Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

It's Only Time

BY Vish KhannaPublished Jan 22, 2010

Whimsical curmudgeon Stephin Merritt is undeniably one of the most significant artists of the past 20 years. A clever wordsmith equally devoted to Human League and Cole Porter, Merritt's nascent musical explorations produced the lo-fi, synthesized sound of the Magnetic Fields. Even then, with his intellectual interest in diverse pop and folk instrumentation and the timeless art of charming, sentimental songs, glimmers of a contemporary pop genius shone through. Still, few might have predicted then that this bluntly opinionated, morose-voiced, gay New Yorker would craft America's most touching and brilliant love songs, leading fans through diverse projects like the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and treks into musical theatre, film soundtracks, and TV commercials. Audacious, prolific, and provocative, Merritt is a renaissance man worth knowing.

1969 to 1987
Stephen Merritt is born in New York City on an undetermined date; while some sources cite January 17, 1966 (which doesn't mesh with when he likely graduated high school), Merritt never divulges his actual age in public. He doesn't know his father, Virgin Islands-based folk singer Scott Fagan, an RCA and Columbia recording artist in the late '60s who had a brief affair with his mother. "The fact is I have never seen the little knobby noggin in my life, and I wasn't even sure that he existed until very recently," Fagan states in an interview on his web site. "I am delighted to have become aware of Stephin and his music. I'm amazed at how much alike we sound and further, how unbelievably familiar the songwriting is to me considering that we have never met. I'm equally amazed at the many parallels in our lives. It is really extraordinary. I am happy for his success." In recalling his earliest days, Merritt claims he was "conceived by barefoot hippies on a houseboat in St. Thomas." He's an epileptic baby raised as a Buddhist by his mother, an English teacher. She gives him the surname Merritt, after the man she's married to when he's born. "Sometimes very poor," the pair lived in "33 houses in 23 years," throughout the Northeastern United States, including a brief stint in West Berlin when she was married to an army man for a short period. Finding Pete Seeger's "Little White Duck" to be lacking in lyrical sophistication, Merritt, convinced he could do better, is writing songs at four years old. By the time he's 14, Merritt and his mother are settled near Boston, Massachusetts and he's playing guitar and synthesizer and begins four-track recording; wary of his musical pursuits, his mother urges him not to become a professional musician. Merritt prefers reading and music to socializing, hates sports, and is often threatened with violence as a young student. He enrols in the Cambridge School of Weston, a bohemian, progressive prep school where Merritt studies theory in the music program. "I'm a professional musician because that's what I've had the most success in. I was told I had promise in several other areas: poetry, acting, science," Merritt tells the Village Voice. After watching a TV show that recommends misspelling your name to track which junk mail lists you're on, Merritt conceives of multiple spellings of Stephen, his given name, for different aspects of his life. "Stephin" is the musician, and he legally changes his name. He meets Claudia Gonson and, even though she is the cheery, extroverted opposite of Merritt, they bond. They form a band in high school called the Zinnias with Merritt on guitar and Gonson on drums before she leaves Boston to attend Columbia University. Merritt starts a project called Buffalo Rome with vocalist Shirley Simms, which results in a self-released cassette.

