The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt on Brevity, Dread + Writing Songs in Bars

We speak with the prolific singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist ahead of his seven-city tour

Beloved for creating songs that are simultaneously tender and witty, sweet and subversive, uncluttered and rich, laconic and entrancing, The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt—whose mellifluous baritone is immediately recognizable—stopped writing at the onset of the pandemic. “I gave up,” he tells us. “I started doing a lot more photography.” He gave up because Merritt’s ritual is writing exclusively in bars, an impossibility in NYC for over a year. “I write songs in bars because A: I need a little alcohol to turn off the editor, and B: I respond to the music I’m hearing,” he says. “I like to eavesdrop, I try not to watch the television, I listen to the lyrics of the songs.”

Not only does that atmosphere sometimes impart jumping-off points for his music, it also provides a welcome distraction. “It obliterates the music that would already be playing in my head. I always, unless I’m quite sick, have music involuntarily running through my head. Right now, I have The Monkees ‘Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow‘ involuntarily running through my head, which I didn’t even realize until I wondered what I was hearing… It’s not a superpower. It’s a mental illness. It’s a kind of horrible thing. It’s really, really irritating.”

Courtesy of Marcelo Krasilcic

While irritating to have playing over and over, that song—at just over two minutes—is the perfect length for Merritt. “Most songs should be short,” he says, before pausing. “Well, there are some songs that are intended to be consumed while under the influence of particular drugs that change one’s perception of time—chiefly marijuana and ecstasy. Both of those drugs make people want to listen to longer songs. I am not a habitual user of either of those. I like alcohol much better. But I get that people want five-minute guitar solos; I rarely want a five-minute guitar solo—and never on any of my own records.”

So it makes perfect sense that most Magnetic Fields songs are short. Merritt has a propensity for brevity and petiteness: he owns pet Chihuahuas, drives a Mini, ran a club night called Runt; “an evening for the diminutive gentleman and his admirers,” enjoys flash fiction (especially by Lydia Davis), wrote a poetry book of quatrains called 101 Two-Letter Words, and last year The Magnetic Fields released their 12th LP Quickies—an album of 28 songs, the longest of which is just over two minutes long. “It’s only over two minutes because the guitarist tacked on an intro and outro against my wishes,” Merritt clarifies. “But I ended up liking so…”

“The thing about Quickies is, as with many of my other concept records, the concept is loose enough so that it actually applies to many of my other records as well. Having the maximum length on Quickies be two minutes and 15 seconds effectively, that rule would apply to a third of 69 Love Songs; 23 of the 69 love songs are two minutes and 15 seconds or less,” he says.

Courtesy of Marcelo Krasilcic

A prolific songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Merritt began making music as a child and, as well as leading The Magnetic Fields, helms The 6ths, The Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes, and has composed several theater works and operas. He thinks of listeners only during parts of the process. “I don’t plan for a listener when I’m writing, except probably I keep the vocabulary reasonably comprehensible to people that don’t know me personally—like I don’t include in-jokes. I’m a little allergic to in-jokes,” he explains. “When I’m recording, I definitely am thinking of the listener. And when I’m mixing, I’m thinking only of the listener.”

Courtesy of The Magnetic Fields

Famously, he doesn’t love performing live; he prefers recorded music. But The Magnetic Fields are poised to embark on a tour that had been cancelled twice over the past year. Merritt will play in Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia in the coming months. (They are also headlining O+ festival in Kingston, New York.) “I wake up every day with a completely different set of feelings about it, running from excitement to dread. I’m not an excitable person, though my ability to feel dread knows no bounds.”

It’s the perfect response from the notoriously wry artist, but Merritt also has a notable penchant for tenderness and warmth within his crystalline songwriting. When working on music for his bands, he bounces between autobiographical and character-driven storytelling. “I used to worry about hurting people’s feelings if they thought that a song’s about them, but it’s so completely unavoidable that I no longer worry about it at all,” he tells us. “People think things are exactly about them, when they have nothing to do with them, which is great because that’s how the listener is supposed to feel—that it’s about them. If my mother bursts into tears thinking a song’s about her, it’s not my doing.”

Hero image by Marcelo Krasilcic