Q Magazine

The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt on 25 Years of '69 Love Songs,' the Tyranny of Algorithms, and Crying to Celine Dion

'Love songs have been stupid throughout history, and they will continue to be stupid. People will find ways of making them dumber and dumber. But we'll also come up with ways of saying new things.'

magnetic fields
Source: Edinburgh International Festival

The Magnetic Fields will play '69 Love Songs' in its entirety at the Edinburgh International Festival.

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In the modern vernacular, a masterpiece is an artist’s greatest work: the first thing that will be mentioned in their obituary, the high watermark of their talent. But that wasn’t always the case. Historically, a masterpiece was the breakthrough production that allowed a journeyman or apprentice in any given discipline to ascend to the ranks of a master craftsman -- a ticket to entry among the greats in the field.

The Magnetic Fields69 Love Songs is a masterpiece in both senses of the term. Though singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt had been plying his trade as a craftsman of wonderfully witty, literate, irony-drenched indie confections for a solid decade, it was this 1999 triple album that announced him as a generational talent. Initially conceived as a soundtrack for a drag revue, it offered exactly what the title promised: 69 fully-fleshed love songs encompassing everything from synth-pop to folk, cabaret, jazz, country, punk, torch song and soul. The songs range from one-joke novelties to dense mini-epics; from depressive breakup dirges to freewheeling ditties; from a track that mostly exists as an excuse make a play on the term "shih tzu" to deeply felt instant-classics that have since become standards at weddings and funerals. Since its release, these tracks have been covered by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Ben Gibbard, the Airborne Toxic Event, Bright Eyes, Kelly Hogan and Jens Lekman.

Merritt has gone on to build a sterling career both with and without the Magnetic Fields, often finding other unusual concepts and songwriting prompts around which to build an album. (The 2020 collection Quickies, for example, was conceived as a collection of songs under two minutes and 15 seconds, while 2017's 50 Song Memoir saw Merritt compose a song for each year of his life.) But 69 Love Songs remains his calling card, and the gateway drug through which so many young listeners continue to discover his peculiar cracked genius.

In honor of the album’s 25th anniversary, Merritt and company — John Woo, Sam Davol, Chris Ewen, Anthony Kaczynski and longtime collaborator/manager Claudia Gonson — have embarked on a tour playing all 69 tunes over the course of two nights. Already deep into the first leg of their North American tour, the band will head to the U.K. and Europe this summer, culminating with a performance at the Edinburgh International Festival on August 24 and 25.

Merritt Zoomed in from a hotel room in Chicago to talk to Q about the tour, the album’s legacy, the state of the modern love song, and much more.

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magnetic fields
Source: Mark Ynys; Edinburgh International Festival

'Popular music has always been crap. It’s fine,' Merritt says. 'That’s why it’s popular.'

When did the idea to do the anniversary tour first arise?

It’s Claudia (Gonson)’s thing, She wanted to do it a while ago. She wanted to do it for the 20th anniversary, and I refused, saying that 20th anniversaries are not a thing. And it’s a good thing we didn’t do it for the 20th anniversary, because 2019 did not go as well as expected.

Was there any hesitation about taking on the entire album at every stop?

It wasn’t that I was hesitant to do it, but that I was very adamant about how we were going to do it. I didn’t want to take a lackadaisical approach. In the band we don’t always all agree on how formalized things should be, but in the case of 69 Love Songs, it’s so much work that I wanted to make sure I had adequate control.

I imagine there were plenty of songs from the record that you hadn’t performed in many years. Was there anything surprising you discovered from having to delve back into every single song?

I think that the concept of what a love song is has changed so drastically over the last 25 years. And love songs have become a lot rarer than they were, at least on the radio. I remember in 1999 I wrote something for Time Out New York predicting that in the 21st century we would have “sex music,” and I think I was completely right. That is, what we have in most of the top 40 now is essentially strippers singing about b---jobs. That’s a very different environment than in 1999, though there were definitely presentiments of that in Britney Spears, for example.

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magnetic fields
Source: Mark Ynys; Edinburgh International Festival

'Music is always surprisingly effective in ways that you don’t always understand, or even approve of,' Merritt says.

That's certainly something people have complained about in all sorts of genres. Babyface has often bemoaned what he sees as the death of the R&B love ballad.

I agree. And I’m not here to say that popular music is crap and we should go back to (older traditions) — although we should. But popular music has always been crap. It’s fine. That’s why it’s popular.

On the other hand, there is now the opportunity to merge R&B and country in a way that I would not have expected. Country, of all genres, would have seemed the least likely to be invaded by Beyoncé, and yet here we are. And I’m delighted about that. I think Lil Nas X and Beyoncé managing to hijack the country music fossil-show is one of the best things that’s happened to music in this century.

Lana Del Rey also has a country album coming up. Post Malone too. And that’s not new, obviously: one of the most popular tracks on 69 Love Songs is a country song.

Well, it used to be totally normal for people to suddenly do a country album. Just like it wasn’t really all that big a deal 20 years ago when Willie Nelson did a reggae album…although it was obvious that marijuana was the link there. But it used to be totally normal, and then radio’s algorithmic formatting got so fossilized, so strict, that we now think that people are genres. But that’s not true, it’s never been true, and it never will be true. And it’s good that there’s some disruption again. I mean, in the 1990s I remember reviewing Pat Boone’s metal album.

In a Metal Mood, great album.

Yes, that was fun.

