Blog One: Stephin Merritt

In August, I called up Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes and Gothic Archies. He seemed a natural for this idea I had: to document the songwriting process. We gave him two days in a studio filled with drums, guitars, a Moog synthesizer, a sitar, samplers, a grand piano and more.

We wanted to make his stay here comfy, so I asked him, "What do you like to sit on when writing a song?" I figured he'd say a couch or a nice chair with a table lamp or some such, but he said, "A barstool."

I figured that was easy. A day later, it occurred to me that he meant he likes to write his music while sitting in a bar — it wasn't the damn stool!

So we scrambled to get a bar — he wasn't a prima donna, mind you, but I wanted to make him feel at ease. Our photo editor Coburn knew someone with a bar and some stools, so our studio engineer Chris and I, along with my son, hopped in a white van, went for a ride and carted the bar back to NPR and into what we call Studio 4A.
When Stephin Merritt arrived, he liked what he saw, including the green tea and the 1974 Scotch.

Below is the video that documents Stephin writing and recording the song. It's called The Man of a Million Faces and was filmed by John Poole, the videographer for NPR.

Welcome to Project Song, and also to our blog.

Look out for Old Music Tuesdays and other fun.

Robin Hilton and I will share/fight for this space.

Bob

Comments

 

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Can I download the song?

Sent by Harrison Lin | 5:11 PM | 11-5-2007

Very cool.

Sent by Amy | 6:53 PM | 11-5-2007

Absolutely fascinating to watch how the whole thing materialized! And what a great song...I echo the guy's comment above ??? can I download it?

THANKS and congratulations on this new section of the site.

Sent by Michael | 9:15 PM | 11-5-2007

it was interesting to watch this whole process. stephin sounds like he might be an angry drunk. thank you, npr!

Sent by rudy | 11:00 PM | 11-5-2007

I'm working on an answer to the downloading issue but it will have to wait till morning

Sent by Bob Boilen | 11:04 PM | 11-5-2007

A great choice for the first one. Merritt is one of my songwriting idols. It's wonderful to watch him work, very inspirational. And I, too, would love a copy of the song.

Sent by Tom | 11:46 PM | 11-5-2007

I'm so excited! I had no idea All Songs was planning a new site like this. I've listened to All Songs Considered for several years now, and these changes take the show to a whole new level!

I love this particular new feature too. Are you planning to have just singer-songwriters, or will there be full bands working on a song together?

Sent by Peter | 11:59 PM | 11-5-2007

Heard the segment on the radio yesterday, and seeing this video is a wonderful accompaniment to the segment.

Thank you so much for this series. As a songwriter, myself, it is always enlightening to see and hear how others work, especially people that I admire as much as Stephen Merritt.

I knew there was a reason that I became a member!

Sent by Todd Leiter-Weintraub | 10:08 AM | 11-6-2007

What a fantastic addition to the All Songs site. Each time you grow you just seem to get better and better.

I loved the Stephen Merritt segment, and I hope this is an ongoing series that might result in a compilation CD of some kind.

It was a real thrill to find the Project Song video in my podcast library, and I loved watching Merritt do his thing. Of course, there's more than a little of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work here, but so what! There are myriad ways to stoke creativity, and it's fascinating to watch this Project Song petrie dish. I look forward to more!

Too, it'd be amazing to offer this kind of experience to some of the Second Stage artists you feature.

I really think that as record labels go the way of the dodo, it will be sites like yours with your editorial / curitorial acumen that will be the primary way new artists to reach wider and wider audiences, rather than through a big marketing push engineered by a label.

Keep up the good

Sent by The Swan | 12:14 PM | 11-6-2007

Bob here...
a few things...our agreement is that the song be part of whatever we do, a video, a radio piece etc, but that the song by itself is not downloadable.
Stephin was very gracious with his time and i completely respect what we agreed to.
So if you want to hear the song again you can do that by watching the video. There is a song only version. without the "making of part" you can get it here, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15859351

It's on the left side of the page about a third the way down.

