Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 14, 2000
Head: Interview With Stephin Merritt
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Valentine's Day is the day for love songs, so we're celebrating the holiday with Stephin Merritt, who has a triple CD called "69 Love Songs." The 69 love songs that he wrote for this project aren't necessarily the ones you'll want to sing for your sweetie tonight.
His songs are clever permutations of love song cliches of every genre from Gilbert and Sullivan to rock, written from both a gay and straight point of view. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, put "69 Love Songs" at the top of his 1999 10 best list. In "The Village Voice," "69 Love Songs" was described as "the best-reviewed album of the year."
Merritt leads the band The Magnetic Fields and writes music criticism for "New York Time Out." He thinks of himself as more of a songwriter than a singer, but here he is, from his CD, singing "Underwear."
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "UNDERWEAR," STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS)
GROSS: Stephin Merritt, welcome to FRESH AIR.
There's a song that Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen wrote called "What Can You Say in a Love Song That's Never Been Said Before?" And I'm wondering if you felt that way at all before you started this project of "69 Love Songs."
STEPHIN MERRITT, "69 LOVE SONGS": Actually, I don't really value originality very highly, and I consider my songwriting to be more about other people's songs than about real life or love. "69 Love Songs" is really about love songs rather than about love.
GROSS: Oh, I completely agree with that perception as a listener. (laughs) And I'm wondering if you have love songs divided into genres, like the "I love you but you don't love me" and vice-versa genre, the "I'm no longer in love so the sun stopped shining" genre.
MERRITT: I'm a compulsive list-maker, and I made dozens of lists in the course of making "69 Love Songs" and making genres of music and lists of instruments that I could be using and different cliched love-song situations that kept turning up.
GROSS: Did you listen to a lot of love songs and try to catalog all the genres as you were doing this project?
MERRITT: Well, I generally write songs when I'm at my favorite bar listening to the juke box. And I would sit at the juke box and notice what they were playing. And they play a lot of British New Wave music from the early '80s, which is a great source for lyrics for me, because it's got so much variety in it.
People talk about being machines or about having very special hair or dying every day or -- The surrealism in the lyrics New Wave was a great inspiration for me, and it constantly churns up new possible genres of love songs that I wouldn't get if I were sitting in a piano bar.
GROSS: Let me play one of your love songs from "69 Love Songs." And this is called "I Don't Believe in the Sun," and to me it fits into, you know, the -- all those love songs about the moon being out tonight or refusing to shine, you know, depending on whether you're in love or you've fallen out of love.
Why don't you say something about this song before we hear it?
MERRITT: Well, actually, I've written so many songs with the moon in the title for previous records that I decided not to for this record. And so I ended up with the sun in the title.
GROSS: OK. And this is Stephin Merritt singing "I Don't Believe in the Sun."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I DON'T BELIEVE IN THE SUN," STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS)
They say there's a sun in the sky,
But me, I can't imagine why.
There might have been one before were gone,
But now all I see is the night.
So I don't believe in the sun.
How could it shine down on everyone?
Never shone on me.
How could there be
Such (UNINTELLIGIBLE) see?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: That's Stephin Merritt from his "69 Love Songs," "I Don't Believe in the Sun."
What are some of the love songs that you grew up with that shaped your idea of what a great love song was? Were there any particular ones that stood out to you?
MERRITT: I think my favorite love song at the moment is "They Were You" from "The Fantasticks," the show -- the longest-running show in theater history, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) musical (UNINTELLIGIBLE), (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...
GROSS: Can you sing a few bars?
MERRITT (singing): There were shining lights, but I never knew they were you, they were you, they were you.
GROSS: And did you know that...
MERRITT: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) my song.
GROSS: ... song is -- did you know that song as a kid, or...
MERRITT: I heard it as a kid, but it was reintroduced to me in a romantic situation (UNINTELLIGIBLE) came to me (ph) more, somehow, that way.
