The Magnetic Fields, led by gay singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, have
been making thoughtful, romantic music for almost two decades. Their
latest release, Realism, is a gentle and wistful listen that deviates greatly from their sonically challenging previous album, Distortion. Merritt spoke to The Advocate
about his latest project, and at times came across as terse and
uncomfortable — two adjectives typically associated with gifted
The Advocate: How would you describe the new album?
Stephin Merritt: “Orc-folk,” as in orchestral folk. But I was never one for being sincere about the genre. I did it in a sense of being as wide as possible within being vaguely around examining whatever they call folk. Which is not an endorsement of the marketing category of folk or any particular aesthetic within it.
I read there’s influence from Jesus and Mary Chain and Judy Collins — anyone else?
Well, Jesus and Mary Chain was for the last record, Distortion. Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album, Psychocandy, sounds like playing a girl group album slowed down during vacuuming. Which is pretty much essentially what Distortion sounds like, so Realism is a counterpoint to that — no feedback, no electric instruments, instruments recorded in what most people would consider a realistic approach.
What was the recording process like?
Was it in a studio?
It was mostly at my home studio, which has several different rooms. I’ve actually moved since then, but I was in an 800-square-foot cottage which was all recording studio. So there were no parts we did not use, including going outside for recording.
Now, you recently left New York for Los Angeles — is that correct?
Well, a few years ago I moved my studio to Los Angeles.
Where do you live full-time?
Los Angeles and New York.
Are your homes an influence on your writing or music?
don’t know that it particularly does influence my writing. But Realism
definitely couldn’t have been made without my spending a lot of time
visiting the musical instrument stores of Los Angeles. Because there’s
so many South American/Central American instruments that I just
wouldn’t have gotten in New York.
“You Must Be Out of Your Mind” is a wonderful kiss-off song, a wonderful song in general.
How autobiographical is your material?
most of it not at all. But it does explain the world in terms of my
record collection; my record collection is such an important part of
who I am that I don’t think it’s trivial to say.
So what are you listening to now?
now I am listening to a record set of John Foxx and Harold Budd —
translucence and drift music. It’s wonderful for being able to listen
to and not listen to.
This is a bit of a generalization, but why do you not think there are not more gay folk singers?
I think it may have to do more with being openly gay than who is gay.
There are plenty of gay men doing quiet music; they just aren’t in the
club scene, so they’re forced into not being open about it.
a man singing about men in some of your songs — is that a nonissue in
the world you work in? The indie world, quote, unquote.
I’m not in the indie music world. I’ve had a major record label deal for 10 years.
“Indie” is more of a generalization — I mean in the world where you operate.
Which is what?
In the interactions that you have.
I don’t think of myself as being in one particular social scene relating to music.
I guess I’m just asking if it’s an issue in your working life.
that I know of. Every five years when I accidentally read my press, I
discover that when people don’t like my music they tend to use the word camp. And that’s sure a code word if I’ve ever heard one. So at least
a significant chunk of bad reviews I get are actually specifically
Where does the title come from — Realism?
Well, it’s a description of the production style, as is Distortion.
Is there anything else more to it or ...
it doesn’t intersect with the lyrics, if that’s what you mean. Somebody
pointed out to me a few days ago that an unusual number of mythological
characters are on the album, so there’s actually less realism than
Gotcha. And you’re taking the album on the road?
Yeah. We’re probably just doing half the songs from Realism and a lot of older songs.
And as a performer, what do you prefer? Singing live or recording or writing?
Well, performing live is my least favorite aspect of being a musician.
there are thousands of people staring at you and you can’t just walk off
and go to the bathroom. You have to stand there doing what you plan to
do for two hours. And it’s pretty much the same thing every night.
Notice that I’m putting this in second-person perspective, which is
what people do in interviews when they’re saying uncomfortable truths
about themselves. I particularly don’t like touring. It would be nice
if you could then go home after a show ... but you can’t.