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Merritt's multiple tracks: a new Magnetic Fields album and an opera are just a few of the new projects for composer Stephin Merritt.

Most stars have obstructionist managers and other hangers-on to protect them from the world. Stephin Merritt has Irving Berlin. To get to Merritt, the out, 30-something cult songwriter whose 1999 CD 69 Love Songs brought him instant acclaim in both pop music and the experimental theater world, you have to know and love Berlin first. Not necessarily the composer, whom Merrill cites as a musical and conceptual influence--but Merritt's cocky and fiercely loyal white Chihuahua.

After I charmed my way past the beast with a hunk of beef jerky into Merritt's apartment-cum-recording studio in Manhattan's Chelsea district, we three settled down to listen to i, the seventh and latest album from Merritt's band the Magnetic Fields. It marks the combo's first release on Nonesuch, home to such eccentrics as Randy Newman, Laurie Anderson, and the great Stephen Sondheim.

Merritt is happy to be among such major-label, nonrock peers; even though most of his own catalog (under the banner of the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes) is found on indie-rock labels, be never saw the need to be that stereotypical indie-rock purist. "I've already done lots of music that isn't rock," he protests, adding that he thought rock died in 1985 with Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. "And I have at least two albums on major labels--the 6ths [yet another Merrill incarnation] were on London--so I don't feel like I was ever in the indie-rock ghetto."

Though Love Songs tackled synth-pop, punk, psychedelic pop, country, Broadway, and vaudeville stylings, Merrill held his talent for pastiche in check for his long-awaited follow-up. "I was trying to make a soft-rock record," he explains, "but since I don't sound exactly like Roberta Flack, it didn't really come out soft-rock." What emerges is a sort of postmodern cabaret, including twisted lyrical gems such as "I'm Tongue-Tied" and "In an Operetta," the tragic ballads "I Looked All Over Town" and "Infinitely Late at Night," and an unprecedented excursion (for Merritt) into house music, "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend."

Best of show is the composer's lushly melodic "It's Only Time"--surely the top contender for the gay wedding tune of our time. "To a certain extent," says the composer, "all the songs are gay marriage ballads. Though I am currently single. Or," he clarifies, "unmarried."

Merrill has little time for such things these days, frantic as he is with projects--including a brief tour in support of his new album and an experimental production of the Ming Dynasty opera Peach Blossom Fan. Other projects on the docket include a commissioned opera on Hans Christian Andersen, a film musical collaboration with popular children's author Lemony Snicket, and a new 6ths album, which may be authorized by the Andy Warhol Foundation to contain songs from the filmmaker's infamous 1960s screen tests.

Merritt admits to being "made insane by suburban Los Angeles"--where Peach Blossom Fan was recently work-shopped--and the demands of writing for the theater. "The deadlines are unreal, in the sense of being all too real," he says. "If you don't meet [them], there are actors standing around waiting for you to tell them what to do."

And he's thrilled to be doing fewer live performances these days, citing his problematic hearing as a major obstacle. "It's to the point where I can only do very, very unplugged shows. It's Beethoven in the right ear and ..." Merritt then deadpans with a Poe allusion, "Roderick Usher in the left ear. Not a good combination."

Beghtol, who also writes for Time Out New York and Chickfactor, is the voice of Flare and one half of the moth wranglers. He also contributed vocals to 69 Love Songs.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:arts & entertainment
Author:Beghtol, LD
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 11, 2004
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