THOUGHTFUL, deadpan, prolific, and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Stephin Merritt can be a tough nut to crack when he’s interviewed, whether by me or by filmmakers Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, who spent a decade shooting the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, which takes a long look at the creative processes behind one of America’s most versatile songwriters.
Born January 17, 1966, having never met his father, folk singer Scott Fagan, Merritt was raised by his bohemian mother. After frequently relocating during his early youth, mother and son settled in Boston, where Merritt attended high school at the Cambridge School of Weston, where his reputation as a musical genius was established.
Using his untrained bass–baritone voice and a vast knowledge of different instruments (his sole hobby is collecting instruments), Merritt formed the Magnetic Fields in 1988 with the classically trained musician Claudia Gonson, who remains the band’s manager and Merritt’s anchor. (Contrary to various pesky rumors, the band gets it name from André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s novel, Les Champs Magnétiques.) Not to be pigeonholed, Merritt has written music in every conceivable genre; the Magnetic Fields, also all over the musical map, are often associated with “synthpop” or indie pop.
Twenty-two years later, after many changes and many a side project, the man some dub “the Cole Porter of his generation” continues to turn out songs of many shapes and sizes, including ones with gay themes, such as “When My Boy Walks Down the Street” and “Zombie Boy.”
Now living in Hollywood, Merritt talked to me about music, politics, and Sir Elton John’s homophobic moments, among other topics.