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You mentioned earlier that you needed to have a measure of control over how to present 69 Love Songs on this tour. Back when you were writing the album, did you always have an idea after you’d written a song of who would sing it, how it would be arranged…

The recording part of 69 Love Songs was very spontaneous. I did try a few different singers on some songs, but sometimes it was just about who was around that week. I remember when we were recording I had a bass guitar week, where I did nothing but play bass guitars on dozens of the songs. And at least half the songs don’t have any bass guitar, but I just went from track to track to track and did that. So the choice of singers was often just about who was around and whose range it was in. We didn’t decide who was singing what until the backing tracks were already in place.

And I didn’t write any of the songs for anyone’s particular voice. I only do that when I’m doing musical theater, and even then I usually write most of the music before the casting has even happened, so I don’t get to write the songs for a particular actor's strengths. But when I do, it’s really fun.

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You’ve expressed a degree of bemusement with seeing “The Book of Love” become such a common wedding song. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that it was my wedding song, as well.

(Raises eyebrow slightly.) Ah.

But in a general sense, are you ever overwhelmed or surprised by the degree of emotional resonance that some of these songs have had with people over the years? Perhaps in ways you didn’t intend or didn’t expect?

No, I am not surprised, because I’ve had that kind of relationship with music all my life. I guess that’s why I’m a musician, because music is always surprisingly effective in ways that you don’t always understand, or even approve of. The song “I Drove All Night,” for me… I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone sing it without crying. A few years ago I was hearing an unfamiliar version of “I Drove All Night,” and I started crying, and I realized it was Celine Dion. And I was like, “oh! This song is just a trigger for me. And it’s not even a question of who’s singing it.” I have to wonder who else could sing it that I’d be very surprised to be crying along to. And I love when that happens. Like Judas Priest’s version of “Diamonds and Rust,” by…

Joan Baez.

Yes. Gorgeous! It’s beautiful. And I am not used to saying that about Judas Priest’s music.

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On that note, do you have a favorite cover of a track from 69 Love Songs? There have been quite a few.

For me, the one that stands out is one that I’ve never even heard. “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” is actually the first song from 69 Love Songs that I knew to have been covered by someone. Someone wrote to us saying that his uncle was the director of a gospel choir at a church in Alabama, and that they were doing “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” as their secular song. Which I suppose does lend itself to that. It’s got a three-part harmony. It has uncontroversial sentiments. But it’s also got these rather un-gospel-like references to “the awful songs we don’t even hear.” And so I would have loved to have heard a gospel version of that. Maybe someday I will.

Was there ever any point in the last 25 years when the enormity of the album’s legacy hit you? When you realized that these songs are never going away?

Well, no. It could go away at any moment, if there were a technological change that prevented it from being heard as an album. I was raised Buddhist. I expect impermanence.

Fair. On a different tack, 69 Love Songs was the first album you did where the songs all conform to a certain specification, which you've done several times since, on Quickies and 50 Song Memoir. What is it about having a prompt that appeals to you as a songwriter?

Well, having it be 69 love songs is a skeleton. It’s a structure. I have a whole lot of other love songs, which I could have shoved onto 69 Love Songs. And I could easily do 69 Love Songs Vol. 2 without having to write another song.

Would you do that?


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But is there a sort of Wordsworthian “nuns fret not their narrow rooms” attraction to having that limitation from the start?

(Ignoring gratuitous Wordsworth reference) I have several shelves full of songbooks. And I could, without writing another song, make lots of different possible albums. I could write an album where all the songs have seven letters in the title. Just arbitrary concepts. The Quickies concept was that all the songs would be under two minutes and 15 seconds. Our guitarist, John Woo, added an intro and an outro to one of the songs, so now it’s two minutes and 30 seconds. But I left those songs on, because I like them, even though it went outside the concept. But a third of the songs on 69 Love Songs could have been on Quickies, because they’re two minutes and 15 seconds or less. And if they were, that would have been longer than Quickies. So in a sense, Quickies is already a remake.

Is there anything you would do differently if you were recording 69 Love Songs today?

It would be hard to do, in some ways. In the last 25 years, recording technology has changed a lot. And what sounded surprising then does not sound surprising now. At the time, the Magnetic Fields were a surprising blend of rock and electro-pop and showtunes, and it was done in such a way that, now, we’re on the same algorithm with New Order. Back then, it never would have occurred to anyone to compare us. But now, if you put the Magnetic Fields on Spotify, the next song you’ll hear might be New Order, and then probably Belle and Sebastian. At the time, that was so far from the way we were seen. I happen to think that if you like New Order, it doesn’t say anything about the probability of you liking the Magnetic Fields.

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Do you see anything positive in that algorithmic way of experiencing music? Obviously we don’t want our listening to be dictated by algorithm, but is there a silver lining in the sense that it might expose you to something …

I already know know enough about music that I don’t use algorithms to help me find things. I do use Google, though. I recently got interested in what sort of synthesizer design might be happening in Africa. And I ended up happening on a record that I’ve really, really been enjoying, called The Afrorack. It’s one of the records I’ve played the most over the last year — it’s one guy and his Eurorack modular synthesizer, who is foregrounding the African traditions that he grew up with as realized by a modular synthesizer. It’s a lot of fun to listen to. So thank you, Google, for allowing me to figure that out. In 1999, that would not have been easy to find: literally a guy in his bedroom with a modular synthesizer on the other end of the planet, not on a major label, with no distribution here. In that way, there have been a lot of positive changes in the music field. I don’t know about the music industry.

You mentioned earlier that our conception of the love song has changed in 25 years. Is there anything that makes you optimistic about the shape of love songs to come?

I don’t think I’m optimistic or pessimistic. Music will always continue to change. Love songs have been stupid throughout history, and they will continue to be stupid. People will find ways of making them dumber and dumber. But we’ll also come up with ways of saying new things…slightly, slightly new things.


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