1988 to 1991
Because Merritt's friends often tell him that he's gay, he never feels compelled to come out. "No one thought I was straight and finally I said, 'I guess you're right.'" After graduating from high school, Merritt does odd jobs; among the oddest finds him writing an astrology column for a local lesbian weekly under the name "Madame Cheva." Merritt's college education is tricky to pin down, in part because he suffers through a debilitating fatigue virus. Over the course of three years, he attends NYU Film School, an art school in Boston, and several years at Harvard Extension School, where he falls one statistics exam short of graduation. He studies film and the history of the built environment, a discipline that applies semiotic theory to highways, suburban planning, and other artefacts of industrial culture. Gonson transfers to Harvard and tries to convince Merritt to start a new band together. When he refuses, she assembles the Magnetic Fields and plays all of his songs in a decidedly rock'n'roll fashion. This stylistic approach prompts Merritt to take over the project so he can salvage his songs. "I didn't want to be in a live band," he recalled. "I don't even want to see live music, let alone make it. But I said, 'You're not doing this well enough. You need my help.'" Ironically Merritt initially hates the sound of his own voice ― a dark, listless baritone ― and calls upon female singers including, most prominently, Susan Anway of the '80s Boston punk band V, to take his place. Record label C'est La Mort releases the Magnetic Fields' first seven-inch, entitled The Marvels of Insect Life; it features Anway singing "Crowd of Drifters," which Merritt will sing years later on Charm of the Highway Strip. The Magnetic Fields' first live performance takes place at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, MA in 1991 where they play to a sparse audience expecting to see Galaxie 500 spin-off Magnetophone. Merritt suffers from a self-diagnosed hearing condition known as hyperacusis where particularly loud sounds create feedback in his left ear. Merritt generally wears earplugs during performances, and typically covers his left ear when audiences applaud. With his affinity for Irving Berlin (after whom he will later name a pet Chihuahua), ABBA, and Brill Building song assemblers, Merritt aspires to create timeless, popular music and has little regard (and plain scorn) for indie rock and its proponents. Again, Gonson is the polar opposite ― totally up on the indie rock scene and friends with almost everyone in it. Capitol Records A&R rep Claudia Stanton offers the Magnetic Fields a $2,000 demo deal, suggesting she might sign them if she likes the material she hears. Merritt sets to work on recording songs that will eventually comprise the album, The Charm of the Highway Strip, an electronic, synthesized country record. He records himself singing the songs but tells Stanton that Anway will ultimately handle all vocals. Stanton still rejects the tape because of Merritt's voice, telling him, "I hate Johnny Cash." Undaunted, the Magnetic Fields continue to hone their sound ― starkly home-produced, thoughtfully rickety pop, bathed in synthesizers ― and, throughout 1989, Merritt writes and records their proper debut album Distant Plastic Trees on his own. While no American label steps up, RCA Victor releases it in Japan and shady indie label Red Flame puts it out in England, both in 1991. "The major in Japan paid the indie in England, and the guy who ran Red Flame disappeared. With our 9,000 pounds," Merritt recalled. "So we can be forgiven for not romanticizing the indie experience." Nevertheless, Boston-based Harriet Records releases a seven-inch of "100,000 Fireflies" (b/w "Old Orchard Beach"), a song that enthrals Mac McCaughan, co-founder of Superchunk (a band who start playing the tune live) and Merge Records in Chapel Hill, NC.

1992 to 1994
The Magnetic Fields put feelers out for a new record label. They self-release a new album called The Wayward Bus, the last to feature Anway on lead vocals (who re-locates to Arizona to pursue an education in dental sculpture). Gonson befriends John Henderson. who runs Chicago label Feel Good All Over; Henderson puts out the band's House of Tomorrow EP, which features Merritt singing lead. Superchunk actually record a version of "100,000 Fireflies" during the sessions for On the Mouth in September and eventually release it as a b-side. On October 22, Gonson and Merritt go see Superchunk play near Boston; Merritt said that he was "horrified" by the experience, while Gonson interacts with McCaughan and his Merge business partner Laura Ballance. It turns out that Gonson and McCaughan once met when both were attending Columbia University and she tried to recruit him to be in a student film she was working on. Taking on a more managerial position in Merritt's business affairs, Gonson fosters the band's seventh label relationship in four years. Harriet releases a seven-inch for the Magnetic Fields song "Long Vermont Roads" (b/w "Alien Being," "Beach-a-Boop-Boop") in December of '92. More comfortable with his own voice in the Magnetic Fields, Merritt conceives of a new project called the 6ths, in which he writes songs exclusively for others to sing. In 1993, Harriet puts out the 6ths seven-inch for "Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket" (b/w "Rot in the Sun"), with Robert Scott of New Zealand's the Clean and the Bats contributing lead vocals. Merritt lends Magnetic Fields and 6ths songs to the soundtrack of the Nickelodeon kids show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete. By the end of the year, Merritt has moved to New York City. In April of '94, Merge releases a reworked version of The Charm of the Highway Strip. Unfortunately this coincides with Feel Good All Over finally getting their act together to release the band's new album Holiday at virtually the exact same time, mucking up the marketing and critical reception of the Magnetic Fields' newest releases. This irks Merritt to no end; the band decide to work exclusively with Merge, a label that Gonson feels possesses the perfect blend of welcoming social skills and business acumen. Feel Good All Over goes out of business shortly thereafter. McCaughan and Ballance first encounter Merritt's headstrong prickly side when he balks at including the Merge logo, which he describes as "butt ugly" in its current form, on the album artwork he designs. He creates a new label logo that looks like an actual 'merge' traffic sign and fits Highway's road theme but Merge is incredulous. Even though the label makes Highway the most readily available Magnetic Fields album in the U.S., Merritt refuses to tour the album because he hates touring and, because the album only includes him and cellist Sam Davol, he doesn't think it will translate live. Merge releases a fifth anniversary compilation called Rows of Teeth and the Magnetic Fields contribute an alternate version of the unreleased "Plant White Roses" with Merritt replacing Anway on vocals. The Magnetic Fields are invited to play Merge's anniversary party at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. By this point, Merritt gains a reputation for having many harebrained ideas that he seldom executes. In the middle of the night before the anniversary show, Merritt wakes his band members up by exclaiming "Indie rocks!" Following the fad of "pet rocks," Merritt conceives of indie rocks; when they arrive at the venue, Gonson collects rocks from the parking lot, paints "Merge '94 Indie Rock" on each one, and sells them for a dollar apiece at that night's show.

