The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields
Essentially, the Magnetic Fields represented the creative output of songwriter, singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt, who, along with various band members, guest musicians on cello, tuba, percussion, vocals, and various other instruments, became the quintessential pop eccentric of the 1990s. In the studio, the Magnetic Fields were almost solely the result of Merritt’s efforts, dispatching universally touching albums beginning with 1991’s Distant Plastic Trees through 1999’s 69 Love Songs, one of the best-reviewed albums that year. In addition to recording, the band also became a popular live act. On the road, Merritt assembled a performance group that usually consisted of himself as lead vocalist and guitarist, as well as a second guitarist, a cellist, and a drummer. As a writer and producer, Merritt concocted through his group “a sort of indie-pop synth-rock,” described contributor Richie Unterberger in the All Music Guide. While reminiscent of the synthesized sounds of ABBA, Roxy Music, and Joy Division and at first pointed toward the alternative rock enthusiast, Merritt’s music nonetheless revealed a warmer, more pop-oriented tone than his predecessors that was in the same breath often compared to the likes of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Phil Spector.
According to Merritt, his life began on a houseboat in St. Thomas, where he was conceived by “barefoot hippies,” as quoted by Village Voice writer Rob Tannenbaum. Suffering from epilepsy as a baby, he was raised by his mother, an English teacher. Throughout his upbringing and as an adult, Merritt enjoyed a close relationship with his mother. However, he never met his father, an obscure folk singer named Scott Fagan who recorded during the 1960s for RCA and Atlantic Records. Like many single parents, Merritt’s mother and her son often had little money. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Merritt lived in 33 homes in his first 23 years, primarily in the Northeast, as well as in West Berlin, Germany, when his mother was married for a brief time to an Army officer.
Growing up, Merritt was drawn to classic love/pop songs, like those penned and/or recorded by Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach. He was also encouraged by the electronic textures of vintage acts such as the Smiths, Joy Division, ABBA, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Gary Newman. Borrowing from these styles, Merritt began recording songs with a guitar and synthesizer on his own four-track tape deck from the age of 14. An outcast at school and acknowledged introvert who preferred music and reading to socializing with his classmates, Merritt was threatened with violence on a regular basis in the public schools. To avoid the bullying, as well as the mandatory participation in sports, Merritt enrolled at the Cambridge School of Weston, a preparatory school for bohemian children located near Boston. For the first time, the musically-inclined Merritt felt a sense of belonging. Moreover, his new school’s curriculum was heavily influenced by the arts. Thus, Merritt took advantage of the music program, studying theory augmented by a tutor from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “I’m a professional musician because that’s what I’ve had the most success in,” he told Tannenbaum, hinting that he was a child prodigy of sorts. “I was told I had promise in several other areas: poetry, acting, science.”
Around the same time, Merritt, after watching a television program about tracking junk mail, started devising different spellings of his given first name, Stephen, to reflect the various aspects of his life. The name “Stephin” defined his musical side, and eventually this spelling stuck. During his school years, Merritt also discovered that he was a homosexual. The openly gay musician who at the same time kept his emotions surrounding his sexuality closeted said that he never had to officially come out, however, because all of his friends and his mother knew and told him that he wasn’t straight.
After graduating from prep school, Merritt attended college, but his education, he said, was interrupted by a bout with a fatigue virus. An itinerant student, he spent some time at New York University (NYU) Film School, attended art school briefly in Boston, and took courses
Members include Susan Anway (left band in 1992; former member of the early-1980s Boston, MA, punk band V), vocals; Johnny Blood, tuba; Sam Davol (a Chinese American legal aid lawyer), cello, flute; Claudia Gonson (Harvard College graduate; Ph.D. from City University in New York), drums, percussion, keyboards, ukulele, vocals, band manager; Stephin Merritt (born Stephen Merritt in Boston, MA; son of an English teacher and folk singer Scott Fagan; attended NYU and Harvard Extension School), vocals, guitar, songwriter; John Woo (a Korean American graphic designer), guitar.
Merritt formed band in 1989 in Boston, MA; released debut album Distant Trees, 1991; signed with Merge Records, 1993; released breakthrough album 69 Love Songs, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Merge Records, P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
for several years at Harvard Extension School, where he studied film and the history of the built environment, a discipline that applies semiotic theories to industrialized cultures. However, Merritt never earned his degree in that field, falling short of just one exam in statistics in order to graduate.
Although Merritt had recorded songs on his own since his early teens, he would not complete his first album until the emergence of the Magnetic Fields. By that time, he was well into his twenties. Merritt initiated his musical career first in New York City, where he was involved with the still developing club-kid scene. From there, he returned to his birthplace, founding what would become the Magnetic Fields in 1989. Over the years, Merritt’s outfit would also include vocalist Susan Anway; drummer, percussionist, keyboardist, and longtime band manager Claudia Gonson; Gonson’s college mate Sam Davol; another of Gonson’s college mates guitarist John Woo; and tuba player Johnny Blood.
