Stephin Merritt: ‘Being a gay person who writes lyrics is enough to invite Morrissey comparisons’

The once-prolific Magnetic Fields frontman on his grumpy reputation and Covid-related writer’s block

Stephin Merritt’s reputation as a difficult interviewee precedes him, but the Magnetic Fields founder and frontman has a theory about that. There are not many things that he regrets, he says, but one of them is that he wishes he had had a policy, in the early days of his career, not to speak to student journalists.

“I have acquired a reputation as a mean interview subject, entirely — as far as I can tell — because of interviews with students that I’ve done, where I’m the first person they’ve ever interviewed, and they’re nervous and they are antagonistic.” He sighs. “So I think it was a mistake to be too promiscuous with my interviews.”

In fairness, if you are familiar with Merritt’s creative output — he is renowned for his musically diverse works, lyrics so pithy they’d cut through glass, and droll song titles to savour (I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again, When the Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit, and The Biggest Tits in History are just a selection from his most recent album, Quickies), you probably have a sense of what the New Yorker is like as a person.

When we speak via Zoom, he is at home in Manhattan, lying on his bed with his two faithful hounds, Edgar and Agatha, at his side (named for Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, and not the Mystery Novel Awards of the same name, as he is at pains to point out.)


Merritt’s predilection for answering questions concisely, and usually after a very long pause, means any interview with him is not necessarily a cohesive conversation but more of an unintentional rapid-fire round. With that in mind, I begin with an easy one: is it true that he has Irish ancestry?

“Both my mother and father do, yes,” he says, referring to cult psych-folk singer Scott Fagan, who he only met for the first time in 2013. “Do I know what part? I don’t. They don’t know, either.” He shrugs. “The relevant grandparents are all dead, so there’s no one to ask.”

Merritt’s career has been a patchwork quilt of musical oddities, side projects, indie successes and offbeat incursions into synth-pop and rock music. He won an award for composing music and lyrics of the off-Broadway adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; he has been involved in numerous other musical theatre and film soundtrack projects, had his songs featured on cartoons, has been a member of several other bands (including Future Bible Heroes, The Three Terrors and The Gothic Archies) and is generally hailed as an unsung genius by many. So, given his experience and his extensive back catalogue, what does he consider his greatest triumph? Another long pause follows.

“The album cover of 69 Love Songs,” he murmurs. “The songs? The songs are good, too. But I’m not primarily a designer, so I guess I tend to be prouder of things that are harder for me. I am primarily a songwriter, so I’m not necessarily proudest of things that I do relatively easily and all day long.”

I’ve weirdly never been compared to Marc Almond, who I probably feel is closer, because I’m famous for my dirty jokes — as is Marc Almond

It’s true that that album, released in 1999, has become synonymous with Merritt in a way no other has. The Magnetic Fields’ sixth record spawned some of his finest songs, including The Book of Love, which has been covered by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Dublin’s own Gavin James, who had a hit with it in 2015. He has not heard James’s version, but says his favourite so far “is a seven-year-old girl singing it on Holland’s Got Talent. The instrumental accompaniment was cheesy, of course, but she really inhabited it in a way that you couldn’t imagine a seven-year-old girl doing. Particularly the line ‘We’re all too young to know’.” He smirks. “Funny.”

Merritt is okay with that album remaining his most talked-about work — its intention was always to be a “calling card”, he says — even though there have been many other Magnetic Fields records released in the intervening 23 years. The album i (2004) was the first in the band’s “no-synth trilogy”, followed by the heavier Distortion (2008), which he claims is their “second most popular” album (“but the one that my mother hates the most”). After that came the folk-leaning Realism (2010), while Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012) featured one of their better-known singles, Andrew in Drag. Given his musical range over the years, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t dwell on a particular style or concept.

“I try to rebel against whatever album I just made,” he says. “There are two models: there’s Roxy Music, which has made the same album again and again — only better and better — until you do Avalon, which is the perfect Roxy Music album and it’s impossible to imagine doing it better. Or there’s David Bowie, where you try a different thing every year — and that is the one that makes sense to me. Also, because I’m so adrift from any particular genre, I feel like I’d probably run out of things to say pretty quickly if I were doing only industrial zydeco, or whatever genre I would be lumped into.”

One in 26

Being adrift from genre also means that Merritt has been tagged with the “perennial outsider” label over the years. He shrugs. “I’m not interested in being a household name. Gary Numan, at the height of his fame, said that if you’re a household word, that means that one in every 26 people in the street will recognise you. I don’t know where he got the number 26 from, but I quite like that; it’s easy to remember,” he laughs. “You’re never gonna be recognised by every single person on the street — thank God. I would rather have the money than the fame. And I’d spend the money on instruments and records.” He gets recognised the odd time in New York, he says, but things like selfie requests are rare. “Everyone is too busy being cool,” he sighs.

Merritt famously writes all of his songs in the same New York bars, but says he has not finished a new song since he contracted Covid in early 2020.

“I got Covid on the day the World Health Organisation announced the pandemic, which was March 11th, 2020,” he says. “I’m waiting for my brain fog to get jostled out of existence. I’m hoping that if I keep up my routine of sitting around the same bars, with the same pen ... I’ve had the same notebook going for the past two years, because I haven’t finished it. I do write down ideas, I just don’t seem to finish the song.” He pauses, suddenly maudlin. “But I’m not beating myself up about it, ‘cos ideas for songs are most of the song. And I have hundreds of half-written songs lying around, which is a good thing.” He sighs again. “I look forward to suddenly figuring out what medication, or something, will allow me to finish the song.”

His wit and wordsmithery has seen him lumped in with other acts of a certain generation, such as Morrissey, in the past. How does he feel about comparisons to other artists?

I’ve always enjoyed Morrissey as a lyricist. I hope he can get his public image together again. He needs to be nice to some children and dogs on national television

“Well, the similarities between me and Morrissey are basically demographic,” he says, smiling. “I think just being a gay person who writes lyrics is enough to invite Morrissey comparisons. I’ve weirdly never been compared to Marc Almond, who I probably feel is closer, because I’m famous for my dirty jokes — as is Marc Almond.” He pauses. “I’ve always enjoyed Morrissey as a lyricist. I hope he can get his public image together again; he seems to have fallen down recently, in that regard. He needs to be nice to some children and dogs on national television, before he actually turns into WC Fields.”

Isn’t there anyone this most idiosyncratic of musicians feels an affinity with these days? He sinks deep into thought once again; another long pause follows, before he suddenly answers confidently.

“I think Robyn has wonderful melodies and engaging story-songs, in a way that people from her alleged ‘genre’ are not expected to,” he says, referring to the Swedish pop star famed for Dancing on My Own. “The algorithms put me in with New Order and Belle & Sebastian, and I guess that’s also because we’re not doing classic rock, and we’re also not Gloria Gaynor. I don’t know.” He stops again, a bit less sure this time. “I don’t like comparing myself to other people very much, because I tend to compare myself to people who are a lot better at things than I am,” he finally says, as deadpan as ever. “I mean, if I could do Beyoncé’s photoshoots, I suppose I would do Beyoncé’s photoshoots.”

The Magnetic Fields play the Olympia Theatre on September 7th

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times