The G-Man Interview w/ The Magnetic Fields

Photo by  Marcelo Krasilcic

"It's not difficult to write funny lyrics. It's hard to write lyrics that can be taken seriously."

There are many things that Magnetic Fields maestro Stephen Merritt is not: a fan of touring, a tolerator of fools, boring. What he most certainly is is an incredibly talented songwriter (feast your innocent ears on 2004's under-rated, heartstring-harassing i, or the more famous romantic behemoth that is 69 Love Songs, Merritt's magnum opus), bitingly witty and...consistent. There is no argument that Stephen Merritt reliably remains true to himself. Like him or not, it is a quality to be admired.

The L.A. based songscribe took some time out to answer a few questions ahead of this month's gig in the resurgent Opera House, which just so happens to be The Magnetic Fields' first ever appearance in Cork.

The majority of your interviews seem to end up referring to you writing songs in a bar. Have there been occasions where you have checked your notebook the next day and found lyrics or an idea that you have absolutely no recollection of jotting down?

Yes, our new single, 'Andrew in Drag'. I woke up one morning to find the car not in the driveway, and deduced that I must have been out late writing, and left my car where the cocktails are. So I looked in my notebook, and there was 'Andrew in Drag'.

Authors such as Charles Bukowski relied on the bottle to get the honesty juices flowing. Do you find that alcohol can result in "too much" honesty and possibly even hostility in place of grace?

Not yet, but I've heard of the danger.

A good friend of mine has always said if she had the choice to live in someone's brain for a day it would be yours. If you could inhabit another soul's brain for a spell and have a good look around, who would it be and why?

Fortunately, there is no such thing as a soul. Consciousness is something the brain does (or pretends to itself it is doing), and there is no meaning to the idea of being inside someone else's brain. The closest thing is art.

I hear this will your first time to visit Cork. What are your past memories of visiting Ireland?

I've only been to Dublin. I quite enjoy a tipple at the George, which I was told was the only gay bar in Ireland last time I was there. So I look forward to a tipple at the delightfully named Loafers, in Cork.

What frustrates you most about Irish people?

It puzzles me how the most wonderful, intelligent people in the world can listen to such corny music.

Do you have plans during your short sprint for your visit to the south of Ireland? I recommend visiting the Triskel Arts Centre which might be worth a snoop for the T.C. Lewis pipe organ alone. Also the café sells the most amazing vegan cakes and upstairs is Cork's last remaining independent record store.

Thanks for the tip. We rarely get to see anything anywhere, but I hope Cork will be an exception.

I recently acquired my first ukulele (a gorgeous little Tanglewood) so jumped on the chance to run through a few songs from i. I struggle to comprehend how a song such as 'I Looked All Over Town' can be so funny yet absolutely heartbreaking at the same time. How do you approach composing a song that contains just as much humour as heartache?

I think singing, rhyme, and love are all inherently ridiculous, seen from certain angles, and I just allow them to collide. It's not difficult to write funny lyrics. It's hard to write lyrics that can be taken seriously.

Comedy in music is a perilous journey that most tend to avoid altogether. How fine is the line between cheesy and intelligent comedy?

I look forward to finding out, someday.

In what way, if any, do you feel your songwriting changes with the seasons?

In quantity. I write a lot more in the winter, because it gets dark earlier, so I can go out to a bar earlier. I don't like to drink in daylight.

What rituals, routines do you undertake to motivate yourself for a tour?

I detest touring, and probably always will. I think anyone who claims to enjoy it is lying.

Only last week I got a chance to visit the mind-altering Yayoi Kusama exhibition in the Tate Modern in London. Kusama's work was initially very dark, understandable growing up in immediate post-WWII Japan, before moving to the U.S., immersing herself in the 60's America art scene and reinventing herself in the process. Although not as huge a culture shock, how much of an effect did moving from New York to Los Angeles have on your work?

A lot more Mexican and South American influence, like the instruments on Realism, and the song 'All She Cares About Is Mariachi'.

Yayoi Kusama became completely obsessed with dots and basically tried to shape the world to fit her own by covering her living quarters, pets, lovers multi-coloured spots. If you could take reality and plunge it into a Stephen Merritt-shaped mould, what would be the end product?

Everything would be in rich browns, and lit like it just stopped raining.

Kusama's obsessive nature never relented and she still works 9am-6pm on her art, nearly relying on her carers (she resides voluntarily in a psychiatric institution) to say "stop" at 6pm. How do you manage how long you spend on your work? Do you ever struggle to "stop"?

I stop when I'm too sleepy to continue.

Has any particular book/play/exhibition made a large impact on you recently?

I just read Italo Calvino's is-it-a-novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which he derives various new and existing stories from arrangements of Tarot cards. I am astounded that no one has ever recommended this book to me, because it's the story of my life. Maybe they all wanted to keep it from me, for fear the universe would explo-

- The Magnetic Fields play Dublin's Olympia Theatre on Saturday, 28th April and Cork Opera House on Sunday, 29th
- Tickets are available from the venue's official sites or clicking here
- Katie Kim provides support in Cork

*A special word of praise for the superlative research skills of Suzy Q who helped to compile the qs for the above interview

Official Magnetic Fields website


  1. Wow! Nice interview! I agree with your friend about living in his headspace. Well done.


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