And I've used that as a template for good love song.
GROSS: What were some of the other songs that you used to, like, set the standard for love songs?
MERRITT: Well, Irving Berlin's "Be Careful, It's My Heart"...
GROSS: Ah, it's a great song.
MERRITT: ... it's a great favorite with me. And "On the Street Where You Live" from "My Fair Lady." I don't know why I'm only talking about show tunes. But many of the best love songs are, in fact, show tunes.
GROSS: "Be Careful, It's My Heart" has a great line, "Be careful, it's my heart, it's not my glove you're holding, it's... " or, "it's not my watch you're holding, it's my heart."
MERRITT: "It's not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) holding."
MERRITT: "It's not the book I lent you that you never returned, it's not the note I sent you that you quickly burned," it's the other way around, but -- implying that you're completely irresponsible, and here you've got my heart, and you're going to smash it.
GROSS: Now, I know you're gay. Did you ever feel excluded from certain love songs because they were, you know, always sung, you know, from a heterosexual point of view?
MERRITT: Almost every good love song is universal enough so that people are not going to feel excluded from it. I don't really think of "She's Having My Baby" as a particularly good song.
MERRITT: But it does make me feel excluded, I will say. It's definitely not a song that I identify with.
GROSS: Well, let me play one of your songs that's written -- that's sung by you about a man. It's called "When My Boy Walks Down the Street," and tell us what -- is this like, "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street"?
MERRITT: You know, until five minutes before I recorded this song, it was called "When My Girl Walks Down the Street." And I just changed it on a whim. The gender is pretty immaterial to me.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it? This is Stephin Merritt from his CD, "69 Love Songs."
(AUDIO CLIP, "WHEN MY GIRL WALKS DOWN THE STREET," STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS")
GROSS: Well, Petula was just mentioned in there, "When my boy walks down the street, everyone thinks he's Petula, so big and yet so petite." Petula Clark?
MERRITT: Yes, I...
GROSS: It's very "I Know a Place," I have to say. There's something about the rhythm of it that's very "I Know a Place," which is a Petula Clark hit.
MERRITT: Right. I probably should have had a woman sing that song, but then I guess I wouldn't have had the Petula line. I don't know. I assign genders in the characters and the singers pretty much randomly.
GROSS: You know, in movies and in Broadway shows, usually when -- or often when there's a love song performed, the person singing it might be gazing into the eyes of the person he or she adores. Have you ever in your life done that, like, sang one of your love songs or someone else's love song and actually gazed into your beloved's eyes while singing it?
MERRITT: Hell, no! Oh, my God, no.
MERRITT: Oh, God, I couldn't keep a straight face if I did that.
GROSS: I was wondering. I -- that always struck me as something that would be really hard to do, and almost embarrassing if you were on the other end of it, if you were...
MERRITT: I suppose I could do it as a joke. I do do it to my dog. I have a little chihuahua, and I like to gaze lovingly into his eyes and sing things like, "Be Careful, It's My Heart." But you can't really be all that embarrassed in front of a dog. That's why I have a dog.
GROSS: Does your dog like you're singing?
MERRITT: I don't think so.
GROSS: My guest is Stephin Merritt. He and his band, The Magnetic Fields, have a triple CD called "69 Love Songs." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, and he has a three-CD collection of love songs called "69 Love Songs."
Now, earlier you said that you were introduced to that song from "The Fantasticks" in a romantic situation. Without getting too intimate, tell me a little bit about how music has worked for you romantically.
MERRITT: I would say music has not worked at all for me romantically.
MERRITT: No one has ever approached me romantically based on my being a rock star or whatever I am, and people don't seem to find it particularly sexy that I'm a singer.
GROSS: And are you...
MERRITT: I guess because I sing in the least sexy possible voice, but I don't know.
GROSS: And what about, say, putting on a -- you know, a, quote, "romantic" record for an intimate moment? Did you ever do that? Or does music not work for you that way?