We will do more of these, one a month would probably be the most we can do, but this is a thrill and I can't wait to tackle others.
our next one is with a great new band called Georgie James. We already did the session.
I'd say early December on that.
others are in the works...

who would you like to see?

Sent by Bob Boilen | 12:30 PM | 11-6-2007

I would love to see Firewater, or more specifically, Todd A.

Sent by Kat | 6:23 PM | 11-6-2007

Todd A. would be super-cool now that he's back in-country, and I'd love to see They Might Be Giants as well. Is this filmed in NYC, or here in DC?

Sent by Ben | 6:35 PM | 11-6-2007

How about including Rufus Wainwright in a future? He's a fantastic young artist (very much enjoyed his recent stop in Boston at Avalon), and I bet it would be interesting to have him walk through his -- I'm sure unique -- creative process.

Really love the new site. I anticipate spending a lot of time discovering new things here.

Sent by Tom | 6:37 PM | 11-6-2007

What about featuring an unknown songwriter writing and recording a song...like me?

Sent by Mike Shields | 7:53 PM | 11-6-2007

Rufus is a wonderful idea. The shows are done in Washington. It is interesting and you will see this when the next one is done, it is intersting to see the difference when it is a solo artist vs. a collaboration.
our next band is Georgie James which is 2 people, John Davis and Laura Burhen. That back and forth was pretty fascinating.
That will air or web or what ever we call this sometime around the top of December.

Sent by Bob Boilen | 9:22 PM | 11-6-2007

in response to the Mike, the unknown songwriter wishing to be featured on Project Song, I have this response.
For many Stephin Merritt was/is an unknown. Our next act is also fairly unknown, they are a local Washington DC band, though they recently signed a contract with a small independent record label called Saddle Creek.

We have dedicated a show to unknown artists. Until this week it was called Open Mic, we now call it Second Stage. There are submission guidelines on the Second Stage website.
As for whether I'd choose you or not, I guess I would first start by hearing your music.
All the best
Bob

Sent by Bob Boilen | 9:28 PM | 11-6-2007

This and Monitor Mix just made RSS reading roughly a billion times more awesome.

I think Travis Morrison (from The Dismemberment Plan) would make a fine, DC-based "Project Song" participant...

Sent by Sara | 3:50 AM | 11-7-2007

I would love to see a full band's collaboration in this setting...someone with a repuation for group composition like the hiphop collective The Roots, who are known for jamming for hours in the studio until they come up with ideas for a particular song to flesh out. Similarly, what about a jazz artist or group who certainly compose and write differently than a singer\songwriter might. Finding some diversity not just in genre, but approaches and group dynamics would be really interesting to see in action.

Sent by Frank | 7:39 AM | 11-7-2007

great feature... Stephin set the bar fairly high. Thanks!

future segments: what a trip if you could get Bjork - I imagine she has a unique song writing approach. Neko Case. Joanna Newsom. Connor Oberst. AC Newman. Would it be ridiculous to try and get Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen or Elvis Costello?

Sent by Hans Lushina | 12:05 PM | 11-7-2007

I loved listening to this in the car on the way home and again via the podcast, but the piece took on a entirely other dimension today while I was at the office.

I work for an architecture firm and we have a lunchtime Design Forum once a month. Today's topic was 'who is your favorite architect and why?' (trying to elicit a good group discussion). At the end, after everyone had posted some images and talked about them, once of the architects set his laptop on the lunch table and played the Stephin Merritt Project Song video. All the architects got really excited, because the process Merritt went through with you guys is so akin to the creative process behind good architectural design.

As a non-architect, I never would have made the connection myself, but it was a wonderful way of seeing what is (perhaps) universal in the creative process, and it ended up being the best Design Forum we've had. Thanks!

Sent by Kyle Napoli | 11:37 PM | 11-7-2007

This was interesting. I've always wanted to see something along these lines because as someone who likes to write music its fun to compare the writing process. We get a chance to watch a painter paint from start to finish but rarely hear a song take shape.