Merritt’s first two albums with the Magnetic Fields, 1991’s Distant Plastic Trees— which yielded the band’s first college radio sensation “100,000 Fireflies,” a song later covered by several groups including Superchunk—and 1992’s The Wayward Bus featured Anway on vocals; Merritt, who called himself a terrible singer in his early recording days, had not yet felt secure enough about his own singing. Wendy Smith, a cover artist for Weekend, an early-1980s alternative band that recorded for the Rough Trade label, designed the album art for both releases. For the first record, Merritt disclosed his tales of lost or unconsummated love through songs about lust (“Railroad Boy”) and self-loathing (“Falling in Love With the Wolfboy”). The songwriter also utilized pop structures from the classics he held so dear for tracks such as “Smoke Signals.” At first issued only in Britain on Red Flame Records and in Japan on RCA Victor, Distant Plastic Trees was included on The Wayward Buson the band’s own label, PoPuP. In 1995, both albums, minus one track, were reissued as an official co-billed twofer by Merge Records.
After Anway left the Magnetic Fields to relocate to Arizona, Merritt, singing in a “splendid baritone croon,” remarked David Sprague in the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, took over the vocal duties for 1993’s The House of Tomorrow, a seven-inch EP issued on the Feel Good All Over label. This release led reviewers to compare his voice to that of Morrissey (formerly of the Smiths), particularly for the song “Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring.” The band followed this in 1994 with the lowkey effort Holiday CD, also on Feel Good All Over. Highlights from this album, which balanced innocence with decadence included “Deep Sea Driving Suit,” “Desert Island,” “Take Ecstasy With Me,” and “Strange Powers.”
Signing with Merge in the fall of 1993, the Magnetic Fields in 1994 also released an ill-advised, country-flavored album entitled The Charm of the Highway Strip. Fortunately, Merritt returned to his pop roots for 1995’s Get Lost, an intricately layered effort that added new instrumentation such as ukulele (played by Gonson), banjo, and bass guitar. Here, Merritt revealed his new-wave sensibilities with “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do” and “You and Me and the Moon,” as well as his feelings of cynicism in “Why I Cry” and “The Dreaming Moon.” That same year, Merritt released the album Wasp’s Nest with one of his numerous side projects called the 6ths. Other members of this outfit, performing songs written by Merritt, included Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, Unrest frontman Mark Robinson, Amelia Fletcher of the band Heavenly, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, Robert Scott of the Bats, and Helium’s Mary Timony. In 1996, the Magnetic Fields on Feel Good All Over released the album The House of Tomorrow, which included songs from the like-titled EP. Merge reissued this CD, packaged along with Holiday, in 1999.
That same year, the Magnetic Fields returned with their breakthrough album, 69 Love Songs, released as both a trio of separate CDs and as a limited-edition three-disc box set. According to Merritt, no one believed he would be able to write 69 good love songs. “It was clear they were humoring me,” he said to Tannenbaum. Determined to complete such a daunting task, Merritt spent a full year developing the songs, “working whenever I was awake,” he added. “I had no life. I sat around all day writing songs. Which is often what I do all day long, anyway.” Some of those songs included primal accounts of lust (“Underwear”), romance (“The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”), and heartbreak (“I Don’t Want to Get Over You”). 69 Love Songs earned stellar reviews in 1999; Spin magazine, for example, listed the effort as one of the best albums of the year. After the success of Merritt’s 69 Love Songs, the songwriter began work on his next project: writing a musical with novelist Daniel Handler.
Distant Plastic Trees, (U.K) Red Flame, (Japan) RCA Victor, 1991; reissued, Merge, 1995.
The Wayward Bus, PoPuP, 1992; reissued, Merge, 1995.
The House of Tomorrow, (seven-inch EP), Feel Good All Over, 1993.
The Charm of the Highway Strip, Merge, 1994.
Holiday, Feel Good All Over, 1994.
Get Lost, Merge, 1995.
(With the 6ths) Wasp’s Nest, London, 1995.
The House of Tomorrow, (CD), Feel Good All Over, 1996. 69 Love Songs, Merge, 1999.
The House of Tomorrow and Holiday, Merge, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Boston Globe, December 31, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1999; December 26, 1999.
Magnet, April/May 1999.
Melody Maker, February 20, 1999.
New York Times, October 22, 1999; January 5, 2000.
Rolling Stone, October 14, 1999; November 25, 1999.
USA Today, November 26, 1999.
Village Voice, September 14, 1999; December 7, 1999.
Washington Post, October 10, 1999.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 27, 2000).
“The Magnetic Fields,” Merge Records Band Bios, http://merge,catalogue.com/biomag.html (February 27, 2000).
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