MERRITT: No, actually -- for romantic moments, I find it difficult to sustain a romantic mood -- remembering that I'm homosexual here -- I can't really sustain a romantic mood if I am hearing a woman singing. It's too distracting for me. So generally if I want romantic music, I'll put on instrumental music, because (UNINTELLIGIBLE) romantic, and it'll generally be music that doesn't have
much of a sense of humor, because that's more compatible with romance, I think.
GROSS: Right. I want to play another love song that -- and this is in a genre that I particularly dislike, so I'm interested in hearing your take on it. This is a song in the genre of, "I was born to wander, so let's make love and the heck with you, I'm out of here before daybreak, see you later." I mean, that's -- (laughs) that's how I'd sum up the genre. And your song is called "Papa Was a Rodeo, Mama Was a Rock and Roll Band."
Tell me your thoughts on this genre and what you were thinking about when you wrote this song.
MERRITT: What I was thinking about was Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. It's a -- it ends up being a duet. It starts out being the Lee Hazelwood character, but then Nancy Sinatra comes in at the end to make it a duet. And she is Mike, as was the name of her character in "The Wild Angels," I believe. She played a biker chick, and her name was Mike.
And so she appears at the end of this song to make it actually a heterosexual love story where it seems to be two men in a gay bar. And it turns out that both of them had a papa who was a rodeo and a mama who was a rock and roll band. And they have a long affair, 50 years, and travel the country wrestling alligators. It's a very dense song.
GROSS: What about that whole genre of, you know, "I was born to wander, I'm a rolling stone, so let's have sex and I'm outta here"?
MERRITT: Well, probably my least favorite song ever written is, "Love the One You're With" by Stephin Stills.
MERRITT: I don't know. So I think I'm agreeing with you on that, the smarmy...
MERRITT: ... let's do it now, and who cares? genre.
GROSS: Well, let's hear "Papa Was a Rodeo."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "PAPA WAS A RODEO, MAMA WAS A ROCK AND ROLL BAND," STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS)
I like your twisted point of view, Mike.
I like your questioning eyebrows.
You've made it pretty clear what you like,
It's only fair to tell you now
That I leave early in the morning,
And I won't be back till next year.
I see that kiss-me pucker forming,
But maybe you should plug it with a beer, 'cause
Papa was a rodeo,
Mamma was a rock and roll band.
I could play guitar and rope the steer
Before I learned to stand.
Home was anywhere with diesel gas,
(UNINTELLIGIBLE) was a trucker's hand.
Never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand
Before you kiss me, you should know.
Papa was a rodeo...
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: That's Stephin Merritt singing from The Magnetic Fields' triple CD, "69 Love Songs."
Now, I understand your father, who I believe you didn't know -- I'm not sure of that -- was a folk singer.
MERRITT: Folk with a small F. He was one of those urban folks (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who write their own songs, and croon them rather than being a Southern plantation worker who's in jail or something.
GROSS: So he was a singer-songwriter.
MERRITT: A singer-songwriter, yes, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) little F folk music. And he lived in St. Thomas.
GROSS: And his name?
MERRITT: Scott Fagan (ph).
GROSS: Did you listen to his records? Did he have records?
MERRITT: Yes, he had two albums, and I've heard both of them. My mother has them. I wouldn't venture an opinion on the quality of the records.
GROSS: Right. OK. What impact did it have on you when you decided you wanted to perform, to know that, like, your father, even though you didn't know him, was a singer and songwriter?
MERRITT: When I was about 15, my mother made me promise that whatever I did, I wouldn't grow up to be a professional musician, which seemed so wildly improbable at the time that I agreed not to grow up to be a professional musician. And here I am.
GROSS: Stephin Merritt and his band Magnetic Fields have a triple CD called "69 Love Songs." He'll be back with more of those songs in the second half of the show.