I think that what this video shows is that songwriting is a very intimate process. I think Stephen is correct in saying that those who are writing in the studio are crazy. I think that once you place a songwriter in a studio with so much distraction or other band members you get a weaker output from the songwriter. Just as no symphony was every written by committee no great record was every written in the studio alone. I think the too many bands fall victim to this. They have a hit, get signed, and then fill in the rest of the record with studio written songs that are unfocused or bland and are the result of committee songwriting.

Also interesting was the ending discussion about coming back to a song. I'm curious what he would change a week later or even a month. I think that the Hawthorne Effect was at play here too. Observation changes the outcome. Did we really see his songwriting process or something different that was unique to the situation.

Looking forward to more, well done!

Sent by Steve H | 3:43 AM | 11-8-2007

Something's magical for me about Merritt's one-chord song. As a home recording bloke I can appreciate the steps vividly.

Blogged the new site at http://shreveport.blogspot.com.

Sent by robert trudeau | 5:31 AM | 11-8-2007

Bob Boilen here,
When I first thought of this idea I wondered about that whole observation aspect. As a musician and as the observer of the 20 or so hours, my take, is much like the architects take.

A good artist takes what she/he has and runs with it, Much of art is about limitations and finding creative ways to work in a given structure or system.
Some of the best work comes out of restrictions, whether it is time, money, materials, legal issues or mere physics in the case of the architect.

Did we change the way Merritt works?
Of course. But the artist in Stephin, the creative part that makes Stephin Merritt the songwriter that he is, prevailed. And you got to see him flower with all the limitations of time and having a camera in his face, and having me asking him questions every few hours. He still wound up with a darn good song. I wonder if he will revisit it.
The Magnetic Fields have a new album in January.

Sure we did.

Sent by Bob Boilen | 7:08 AM | 11-8-2007

I really enjoyed this episode! I listen via my iPod on my train ride to work and this kept me riveted. A great idea and I am eager to hear the next one. Also glad that you separated the concerts as I prefer to listen to those at home rather than on my commute.

Sent by April Whitney | 5:23 PM | 11-8-2007

I'd love to see David Bazan and Jon Brion invited to participate.

Sent by Andrew | 3:35 PM | 11-9-2007

OK, so we can't download the song from you -- do you know if Stephin will be offering it? I can't get the darn thing out of my head, and that's the only cure I can think of.

Sent by OhioBrian | 3:42 PM | 11-9-2007

The Magnetic Fields have a new cd coming out in January. It wouldn't surprise me to see something happen with this song at the time of that CDs release.

Sent by Bob Boilen | 5:56 PM | 11-9-2007

Love the new website and the studio idea! I've been listening to this show for quite a while, but I never took the time to provide some feedback on how cool it is. So, here it is. Hope to see many more musicians working on these 2-day songs!

Sent by Nacho | 1:02 PM | 11-10-2007

Greetings all the way from Denmark!!!

This is absolutely brilliant! Love the idea, love the song, love NPR ... the only thing that's sad is, that it reminds me about how cool public radio should be and how it used to be in Denmark before everything turned into genderless r'n'b-shit and silly radiohosts all day long.

Keep up the good work NPR - you're the best!

Sent by Kent Kjersgaard-Hansen | 8:16 AM | 11-12-2007

I would nominate Matthew Ebel and any of the songs off his new album, Goodbye planet Earth- Especially "Join the Conversation" to be considered. www.matthewebel.com

Sent by Whitney Hoffman | 10:00 AM | 11-26-2007

more please

Sent by JJ | 2:00 PM | 12-3-2007

I absolutely loved and enjoyed this piece, it was brilliant to watch someone as creative as Merritt working. And I do love the moody melancholy story he came up with in the song. I'm late to understanding the breadth of his work with Magnetic Fields alone, so this was a very nice treat after a weekend listening to "Distortion".

Great concept, hugely enjoyable- the very best of public radio! Thank you.

thanks Southamptoner!
bb

Sent by Southamptoner | 4:56 PM | 2-2-2008