“I brought this ukelele in case I needed it,” Stephin Merritt, the singer-songwriter behind The Magnetic Fields, said as he greeted me at the bar of Union Square Cafe, pointing to the instrument case at his side. “It’s to prove that none of these poems would make good songs.”
The poems in question are the verses in Merritt’s new book, 101 Two-Letter Words. The contents are as advertised: 101 poems dedicated to the two-letter words admissible on the Scrabble board, illustrated by recent National Book Award nominee Roz Chast. Merritt began writing them as mnemonic devices to better his Words With Friends score, but they soon blossomed into a larger project. Some, like “oy” and “it” are familiar entries, others, like “ki” or “li” or quirkier. Many make reference to a Vampire Dog, which Merritt included in tribute to his late chihuahua, Irving Berlin Merritt. Others have Edward Gorey and vague Suessian qualities, as his ode to the word “mo”:
A mo is two times half a mo—
or moustache, in Australia—
Merritt sat down and ordered a green tea and a scoop of raspberry-thyme sorbet, a quick snack before his reading at the Union Square Barnes and Noble. “These don’t work as songs because they’re only fifteen seconds long,” he explained. “And it’s hard to remember songs that don’t repeat. Like, say, ‘Now get up on the floor, because we’re going to boogie oogie oogie until you just can’t boogie no more.’ If that never repeated, you would never remember it. Instead, it’s this impossibly catchy song because it does that 32 times, or something.”
Fans of the Magnetic Fields, or of Merritt’s other musical projects Future Bible Heros, The 6ths, and the Gothic Archies, are already well-versed in Merritt’s eccentricities. He prefers to wear clothes in shades of brown, to match his eyes. He is often described in interviews as “dour” or “stern,” as if he was a human Eeyore with uncannily excellent musical abilities. He has a hearing condition called hyperacusis which creates a kind of feedback loop in his left ear. When he performs, he prefers to use acoustic instruments without accompanying percussion. When I asked him if, as a Scrabble fan, he ever dabbled in word games like Boggle, he winced. “Too loud,” he said.
But the accumulation of those details makes Merritt seem wackier than he really is. In person he is thoughtful and soft-spoken, quick to smile, peppering his speech with impressions of his new dog Zydeco (“I’m a chihuahua guy,” he explains) and snatches of melodies to illustrate a point. Many of the quirkier parts of Merritt’s working process are actually work-arounds for hearing difficulties and trouble remembering things.
“It’s sort of a superpower for me not to have a good memory,” he said. “Because the way I remember things is by making catchy melodies.It’s my business to have a terrible memory, basically.”
Merritt worked on the poems in the book in batches, taking a lesson from some of his previous musical projects. “When I was writing 69 Love Songs, I was planning to put them in alphabetical order, but I wasn’t paying attention to how that worked. I just assumed it was going to be lovely. But it wasn’t lovely. I wouldn’t had the first eight songs been acoustic guitar-driven ballads, which would have totally misrepresented the record and not seemed random at all. As with real random things, it actually lumps up into non-random seeming lumps. So I wanted to make sure I avoided that with this book, and do things in sequence, so I didn’t get any nasty surprises.”
“Rhythmically, I ended up using the template of that rhyme, ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe,'” Merritt wrote. “If my dog hadn’t died at just that moment, I would have dedicated the book to Lizzy Borden.”
Merritt now lives in Hudson, New York, but he also has a room in the city. He works on songs and poems in cafes and bars, using pen and paper. “Usually gay bars patronized by older people,” he said. “Because the music isn’t so loud. Young people like crunchy food and very loud music. They want to go to exciting places where the lighting is annoying and the music is as repetitive as possible.” When in New York, his haunts include record shop Rebel Rebel, Angelica Kitchen on 12th Street, and the recently closed Bleecker Street Records, though, “Bleecker Street Records has my eternal irritation for having my record i upside down in the window so that it looks like an exclamation point,” he said.
Merritt’s work extends further than his bands or his recent foray into publishing. In 2010, he produced a score for the silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 2009, he penned the music for an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Coraline. He’s currently working on a 20-minute musical for This American Life. “I would like to do more theater work,” he said. “But the thing with musicals is so many of them never happen.”
“I try not to do anything in the same genre twice,” Merritt said. “I don’t identify with a particular genre, so I try to escape when I can. Generally the way people get famous is by doing the same thing again and again that illuminates slightly different meanings of what they’ve done, as if each artist is of her own tradition. But I don’t want to work that way.”
“I’ve never done instrumental techno, and I think I’d actually be quite good at it. I’d like to do orchestral miniatures. I’d like to do experimental music more seriously. I’d like to do happenings,” he said.
Happenings? Like, everyone shows up in a place wearing one color kind of happenings? “God no,” Merritt said. “Art events. More in terms of you go to an artists’s studio and people who don’t know what they’re doing have some sort of para-narrative presentation for twenty minutes and then it’s all over. I lived through the 70s when vast numbers of people wore denim and there was nothing fun about it.”
Though Merritt is planning to work on another book in the future, his next project is a new Magnetic Fields record, which he’ll be working on this fall. “What’s the shape of it? I don’t know. I have an idea that I haven’t quite figured out how to execute,” he said. “Maybe the shape is a banana.”
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby