Stephin Merritt: Two Days, 'A Million Faces' From a group of six photos and six words, Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt picked "1974" — and an image of a man wearing a suit covered with dolls. Two days later, the song they inspired was finished.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The creation of a song is a mysterious thing, especially for the listener, and sometimes even for the composer. To pull back the curtain on the creative process, NPR Music has launched Project Song. This is how it works. We invite a musician into our recording studio and document the songwriting process.

Project Song's first experiment was with Stephin Merritt. He's a prolific and quirky songwriter.


STEPHIN MERRITT: (Singing) So you, quote, love, unquote me, well, stranger things I've come to be, but let's agree to disagree because I don't believe you. I don't believe you.

NORRIS: That's an older Stephin Merritt song called "I Don't Believe You." Project Song offered this challenge to Merritt, write and record a song in two days, just two.

NPR's ALL SONGS CONSIDERED host Bob Boilen was in the studio.

BOB BOILEN: Stephin Merritt told me that he does most of his writing sitting in a bar with throbbing music in the background. And despite all those distractions, he seems to write the catchiest of melodies, and he told me something he learned from a '70s Swedish pop band.

MERRITT: I read an interview with ABBA a long time ago where they said they never write down the music, because they figure if they can't remember it, then other people won't remember it.


MERRITT: So I've followed that pretty religiously.

BOILEN: To kick-start the creative process, I placed six photographs in front of Stephin Merritt and six cards with words or phrases on them. From those cards, he had to pick one photograph and one phrase. The photograph would represent the subject of the song, and the word or the phrase would inspire the style.

What Stephin chose was an incredible image of a man wearing what appears to be a cloak covered chin to toe in baby dolls. The phrase he picked was 1974.

I left him alone in the studio. His pen and red notebook in hand...


BOILEN: wasn't long until he sat at the piano and played. And what would unfold over the next two days was nearly magic.

MERRITT: (Humming)

BOILEN: Imagine a very large room with wooden floors, a grand piano, electronic keyboards, including a '70s MOOG synthesizer. We also had a sampler that recaptured the sound of another '70s instrument - the Mellotron, along with drums and percussion instruments, electric guitars, bass guitars and a sitar- sounding guitar.


BOILEN: For the most part, I was on the other side of a large aquarium-sized piece of glass in the control room with engineer Chris Nelson. Stephin was in the fish bowl.

MERRITT: Now I'll write some lyrics.


MERRITT: (Singing) Neither sin or crime disgraces the man of a million faces. Not a single victim places the man of a million faces.

BOILEN: At times, it was a bit like watching grass grow. Stephin poised with his chin resting in one hand, his pen and red book in another. But then, a spark would happen.

MERRITT: There is a phenomenon where numbers or frequencies can seem to go up and up and up without ever starting again, without ever coming down. And I can't remember what it's called. Like so.


BOILEN: That pattern in music is called a Shepard scale or Shepard tone. It's the musical equivalent of a spinning barber's pole.

Over the next few hours, Stephin Merritt would continue to drift from barstool to piano stool, writing words in his book and playing with melodies at the keyboard. He was trying to create the sound of an ever-changing yet never- changing melody, that Shepard tone that he had latched onto.

MERRITT: I want to make a three-measure loop.


BOILEN: This is the first thing he recorded. It was to be the backdrop of the tune. Then, he was on the drums. Stephin is not much of a drummer and he was looking for a specific sound so he would record one snare drum hit and we'd looped that, then another snare drum, then a floor tom being struck by a maraca, and the rhythm track would be built just like that, one beat at a time. Each track was digitally recorded and you can see the wave forms of those recordings on our giant screen. And to keep it all straight in his head with engineer Chris Nelson, Stephin Merritt gave each track a name.

MERRITT: If the base drum is on every quarter note, let's have the last two snares alternating on every second quarter note. So, say the snares are Agnes and Billy, it goes...


MERRITT: ...Agnes, Billy, Agnes, Billy.

CHRIS NELSON: I think I got you.


BOILEN: And then it was back to piano. Laying down some ideas on top of that three-measured loop he recorded. And by the end of day one, the song had taken shape.

We sat down together at the bar. The first day was done. He was exhausted, but he seemed happy with what he'd accomplished.

MERRITT: Got four lines of lyrics and the basic idea of the song, "A Man of a Million Faces" who in my imagination shapes, shifts into these various pictures. As a criminal (unintelligible).

BOILEN: 1974, how's that playing out in...

MERRITT: Well, I've decided that the number is one, nine, seven, four.


MERRITT: Sit nicely into melody with it.


BOILEN: It was late. We called it a day.

MERRITT: I feel like I know him well, this man of a million faces.


BOILEN: A fairly well-rested Stephin Merritt, we turned to our studios the next morning. The remaining parts of the song would be recorded and then mixed that day.

He came to the studio with charts of chords he'd written out, then embraced the notion of that ever ascending scale. Later in the day, he performed it with a harpsichord sound.


BOILEN: It turned out to be one almost hidden element in the final song, and that's often way songwriting goes. It's rarely a straight line from idea to song.


MERRITT: (Singing) Quite a psychiatric case, is the man of a million faces neither there off flails and maces. Not a single victim places the man of a million faces. No one knows what his race is. No sin or crime disgraces the man of a million faces.

BOILEN: I spent 20 hours watching the song unfold. It was much like shaking puzzle pieces from a box and seeing it all come together. And though I can tell you how it happened the way it did, I couldn't tell you why. And Stephin Merritt couldn't tell you why, and that's my favorite part.

For NPR Music, I'm Bob Boilen.

NORRIS: You can hear the "Man of a Million Faces" by Stephin Merritt in its entirety, and watch the writing unfold at our brand new music site, just launched today,

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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