it would be something that is just as true for you as for me. “I don’t feel well today, I feel so blue, boo hoo” may be absolutely true for me when I’m writing it, or not, but the fact that it’s true for the listener at the same time—or not—is equally valid. So I can’t say that I’m expressing myself by saying I don’t feel well. I’m expressing a common truth, and by the time I’ve thought of something that rhymes with “I don’t feel well, boo hoo,” I may be feeling a completely different way. It would really get in the way of the song to wait until I was feeling a particular emotion. I don’t think music should work that way, or does work that way.
BLVR: You don’t think it works that way for most people?
SM: For all people. Maybe I make an exception for people who are pure improvisers—who don’t show up if they don’t feel like it. There are such people, but one doesn’t know their names, because they don’t get bookings. Except for Derek Bailey.
BLVR: Do you think of the voices in your songs as characters?
SM: I feel like you need more than one person in a situation to make it a character, unless it’s really specific, like, “I live on Clinton Avenue, and it’s getting me down. I said, I live on Clinton Avenue and it’s getting me down, ’cause baby, you live on Flatbush, halfway across the town…” So that’s being really specific. I just don’t value that specificity. It doesn’t make the song truer; in fact, it makes it more true for one person than another, and what’s so great about that?
BLVR: The way you’re phrasing it seems like you have this sense of being populist—that you want to write songs for Every Man.
SM: No, I’m saying I don’t have an agenda. It seems to be a common parlor game to try and get me to have an agenda, but I don’t. Somebody told me a few days ago that I was allergic to sincerity, and that’s ridiculous. If someone gives me traffic directions, I expect and value sincerity. But to write about experiences that they themselves have had, we’d never get “The Porpoise Song.” We do get “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” but we don’t get “The Porpoise Song.” “Write what you know” is terrible advice for people who don’t know very much, which includes most musicians.
BLVR: Do you think that being an artist is a selfish act?
SM: Compared to what other act?
BLVR: Being president of the United States.
SM: Only a psychotic motherfucker would want to be president of the United States. For starters, almost no one in the world is more likely to have an assassination attempt on them, so wanting to be president, you pretty much need a death wish, and megalomania and a law degree, and there’s only a few people like that at a time, fortunately. Until we learn to gun them down—did I say that?—we’re going to have a similar world to the one we have now.
BLVR: You’ve described yourself as a megalomaniac.
SM: I’m a megalomaniac in the service of art. And in service of myself. But when I was a small child, I wanted to be Walt Disney and have a theme park—an invitation-only theme park, so the people I didn’t like wouldn’t come. Now that’s megalomania.
BLVR: That dream’s faded?
SM: I no longer think that it would be fun to have a theme park, let alone one to which you’d have to come up with the invitation list every day.
BLVR: But you do think that you are, as you say, “in the service of art.” How is that different?
SM: If I want total control over my imaginary world, it’s my imaginary world, and anyone who doesn’t want to experience it doesn’t have to. A theme park is not an imaginary world. In a theme park you can get killed. In a song you cannot get killed. There’s more at stake in Mein Kampf, but Mein Kampf never directly killed anybody.
BLVR: Have you read Mein Kampf ?
BLVR: Do you think it’s a worthwhile book?
SM: Hell yeah. How else would we know what he thought?
BLVR: Do you think it’s important to know what he thought?
SM: It will forever prevent there being a book called There Was No Hitler, There Was No World War II… Or something like that.
III. WHERE ELDERLY MEN CONGREGATE
BLVR: What is the experience of hyperacusis like?
SM: In my left ear I have hyperacusis, which is like being stabbed with an X-Acto knife when there is a lot of shrill sound going on. So I’m particularly bad with babies screaming and drunk women laughing. They seem to be the two things that tend to happen at the wrong pitch for me, and sorting silverware in restaurants is another thing that really makes my left ear go crazy. First it sounds like there’s a lawn mower going on, and then it sounds like someone is crinkling tin foil on the surface of my ear and then it starts hurting, and if I don’t do anything about it, starts feeling like I’m being jabbed in the ear.
BLVR: Does it affect your experience of listening to music?
SM: I can’t listen to music loudly. I used to listen to music loudly, and now I don’t. I never go to night clubs, I never go to concerts. That’s not a horrible thing for me, because I didn’t enjoy live music very much, mostly because I generally want to hear what the record is and what the idea is in the form in which it was most thought out. That’s where the meaning is, in most cases; but I’ve seen music live that depends on it being live for part of its meaning. Tiny Tim— who on record is sort of an amusing novelty—live, he had the audience weeping over his gift for making connections between different kinds of music and how nostalgia works, and about the similarities between the kinds of music that people think of drastically differently if you just strip it down to the chords and play the ukulele, three chords on the ukulele over and over again. Most popular music reduces quite well to three chords played over and over again on the ukulele. If you flip back and forth between Donna Summer and Stephen Foster, it works quite well and it makes a great point you couldn’t make otherwise, about how differences that we think define us are actually quite trivial, and people are much more alike than they are different. That has obvious implications for human society and how we could be organizing the world. And you can’t do that on a record. That has to be live, but it doesn’t have to be loud.
BLVR: Does it affect the way you make music?
SM: I don’t know how much hyperacusis actually changes the way I make music except that I will never make an acid house album, because I can’t take the volume. There are whole genres I can’t really participate in, because they’re not meaningful at quiet volumes.
BLVR: But noise doesn’t necessarily bother you. You often write in a bar, which is a pretty loud environment.
SM: I generally write in the kind of gay bars where elderly men congregate, where they want to have conversations rather than pretend they’re going to be dancing at any point.
BLVR: Still, a bar is a louder environment than, say, a library.
SM: Yeah, but I need something to drown out the music in my head. If I were in the library I would have to have headphones on and I would be listening to music.
BLVR: Have you ever talked to other people with hyperacusis?
SM: No. I gather Phil Collins has it. But I haven’t spent any time with Phil Collins.
BLVR: It’s not a common problem for musicians.
SM: I was thinking recently that maybe I should spend some time with Phil Collins. I’ve spent time with Peter Gabriel, and Peter Gabriel surely knows how to contact Phil Collins, so I probably could. Hyperacusis is pretty rare, so it doesn’t get studied that much. And unless you’re a musician, it doesn’t really matter, except in the later stages, when you can’t tolerate even silverware clattering.
BLVR: So there’s a deterioration that happens?
SM: I gather that a lot of people simply can’t do the dishes after a while. I was a dishwasher in high school, and there’s no way I could do that now. I do have another ear, but it doesn’t work as well.
BLVR: Do you still get pleasure from listening to music?
SM: I listen to music all the time for pleasure.
BLVR: But every so often a rogue frequency might—
SM: Yes. I’ve been listening recently to the wonderful short album by Felt called Let the Snakes Crinkle their Heads to Death, which is an all-instrumental album of mostly cocktail jazz. And on the second or third track there’s a very short guitar solo—only three or four notes long—but the first two notes are hideously, shriekingly loud and totally unexpected. I feel like I should write on the CD cover, “Turn down at minute three,” because I can never remember where this horrible experience is. Actually, I am going to write it down.