‘I expected to be killed off by AIDS at an early age’: The very long story of The Magnetic Fields and their masterpiece

The American band, founded and led by Stephin Merritt, is now touring in Europe. In 2024, their iconic album ‘69 Love Songs’ turns 25 years old

Stephin Merritt
Stephin Merritt, a man who is no longer so angry at the world.

Stephin Merrit released the first single from The Magnetic Fields in 1991. And before the end of the decade, he was already admired as a composer and lyricist, by both music critics and a good number of his colleagues.

69 Love Songs was initially going to be an album with 100 love songs that he would present in a theater revue format. However, when he realized that the final result wouldn’t be under four hours, he decided to embrace a smaller, more playful number. The album, released in 1999, ultimately allowed Merritt to reach a much wider audience. His previous works – which mostly fell in the field of electropop – gave way to an artist who was capable of jumping prodigiously between genres: folk, jazz, spoken word, and even cabaret.

Almost from the moment it was released, 69 Love Songs was hailed as a masterpiece. Merritt’s tremendous personality, as well as the exceptional nature of so many good songs spread across three CDs, gave him a status that has remained steady over the years. However, the success of the album also represented a milestone that was almost impossible to match. Many of his recent works, from Quickies (2020) to 50 Song Memoir (2017), in which he dedicates a song to each of the first 50 years of his life, have been discreetly received.

With concerts scheduled in Helsinki, Athens and Vienna in the coming days before returning to the U.S., Merritt, now 58, is promising to rescue the best songs from his many eras. However, we’ll have to wait until 2024 for him and his bandmates to celebrate the 25th anniversary of 69 Love Songs. Concert dates have already been announced in the United States.

The man who wrote all the songs

The Magnetic Fields cannot be understood without the figure of Stephin Merritt (and vice-versa). This slender New Yorker has one of the most striking and special personalities in the history of pop music, which served him well as he cemented an instantly recognizable way of songwriting and composing. Perhaps the main characteristic of his method is that he writes and composes a lot. In addition to the 12 albums with The Magnetic Fields, he has released two albums with The 6ths, a band in which he has collaborated with various soloists, such as Marc Almond, Gary Numan and Neil Hannon. He also put out two other albums with The Gothic Archies and two more with Future Bible Heroes, the latter group consisting of himself, Claudia Gonson (his bandmate from The Magnetic Fields) and DJ Chris Ewan. On top of this body of work, Merritt has adapted Chinese operas, scored plays — such as the off-Broadway adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline — composed film soundtracks and written a book of poems about two-letter words, with illustrations by cartoonist Roz Chast.

The Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merrit, leader of The Magnetic Fields, in his youth.Gail Ohara

Nothing that surrounds Stephin Merritt is ordinary. He grew up stumbling through different communes and ashrams throughout the United States, accompanying a mother who was always engaged in a continuous spiritual search. He didn’t meet his father, the folk singer-songwriter Scott Fagan, until 2013. With an encyclopedic interest for the oldest sounds, Abba and bubblegum pop, Merritt treasures records, synthesizers and musical instruments of all kinds, piling them up in the recording studio that he has built over the years in his home in Manhattan. He has played up to 100 different instruments on some of his albums.

Another collection that he has, sadly, is a wide catalog of diseases. He claims to have Asperger’s (“I refuse to ask for a diagnosis, but I have several friends with Asperger’s who swear that I have it too,” he insists) and, among other conditions, what has especially affected him is hyperacusis – an acute sensitivity to certain sounds, which conditions the kind of live performances that the artist can offer.

Merritt believes that his condition arose after a concert by the Berlin industrial rock band Einstürzende Neubauten in the New York City of the early-1980s. “I was too close to a circular saw, which was scraping corrugated steel. I was hearing incredible sounds that, I now realize, were my own ears being destroyed,” he recalled, in an interview with the influential queer magazine BUTT (in which he also posed naked).

Sitting in a gay bar

In that interview, he spoke at length about his creative process, which includes a notebook, a gay bar and a certain combination of drinks. “I can only write songs in bars. And not just any bar: [I need it to be] one-third full of cranky old gay men gossiping over thumping disco music.” Hence, it’s not surprising that the pandemic lockdowns resulted in a long creative drought for him.

Merritt’s contact with current music, as he himself explained, remains within specific parameters: “The way I listen to music is, mainly, several hours a day in gay bars. So, the vast majority of the music I listen to is the pop music that gay people like to listen to in public.” From that, he specified, “I love Robyn and I love Goldfrapp. When I think about the music I like, it’s usually female vocalists with pulsating [synthesizers] in the background.”

To rhyme without repeating

Infamously complicated in his interviews, Merritt tends to ramble, respond after long pauses, or avoid direct answers. Stephin Merritt is one of those artists who set no limits when talking about everything that has to do with their creative process. He also enjoys showing off his razor-sharp wit as he offers information about his personal musical universe. His principal interest is to avoid repeating himself, while searching for new, striking sound paths.

“I try to rebel against whatever album I just made,” he joked, in an interview with The Irish Times. “There are two models: there’s Roxy Music, which has made the same album again and again – only better and better – until you do Avalon, which is the perfect Roxy Music album and it’s impossible to imagine doing it better. Or there’s David Bowie, where you try a different thing every year… and that’s the one that makes sense to me. Also, because I’m so adrift from any particular genre, I feel like I’d probably run out of things to say pretty quickly if I were doing only industrial zydeco, or whatever genre I would be lumped into.”

“[My favorite] Frank Sinatra albums,” Merritt said – in an interview with WTJU, the University of Virginia’s community radio station – [are] where there’s a title that explains what all the songs are. This one’s in London, or this one is with [Brazilian composer] Antônio Carlos Jobim. I like being told what’s going to happen for the next half-hour and then it unfolds,” he shrugs, “rather than [just being told] ‘here’s my new album.’ Nancy Sinatra did the same thing [with the albums] Nancy in London (1966) and Movin’ with Nancy (1967).”

The New York songwriter reveres music and has turned mass-produced pop gems into a way of life and a means of surviving. His albums are full of sardonic and memorable titles, such as (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy, Too Drunk to Dream and The Biggest Tits in History.

His compositions are almost always under three minutes (his band even has 20-second-long songs), encapsulating a ramshackle genius, whose range includes everything from chamber pop to firecracker dance.

The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields.M. KRASILCIC

“I wrote Punk Love in less time than it takes to sing it. [Same for] Plain White Roses. Most of my other songs have taken at least an evening to write. Some of my other songs – like Ethan Frome or At the Pyramid – have taken 30 years. So on average, it takes me several years to write a song. But the median is more like an evening or two,” he told WTJU.

Merritt emphasizes that the key to his very particular universe is that everything in his songs is true. “In the sense that I say exactly what I want to say, about love, or any other matter,” he clarifies. “[These] truths are big enough to be just as valid for you as they are for me.”

The leader of The Magnetic Fields is aware of the dominance that 69 Love Songs has had in his life (“Peter Gabriel’s version of The Book of Love allowed me to make the down payment on my house,” he recalls). And yet, he’s not obsessed with it. “I’m a very nostalgic person in terms of my musical tastes… [but] not at all a nostalgic person in terms of my own life.”

In fact, it was like that from the first moment, as he remembers, with his trademark reticence: “I don’t know that I had a sense that there was a lot of time remaining in my career… I totally expected to be killed off by AIDS at an early age.” But almost 25 years later, both Merritt and his album are still very much alive.

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