The Magnetic Fields On 'Realism': 'Orch-Folk,' Played By Hand Songwriter Stephin Merritt describes his band's new album, Realism, as a "Whitman's Sampler" a la Judy Collins. With bandmate and manager Claudia Gonson, he performs at NPR, and talks about creating a variety show of folk music.

The Magnetic Fields: 'Orch-Folk,' Played By Hand

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(Soundbite of song, "You Must Be Out Of Your Mind")

GUY RAZ, host:

We're hearing a track by the Magnetic Fields off their new record called "Realism."

(Soundbite of song, "You Must Be Out Of Your Mind")

Mr. STEPHIN MERRITT (Lead Singer, Magnetic Fields): (Singing) You think I'll run not walk to you.

RAZ: The band was formed in 1989 by singer-songwriter and reluctant front man Stephin Merritt, who we met a few hours before the band performed here in Washington, D.C.

Mr. MERRITT: I think when I am singing, I kind of sing as though I don't want to be there. I think that's a trademark of mine.

RAZ: Sometimes, you don't want to be there.

Mr. MERRITT: Certainly. In a lot of situation I don't want to be there. I don't like playing live, I don't like touring. But I'm happy recording. I'm definitely happier recording other people's voices though.

RAZ: It might be strange to hear that from a man who some critics call one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation. And yet Stephin Merritt doesn't much like the responsibility of being the front man - the interviews, the photo shoots, the attention.

(Soundbite of song, "You Must Be Out Of Your Mind")

Mr. MERRITT: (Singing) You can't go 'round just saying stuff because it's pretty, and I no longer drink enough to think you're witty.

RAZ: These witty and often biting lyrics have become a kind of hallmark of the Magnetic Fields, songs about the absurdities of love and life.

When Stephin Merritt and his band mate Claudia Gonson stopped by our studios, he opened up a bit and offered his take on how to define the sound of this new album.

Mr. MERRITT: I call it orch-folk. Claudia is confused by the orch-folk tag because she visualizes the Tolkien orcs, rather than orchestral.

Ms. CLAUDIA GONSON (Magnetic Fields): He means O-R-C-H, orch.

RAZ: Orch-folk.

Mr. MERRITT: Along the lines of the mid-'60s Judy Collins albums, "Wildflowers" and "In My Life." And I'm trying to make a variety show within the big tint of folk, whatever folk is.

RAZ: I like that term you use, variety show, because it seems like this record is really 13 little vignettes. You know, one of my colleagues described it as opening up a jewel box filled with these different pieces inside.

Mr. MERRITT: I think of it as a Whitman's sampler. What do you think, Claudia?

Ms. GONSON: I think that it also mirrors the mission of folk music in a way that it has, there's all these stories and a lot of them are done in radically different approaches. But they're unified, at least on this record, by a kind of sense of hand-played-ness.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: You know, what always struck me about your music, Stephin Merritt, and your songwriting is how you seem to craft these miniature narratives, stories. And often on this album, for sure, often in under three minutes - a lot of your songs are less than three minutes. Do you...

Mr. MERRITT: If you can't say it in three minutes, why say it at all?

RAZ: I mean, when you sit down to put pen to paper, do you think about telling a story in three minutes?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, when I sit down and put pen to paper, I'm generally sitting around in a bar with a cocktail on one hand and a pen in the other. And what I'm thinking about is rhymes more than I'm thinking about characters. And I think the characters make themselves.

RAZ: One of those sort of mini-narratives that comes to mind on this record is the song "Seduced and Abandoned." There's a story in there.

Mr. MERRITT: I was trying to do a Victorian parlor ballad about an abandoned woman.

RAZ: I know you've brought your ukulele with you. Would you guys mind playing it for us?

Mr. MERRITT: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Seduced and Abandoned")

Mr. MERRITT: (Singing) Seduced and abandoned, and baby makes two, baby, abandoned by you. Seduced and abandoned, and what can I do? I think I might drink a few. Seduced with a grin, I was taken all in. Taken in sin, and in shame. Seduced by a smile, as I walked down the aisle. Then I waited a while, no one came. Seduced and abandoned and baby makes two. Baby, abandoned by you. Seduced and abandoned, and what can I do? I think I might drink a few, and maybe the baby will too.

RAZ: It's a little bit dark.

Mr. MERRITT: Yeah.

RAZ: That's Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields performing "Seduced and Abandoned" here for us in the studio.

And this record is the third in your no-synthesizer trilogy. First, can you explain what that's about?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, I was bored with the old generation of synthesizers, so I wanted to take a break from them and set myself the challenge of three Magnetic Field albums with no synthesizers at all.

RAZ: Well, what was it about the synthesizers that you want to take a break from?

Mr. MERRITT: There was no new sound, no new technology, no particular novelty anymore. When I grew up, every new record had new sounds on it, and that's really not the case anymore.

RAZ: It was a trilogy, right? No synthesizer...

Mr. MERRITT: Sure, sure.

RAZ: I mean, obvious...

Mr. MERRITT: Which means that the next record will have to have synthesizers on it.

RAZ: And is that true?

Mr. MERRITT: Yes. I've been buying up the new generation of synthesizers made by artists rather than manufacturers, and they have sounds I've never heard before.

RAZ: Oh, like what?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, I'm not going to tell you.

RAZ: Was there something you are was there sound - a new sound you were trying to create on this record?

Mr. MERRITT: Well, for example, we did actually record the leaves line and "Always Already Gone."

(Soundbite of song, "Always Already Gone")

Mr. MERRITT: (Singing) You're free to be always, always already gone...

Claudia played a branch full of dry leaves.

RAZ: You played a branch full of dry leaves?


RAZ: How do you do that?

Ms. GONSON: In the bathroom.

RAZ: Do you guys do that a lot? I didn't know that. I mean, do you...

Ms. GONSON: Well, these are the mysteries and the joys of production, you know? Sometimes, you just got to remember this is from an incredibly old memory from when we were practically children. But...

RAZ: And you guys have known each other since you were practically children.

Ms. GONSON: Yeah. And this story really is from - I think I'm in high school or something - but we discovered that if you, you know, hit something, it was like a Styrofoam doll head against the wall it was going to sound better than the drum that I was using. So, we were just like hitting this doll head against the wall to keep time.

And another great example, again, old one was - I don't know if you've ever been biking down the street and, you know, something's gotten caught in the back of the wheel and it makes this beautiful melodic, kind of...

RAZ: Oh, like when you were a kid, you used to put a card in your spokes, right?

Ms. GONSON: Exactly. It makes this beautiful sound. And we actually were like, oh, we should record that. And we'd recorded it and delayed it and slowed it down and did things of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MERRITT: (Singing) Anything, anything, do we (unintelligible)...

RAZ: Are you guys, do you guys see each other a lot when you're not working the studio? I mean, do you live nearby? And you've known each other...

Ms. GONSON: We live about 3,600 miles away from each other.

RAZ: Oh, you do?

Ms. GONSON: Yeah. But we speak pretty much, you know, every few hours.

RAZ: Is it strange to have known each other for so long?

Ms. GONSON: I think it gets less and less strange.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GONSON: But certainly, there are times of, you know, crisis and times of repair. It's like any 25-yearlong friendship.

RAZ: Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson are with the band the Magnetic Fields. Thanks so much for coming in and playing for us today.

Mr. MERRITT: Thank you.

Ms. GONSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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