Music

Stephin Merritt wrote 50 songs for 50 years of his life: we interviewed him about it

Stephin Merritt, the frontman and brilliant mind behind US-based indie pop band The Magnetic Fields, celebrated turning 50 years old in a unique way; he released a 50-track album chronicling the first 50 years of his life.

Every year from Merritt’s life directly inspires each song on 50 Song Memoir. The entire work was performed, in order, last month over a two-day concert as part of the Melbourne Festival. The two-night show saw Merritt appear alone on stage, whilst the rest of his band performed from behind a wall, hidden from the audience.

A monumental project like 50 Song Memoir demands a determined, creative energy, as well as a sophisticated and driven songwriting process, as we discovered with our interview with Stephin Merrit.

The seedy, sketchy, vibrant city streets of New York have clearly played a significant part in shaping your outlook on life. How influential were those formative years through the late 80s-2000s in New York on your lyrics, music and general creative vision?

“Everything I know I learned at Danceteria in 1984. Einstürzende Neubauten damaged my hearing and left me with spark scars on my neck. The Shirelles showed they were still the best girl group ever, but ESG gave them a run for their money. John Cooper Clarke read his iconic ‘Beasley Street’. I want to go back!”

You are obviously quite a prolific writer. How easy or laboured is the songwriting process for you?

“Songwriting should be fun. I sit in the corner of a gay bar with cognac, a pen, and a little notebook, listening to music and eavesdropping, and if I have an idea I write it down. Then I see what rhymes: amarinth, plinth, synth…and three hours later, I have a song! Or thirty years later. The time it takes to finish a song is absolutely unpredictable.”

What are your songwriting and demo making tools these days?

“My songwriting tools are a pen—pencils smudge—and a small notebook, a new one every month or so. I like the colorful flora print clothbound notebooks from Finnish design goddess Marimekko. I don’t make demos, they’re a waste of time.”

The Magnetic Fields performed Merritt’s 50-song masterpiece to critical acclaim in Melbourne recently, taking to Facebook to thanks their fans, before returning to the USA.