Perhaps the spookiest love song in rock and roll history is "I've Put a Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. He died Saturday at the age of 70.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Here's Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I PUT A SPELL ON YOU," SCREAMIN' JAY HAWKINS)
I put a spell on you
Because you're mine.
Stop the things you do,
Watch out! I ain't lyin'.
Yeah, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), whoo!
We all runnin' around.
I can't stay here,
(UNINTELLIGIBLE) put me down.
I put a spell on you
Because you're mine.
Oh, yeah! Whuh!
Stop the things you do.
Watch out! I ain't lyin'.
Oh, oh, I love you.
I love you...
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter Stephin Merritt. His band, The Magnetic Fields, has a triple CD featuring "69 Love Songs" composed by Merritt, an ambitious project featuring clever songs that comment on love songs of several genres, Tin Pan Alley, movie musicals, country and Western, folk and rock.
Let's hear about Merritt's early life and how it shaped the sensibility behind these songs.
Now, I understand you lived in 33 houses in the first 23 years of your life, is that right?
GROSS: Why did you move so much?
MERRITT: Oh, my mother was a beatnik hippie irresponsible itinerant Buddhist, and we lived on communes and in boarding houses and other people's houses. It wasn't boring, but it would be boring to talk about it, I think.
GROSS: Let me venture a guess that you came across many bad singer-songwriters during those years (laughs) who had guitars and harmonicas and sang their hearts out.
MERRITT: My mother had a lot of friends with acoustic guitars, yes, it's true. My mother herself had an acoustic guitar. I remember she wrote a song called "And the Turquoise Sands."
GROSS: (laughs) And when did you start discovering music on your own, and when you started to figure out what you loved, what was it?
MERRITT: Well, actually I think I discovered, having tasting (ph) music negatively rather than positively, I had this "Pete Seeger Sings" records for children, it's one of the Folkways album. And he sang "Little White Duck," (singing) "Just a little white duck, sittin' in the water, a little white duck, doing what he oughter."
And I realized I hated that song. And I felt like at 5 years old, I'm being condescended to and being talked down to by somebody who isn't probably any better a person than I am. Just because I'm 5 years old doesn't mean I don't have enough intelligence to prefer, say, "Yellow Submarine" to "Little White Duck." I mean, "Yellow Submarine" is a fantastic children's song. And "Little White Duck" -- well, I kind of like it now.
MERRITT: But at the time I thought it was just really stupid. And that set me off on my lifelong voyage of arbitrary musical taste.
GROSS: Now, what were the records that your friends were listening to when, say, you were in your early teens? And how did that compare to what you were listening to?
MERRITT: I didn't have any friends in my early teens. (laughs)
GROSS: (laughs) Oh, I should have known. (laughs)
MERRITT: Well, we moved around so much, I really didn't have any...
GROSS: Of course, right.
MERRITT: ... friends...
MERRITT: ... and any stability until high school. And...
GROSS: Was that rough, not having friends?
MERRITT: No. No, I didn't care. Didn't like other children anyway. I've always had a fear of children. And I never had chicken pox and measles or the mumps. I have to avoid children, actually. I should get booster shots.
GROSS: You went to school, though, didn't you?
MERRITT: I did go to school, yes. I went to a lot of hippie schools and sort of impromptu private schools and schools in the middle of nowhere. And once in a while I'd go to a real normal school. And I never got kicked out, but I would voluntarily leave.
GROSS: Since you didn't have friends until you got into high school, when did you start playing in a band, and what was it like for you to have, you know, band mates?
MERRITT: Well, actually I first started playing in a band when I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist commune in Vermont. I had these -- they weren't my friends, but they were other preadolescents. And I think we were called the Black Widows or something, some cliche name. And I was writing songs for them like "Satan's Child." And I was a little cliche.
