Magnetic Fields
Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Up Close and Personal with The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt is no stranger to writing about some of life’s most uncomfortable, even painful, moments. But on 50 Song Memoir, the prolific singer-songwriter and Magnetic Fields frontman’s 25th album, he takes a look directly inward with purely autobiographical material. Each song on The Magnetic Fields’ new album, out on March 10, represents a year in Merritt’s life (almost, he turns 52 this year). On March 18 and 19, The Magnetic Fields come to Lincoln Theatre for a two-night performance of 50 Song Memoir, with a seven-person lineup and an intricate stage set including an eclectic assortment of instruments (nearly 80 were used to record the album) and music video projections. I had the chance to catch up with Merritt on the phone last week, and did my best to keep my cool (I’m a diehard MF fan) as I chatted with the very direct, always witty musician about his latest project.

On Tap: How did you come up with the idea for your stage set for this tour?
Stephin Merritt: I have several Marx tin dollhouses from the late 40s/early 50s, so the stage set is a gigantic version of that with windows through which you can see the musicians behind me. And I’m surrounded by, as well as drum machines and such, things that I have had for a long time.

OT: Your set is generally pretty minimalist. Why the change for 50 Song Memoir?
SM: I felt that with only one lead singer for 50 songs in a row, it would be a good idea to have something else to look at. As with the usual Magnetic Fields show, I will stare at my music stand and won’t do anything but sing. So there’s not ordinarily very much to look at, which is fine with me. But for 50 songs in a row, it requires a little more diversion, so we decided to have a stage set and projections.

OT: How would you characterize your collaborative process for the set with award-winning director Jose Zayas?
SM: The stage set felt like an extension of the autobiographical quality of the songs. For the projections, I think [Jose] had more of a free hand. I’m exactly the last person to ask questions about the projections. I’m the only person who can’t see them. Everyone in the band can see them backwards, from the back of the screen, but it’s absolutely right above my head so I can’t see a thing. If the screen falls, I will be killed. [Laughs]

OT: Do you feel pushed outside of your comfort zone with the stage set and projections?
SM: I don’t really know what people mean by comfort zone. I don’t think I have a comfort zone.

OT: 50 Song Memoir is a deeply personal set of songs. Is this the first time you’ve crafted such an extensive collection of autobiographical material?
SM: I think of everything as being not particularly autobiographical. But this album is pointedly autobiographical all the time for 50 songs, so it was harder to write than my other records. But once it’s written, I don’t think about the lyrics all the time. I think about the execution all the time. So from the audience’s perspective, it’s an autobiographical album. From my perspective, it’s 50 songs I have to sing well and what the lyrics are is not the point.

OT: Was it harder to draw from recent years?
SM: Yeah, I’ve had a long time to digest and forget most of my childhood whereas the last few years, I’m still kind of digesting and forgetting. So, the last few years are still being edited in my memory.

OT: Are there any songs on the album that are particularly dear to you, or just really came together the way you hoped they would?
I wish. No. Everything is difficult and I feel under-rehearsed at all times. I am several shows away from being able to relax and enjoy at all. So I think the song that gives me the least anxiety is probably “The Day I Finally,” which is a song that I perform alone on the one-man band because when I perform that, if I do it wrong, I won’t be humiliating anyone else in the band. I may be walking a tightrope, but if I fall off, I won’t fall onto someone else.

OT: Was anyone in your life displeased with any of the songs?
SM: My mother is in several songs, and I played her those songs before releasing the album just to make sure that she wasn’t going to sue me or anything like that. And the only factual error that she pointed out was when I say that she has no proof that the physical universe is a hologram. She said she had plenty of proof. I can’t make this stuff up.

OT: Has she seen you perform live on this tour?
SM: Yes, she has. I think night one is funny and night two is moving. But she thinks that night one is grueling and night two is a blast.

OT: What instruments used on the album do you most enjoy playing on tour? I know you have a lot to choose from. [Laughs]
SM: [Laughs] What I play onstage is the ukulele on one song, a one-man band on one song and the rest is rhythm units, except for the Dewanatron, which I play just by turning it on and off because it makes its own squiggly sounds without my input. I love the Dewanatron. It looks like it’s a prop from Plan 9 from Outer Space. But actually, it was invented within the last 10 years.

OT: I feel like The Magnetic Fields can’t really be described by a particular sound, or genre. 
SM: I say variety show.

OT: Variety show, yeah! But really, you experiment with so many different styles of music. How do you respond to pointed questions about your genre?
SM: In the 60s, there was a slogan: “Don’t label me.” And I’ve always liked that. “Don’t label me” is an excellent thing to say. Up there with “Don’t tread on me.” In the 80s, we used to say, “My gender is none of your business” along with “My race is none of your business,” [and] “My ethnicity is none of your business.” We used to have a much more fluid approach to identity. And genre in music is almost entirely about identity. Music with genre fluidity points toward an identity fluidity that I would like to see tried.

OT: Switching gears here. Any chance your song “Washington, DC” [on 1999’s 69 Love Songs] is autobiographical?
SM: It was actually, in a way, totally autobiographical because I wrote it in response to my boyfriend at the time saying that his work might transfer him to Washington, DC. I wrote it sort of pretending that I was in Washington in the spring, writing about the Cherry Blossoms and all.

OT: Do you have a favorite DC memory?
SM: [Laughs] The first thing that pops into my mind is, I guest-starred in a Yo La Tengo song at the 9:30 Club years ago, probably 20 years ago now, and I don’t remember what song it was, but part of my role was to whip the audience with the mic cord. We must have been doing a Velvet Underground song in order for me to justify whipping the audience in the Velvet Underground style.

Merritt and The Magnetic Fields will perform 50 Song Memoir at Lincoln Theatre on March 18 and 19; songs 1-25 on night one, songs 26-50 on night two. Doors at 6:30 p.m. both nights. Tickets to each show are $40-$55.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050;