Magnetic Personality

We chat with Stephin Merritt and Dayna Kurtz, explore the folly of !!! and talk band battles with Thee Lordly Serpents

Stephin Merritt, the man behind the Magnetic Fields (and the 6ths, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes), is one of the most acclaimed songwriters of his generation. He earned the acclaim with his artistic and critical breakthrough, 1999's triple-CD set 69 Love Songs, which consisted of, yes, 69 Merritt-penned love songs that floated through the ocean of American music, from easy pop to Broadway barnburners to country ditties to love chants to wall-of-sound melodic explosions. The quantity alone was overwhelming -- let alone the quality. Merritt somehow managed to make each perfectly rhymed line shine. His seventh full-length, i, is his first for the prestigious Nonesuch Records (home of Kronos Quartet, David Byrne, Wilco and the Ramayana Monkey Chant record). i consists of a more manageable fourteen songs, each beginning with the letter "i," that boil Merritt's aesthetic down to its essence.

RFT: Was it more gratifying to read praise of your work from, say, Tim Page of the Washington Post or novelist Rick Moody than from some indie-rock kid writing for a zine? Does it make you feel more "accomplished"?

SM:A few days ago I got an e-mail saying that Tim Page had been on NPR proposing that I be given a Pulitzer Prize. Indie-rock zines don't say that. So yeah, it does. And also, Rick Moody's article in the Believer was obviously a very prestigious outlet, and they don't usually write ten-page essays about me in indie-rock zines.

Stephin Merritt: the face (and mind) of the Magnetic 
Fields.
Chris Buck
Stephin Merritt: the face (and mind) of the Magnetic Fields.
"Waaoww!": Dayna Kurtz
"Waaoww!": Dayna Kurtz

That's gotta be an ego stroke.

Well, actually, I so strongly disagreed with what Rick was saying that I was kind of insulted. But I like him. He's opened for us several times. We're vaguely friends, which I don't think he mentions in the article. But I like him. I wouldn't want to publicly dispute with him. But I have to say, his lack of interest in musicals is -- no, I'm not going to say that.

At what point in the writing process do you assign gender in a song? You've got songs about boys loving boys, girls loving boys and so on.

When do I assign gender? When I'm writing the lyrics -- when it comes up. I try not to let it come up. I try not to have gender, because I think it makes the songs more universal if there isn't one. But to describe any complex situation, you generally have to use pronouns. "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" wouldn't work as "I Thought You Were My Lover." That isn't so good. And I wanted to have, say, "Some guys have a beer and they'll do anything," so I'm not going to have "you were my girlfriend." But yeah, the gender is pretty random in my songs, but because my publishing company is called Gay and Loud, I don't really feel that I need to be any more upfront about being gay. I'm just open and honest about it. But I don't feel like I need to have the lyrics banging the drum of political, open homosexuality. I can do that in interviews if I want. I don't really feel any obligations that way, so I feel like I'm free to assign genders willy-nilly -- as it were.

Do you drink when you're writing?

Oh, yes. I sit around in bars.

I thought maybe you just drank tea.

Well, yes. I sit around cafés in the day, and bars in the evening. I drink much too much tea, and then I have to drink Courvoisier to calm down my heart rate. It was really a problem during 69 Love Songs, when I was writing sixteen hours a day. I would drink tea for eight hours, and this is black tea, Irish Breakfast at an Irish café, never remembering to take the teabags out of the teapot. So I'm like, "Can't breathe. Must. Drink. Alcohol. Quick."

And then you hit the Courvoisier?

Yeah. That or Hennessey. I can't tell the difference. I have very little sense of smell, so subtle tastes are lost on me. I think Courvoisier is a little bit sweeter than Hennessey, but I can't tell. -- Randall Roberts

Questions Three

Of all the pleasant surprises in music this year, singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz's forthcoming Kismet release, Beautiful Yesterday, has yielded more pleasure than most of the others. A dark European-café vibe frames Kurtz's deep, soulful alto on renditions of songs by the likes of Duke Ellington, Leonard Cohen and Prince. When you listen to the disc, you'll wonder why you didn't hear about Kurtz five years ago. You can catch her opening for Richard Thompson at the Pageant on Friday (June 25), but we caught up with her for a quick Q&A as she took a break from tending her garden in Brooklyn.

RFT: Your voice recalls a cello. If you could have it resemble any other instrument, what would it be?

DK: A muted trumpet -- or a slide guitar.

What's your most memorable experience as an adult?

I was in a car wreck about five years ago, and I fell in love with my husband in that same month. It was a really bad car wreck, and I was in a wheelchair for a few months. There was definitely a monumental sort of before-and-after feeling there.

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