We liked '70s rock, because that was what was happening. And I was into Alice Cooper at the time. And that's probably the last band I was in until -- I was in a band in -- just after high school called Your Parents. We were sort of '60s psychedelic-influenced. And we had a song I remember called "Nudist Colony," you know, and it went, "Everybody can be free in our nudist colony."
MERRITT: And they still weren't thoroughly my friends.
MERRITT: But right now, I -- my best friend is probably my manager, Claudia Gonson (ph), and she was in that band, Your Parents.
GROSS: She's in Magnetic Fields too.
MERRITT: And she's also in Magnetic Fields, yes. So that was probably the first -- the onset of my actually having bands and friends.
GROSS: Let me get back to "69 Love Songs," your new triple CD. And this is a CD that includes 69 love songs written by Stephin Merritt, mostly performed by Stephin Merritt, though a couple of other people also sing lead on it.
This is a love duet sung by a woman who loves too much and a guy who's a louse who says things like, "I thought money was everything, so I let you buy the house." (laughs) Tell me what genre or what particular song inspired this love song.
MERRITT: I wrote that on the subway. And I was actually -- I had the melody first, and I thought it would make a good house song, you know, house -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) some sort of disco. And I tried recording it that way, but it didn't work. So now it's this rock song.
MERRITT: I could just say that the song goes over really well live, because Claudia and I sing it as though we were really vicious enemies of each other, which is something you don't usually see on stage.
GROSS: So this is, "Yeah, Oh, Yeah," with Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "YEAH, OH, YEAH," STEPHIN MERRITT, CLAUDIA GONSON, AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS)
GROSS: That's "Yeah, Oh, Yeah," from the Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs." My guest, Stephin Merritt, wrote that song and was the male vocalist on it.
Stephin, is there ever a problem of being too cynical? Do you ever find you have difficulty expressing tender feelings in a song or just sincere feelings in a song?
MERRITT: Oh, I don't really think that it's important to distinguish between sincerity and irony or lying in songs, because I don't really think that there's any opportunity for actual sincerity in popular music.
GROSS: What do you mean?
MERRITT: How sincere do you really want to be in a popular song? Probably not at all. You don't want to seem to be a complete jerk, and you don't want to seem to be so cynical you're psychotic. But other than that, I think that any songwriter can widely range between heartfelt Bible-thumping sincerity and Cole Porter-like irony.
I think there's a great deal of room to play with on any individual album.
GROSS: Magnetic Fields is just one of the bands that you've had. Tell us about a couple of the other ones and how they compare.
MERRITT: I'm also in the Gothic Archies, which is entirely me, which is songs that are just too depressing...
MERRITT: ... and full of despair for The Magnetic Fields, or really for anyone else. They're pretty over the top, with songs titles like "The Abandoned Castle of My Soul." And generally in a Gothic Archies song you can be assured that the main character is going to die by the end of the song, if not before the beginning of the song.
And then I had another band called The Sixths, which is my son's and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sung over (ph) by various celebrities. And we had one album, we're about to have another. And then we have another band called Future Bible Heroes, which is my friend Chris Ewen (ph) doing synthesizers and me singing. And Claudia, my friend Claudia, singing in and electropop style reminiscent of the early '80s, the last great period of popular music and the British invasion of the early '80s. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to be British in 1981, I think that would be my lifelong dream, either to be Irving Berlin or to be Boy George.
GROSS: (laughs) That's a stretch. Those are you two...
MERRITT: Yes. I think I've achieved being Irving Berlin, and now I need to achieve being Boy George.
GROSS: Stephin Merritt. He and his band, The Magnetic Fields, have a triple CD called "69 Love Songs."
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
High: Songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist of the alternative band Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt, whose group has produced 6 albums. Their newest is the three-CD "69 Love Songs," which is a genre blending collection of love songs like"Underwear" and "If You don't Cry." This album topped our rock critic Ken Tucker's list of the best CDS of 1999.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Stephin Merritt
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End-Story: Interview With Stephin Merritt
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