Meet the Real Stephin Merritt — Inside the Magnetic Fields' Ambitious Performance at Luminato

The Magnetic Fields' appearance at the multi-disciplinary arts festival Luminato will be their first Toronto show since 2012
Meet the Real Stephin Merritt — Inside the Magnetic Fields' Ambitious Performance at Luminato
Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic
Promotional consideration provided by Luminato

Who exactly is Stephin Merritt? For the nearly 30 years that he's been releasing music as the leader of the Magnetic Fields, that question has been difficult to answer. On masterpieces like 69 Love Songs (1999) and Holiday (1994), sincerity has blended with fantasy and sardonic wit, making his music endlessly fascinating and his personality difficult to pin down. Whether composing beautifully cacophonous fuzz-rock on 2008's Distortion, lavish baroque pop on 2010's Realism or retro-futurist synth-folk on 1994's The Charm of the Highway Strip, it's never been easy to predict where he's going next.

That's what makes 2017's 50 Song Memoir such a fascinating and unexpected turn from the enigmatic songwriter. A year-by-year account of his first 50 years on Earth, it is unflinchingly personal and unabashedly autobiographical — each song is even chronologically tagged with a year, leaving no ambiguity about its inspiration. There's a song about his unfriendly family feline ("'68: A Cat Called Dionysus"), one about his poor performance at divinity school ("'86: How I Failed Ethics"), and one about moving across the country ("'12: You Can Never Go Back to New York").

When the Magnetic Fields come to Luminato next month for their first Toronto gig since 2012's appearance at Sound Academy, they will turn the Elgin Theatre into a re-creation of Merritt's childhood bedroom. The musicians will be surrounded by trinkets that Merritt has collected throughout his life, and many of the songs will be accompanied by short films. It's a strikingly intimate invitation into the prodigious musician's personal world. The whole thing will play out over two nights — tracks 1 through 25 on June 22, followed by tracks 26 through 50 on June 23 — taking the audience on a journey from Merritt's formative childhood memories to his coming-of-age experiences during the AIDS crisis to his grown-up reflections on sex and love and loss.

In lesser hands, writing 50 songs about your own life could be chalked up to self-indulgence, but the Magnetic Fields pull it off thanks the staggering quality of the material. Merritt has always been prolific, but he's never been quite so consistent as he is here — even his career-defining instant-classic, 69 Love Songs, had bizarre throwaways and tongue-in-cheek experiments. But on the two-and-a-half hours that make up 50 Song Memoir, Merritt never falters when delivering autobiographical insights that range from cheeky to sweet to heartbreaking. Exclaim! gave the album 9/10 upon its initial release, making it one of the highest points in a long line of essential albums from the Magnetic Fields.

Not only does 50 Song Memoir give us insight into the man behind the mystery, it's also a fascinating series of snapshots of the last half-century through the eyes of one of America's most observant storytellers: "'70: They're Killing Children Over There" captures the backlash against the Vietnam War; "'81: How to Play the Synthesizer" is a glimpse into the rise of electronic music; "'90: Dreaming in Tetris" is a harrowing account of being gay during the AIDS epidemic; and "'01 Have You Seen It in the Snow?" is a loving tribute to New York in the wake of 9/11.

Remember that viral video of a guy who took a photo of himself every day for six years? This album is a bit like that, except it features Merritt against the backdrop of an ever-changing America. There's an undercurrent of anthropology to these songs, which are about much more than Merritt himself. They're a series of vignettes about the places, people and moments that make up the rich tapestry of a life well lived.

Fifty songs! For many musicians that would be a lifetime's worth of material — four or five albums at least. For an artist who has long thrived on wildly ambitious high-concept projects however, this is a truly inspired idea: 50 songs about 50 years performed live on 50 instruments, with material that spans tender folk, bloopy synth-pop and quirky cabaret. The idea for the project came from a lunchtime conversation with Nonesuch label boss Robert Hurwitz, and Merritt told Exclaim! last year, "I agreed because you're only 50 once and I thought it would be a good long-term project. And I have yet to regret it, but maybe someone I mentioned will sue me and I'll regret it horribly. You laugh now…"

Merritt's vision will be brought to life on stage with the Magnetic Fields' expanded seven-piece lineup, which includes longtime members Claudia Gonson (piano, drums), Sam Davol (cello), John Woo (guitar) and more. While Merritt is at the centre of the Magnetic Fields solar system, his collaborators form a tight-knit family around him — in particular, Gonson also serves as the band's manager and plays with Merritt in the side-project Future Bible Heroes. Gonson and Merritt have been friends since high school, and played a key role in jogging his memory and helping him come up with ideas for 50 Song Memoir.

Merritt's circle of confidants has always been private and deeply elusive; the songwriter rarely lets in the outside world. Even when he grants interviews — and even when he was the subject of a documentary, 2010's Strange Powers — he tends to answer in the form of self-deprecating jokes and cranky wisecracks rather than with earnestness (for a taste, read his wry interview with Exclaim! in full). The version of the Magnetic Fields that will be coming to Luminato, however, is one that blends the wry humour we've come to love with a truth-telling troubadour who is unafraid to be vulnerable.

Ever the contrarian, Merritt wrote in the liner notes for 50 Song Memoir's five-disc set, "I am the least autobiographical person you are likely to meet. I will probably not write any more true songs after this than I did before." Whether or not that's accurate remains to be seen; what's certain is that the Magnetic Fields' upcoming Luminato show will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Toronto fans looking to see one of the generation's best songwriters at the top of his game.

The Magnetic Fields perform 50 Song Memoir June 22 - 23, 2018 at the Elgin Theatre.

For tickets to the show or to learn more about Luminato, head here.