Magnetic Mystery

Stephin Merritt brings his quirky, indie-music group The Magnetic Fields to Lisner

”The last time I looked at my Wikipedia entry, it said that I was born in 1966, I’m Canadian, and I’m a Buddhist,” says Stephin Merritt.

”All these things are false.”

Stephin Merritt
Stephin Merritt
(Photo by Marcelo Krasilcic)

Just who is Stephin Merritt? The truth can be difficult to discern from the cagey, slightly cantankerous principal behind quirky indie-music group The Magnetic Fields. Mystery surrounds him as surely as… well, a magnetic field surrounds magnetic materials.

When asked his age during a phone interview, the openly gay singer-songwriter mumbles in his bass register, ”I guess it’s safe to quote the immortal folk group The Roches: ‘We don’t give out our ages and we don’t give out our phone numbers.”’ The presumably 40-something will reveal that he grew up largely in Boston, where he also got his start with his longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson.

Merritt is equally evasive about describing his musical style.

”I generally change the subject when people ask me that,” he says. His music has veered from early Americana to synth-pop, Tin Pan Alley ballads and showtunes to punk. As a solo artist, he’s written several scores for film (Eban and Charley, Pieces of April) and stage (Coraline). Among several other side projects, his main group The Magnetic Fields is best known for the widely praised 1999 opus 69 Love Songs, a concept album initially inspired by Stephen Sondheim. The album explored the many shades of love, and many colors of genre, through three discs’ worth of witty ditties (”Seriously smart pop…a rare feat in American songwriting,” raved the New York Times).

The band has just released Realism, its latest concept album – Merritt prefers working around themes – this time exploring folk music. ”There are thousands of definitions of folk,” says Merritt. ”I was trying to go with more or less all of them, a Whitman Sampler of what peoples’ ideas of folk are – with an actual concentration of what I thought folk was when I was 3.” Specifically, the music of Judy Collins and Bob Dylan.

Merritt gets many of his song and lyrical ideas through regular gay-bar-hopping. ”I’m always listening to other people,” he says, ”and even more to the music that happens to be playing.” At gay bars, that’s often ”thumping disco from the ’70s,” which Merritt calls ”wildly out of fashion.” But since with Realism he’s reached the end of a ”no-synth trilogy” – including 2004’s i and 2008’s Distortion – he says it might be time to try his hand at disco.

The Magnetic Fields taking us to ”Funky Town?” ”Hmm, mine would probably be a lot wordier than ‘Funky Town,’ and probably have some emotional content,” says Merritt.

For now, the band will launch a tour next Thursday, Feb. 4, at Lisner Auditorium to support Realism, and highlight other gems from the Fields’ repertoire. Merritt will play eight-string ukulele as well as sing in his saturnine voice along with gleaming-voiced auto-harpist Shirley Simms and Gonson on ”pianette.” Sam Davol will accompany on cello and John Woo on acoustic guitar.

Merritt says being gay has contributed to his being hard to pin down.

“It’s probably contributed to my feeling free to switch genders around all the time in the lyrics. And it’s probably contributed to my alienation that prevents me from having any genre affiliation. And it’s probably much of the reason I sit around in gay bars all night long writing songs,” he deadpans.

Merritt lives in L.A. with his 10-year-old Chihuahua named after Irving Berlin. Anyone else in his life besides Irving?

”I never, ever answer that question,” he says. ”It’s bad juju. If you’re in a relationship, and you say you are, by the time the piece comes out you may well not be. And if you say you’re not [but] by the time the piece comes out you are… it’s really awkward.

”I think Gore Vidal waited 35 years to actually go public with his relationship. And even then, he was extremely cagey about it.”

Stephin Merritt performs with The Magnetic Fields Thursday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. GWU’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. Tickets are $35. Call 202-994-6800 or visit lisner.org.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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