1995 to 1998
In January 1995, a suddenly prolific Merritt introduces a new, "Gothic rock bubblegum pop" side-project called the Gothic Archies (apparently a play on the term "Gothic arch" and the Archies), which he says differs from Magnetic Fields because "any glimmer of hope is absolutely extinguished." The Gothic Archies contribute "The Abandoned Castle of my Soul" to the Harriet Records compilation, The Long Secret, which also includes the original, 1989 version of the Magnetic Fields' "Plant White Roses." Merritt begins working as a copy editor at Spin magazine and writes brutally honest, acerbic record reviews for Time Out New York. A Harvard College grad, Gonson studies with queer theorist Eve Sedgwick at New York's City University in pursuit of a Ph.D. Merge reissues Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus together on one CD, separated by a version of John Cage's controversial "4'33,"" which is essentially four and half minutes of silence. On March 21, London Records releases Wasps' Nests (purposely named for two of the most difficult, lisped words in the English language), the mesmerizing debut full-length by the 6ths; it features compelling vocal turns by McCaughan, Merritt, Scott, Barbara Manning, Lou Barlow, Georgia Hubley, Dean Wareham, and Mary Timony among many others. Merritt still seems open to working with any label that will propel his pop songs into the mainstream. While other artists revel in the camaraderie and backslapping of indie rock, Merritt is blunt and critical of his peers and uncomfortable being associated with "twee" and other such signifiers.
"I ridicule the ideology of the so-called indie rock ethos," he said recently. "I have nothing to do with that, and I'm sorry that Mac and Laura do. No doubt they are completely insincere about it and are just using it to sell records. And I am not joking. Still, I could make only calypso music for the next hundred years, and win all of the calypso Grammys for the next hundred years, and still be found only in the indie rock section of every store and online retailer. Probably if Claudia's friends were all metalheads, we would be considered an eccentric metal band." On October 24, Merge releases the new Magnetic Fields record, Get Lost, which includes Gonson's college mate John Woo playing guitar and banjo. The album yields two singles: "All the Umbrellas in London" (b/w "Rats in the Garbage of the Western World") on Merge and "Why I Cry" (b/w "The Man Amplifier," a Young Marble Giants cover) on Motorway Records. In March 1996, the Gothic Archies EP, Looming in the Gloom, appears via the Hello CD of the Month Club, a subscription-only music service overseen by John Flansburgh of Brooklyn's They Might Be Giants. Industry mover and shaker Danny Goldberg takes over Mercury Records and recruits Gonson to work as an A&R rep. "Danny said, 'I hired you for four reasons: Sebadoh, Sleater-Kinney, and Ani DiFranco,'" Gonson recalled. "There was a fourth band that I can't remember. 'You know how to get Lou Barlow on the phone. I want you to bring these people in.'" Though she retains the post for two years, Gonson has awkward encounters with steadfastly independent artists who feel betrayed by her major label association. The Magnetic Fields contribute a version of "Heroes" to Crash Course for the Ravers: A Tribute to David Bowie, which is released by Undercover Records on August 27, 1996. In an interview with Mojo about his white musical sources and appeal, Merritt is quoted as saying, "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!" For their 100th release, Merge releases a compilation on April 22, 1997 that features Mark Robinson's re-mix of the Magnetic Fields' "Smoke and Mirrors." Merritt begins collaborating with ex-boyfriend/former Figures on a Beach keyboardist, Chris Ewen who is a popular DJ in Boston. Merritt comes up with lyrics and melodies while Ewen composes the electro-pop soundtracks, "replete with samples ranging from Hawaiian birds to computer printers." Gonson is brought in to contribute vocals and the project is christened Future Bible Heroes; Slow River Records releases their full-length debut, Memories of Love, on May 20, 1997. An EP called Lonely Days follows quickly that August. On June 10, the Magnetic Fields appear on Random: Gary Numan Tribute with their version of "I Die: You Die." Merritt begins writing and recording a new collection of songs for the 6ths; the impressive guest list includes Momus, Sally Timms, Bob Mould, Miho Hatori, and Gary Numan among others. On November 4, the Gothic Archies put out a long-form EP on Merge called The New Despair, closing out a remarkably prolific year for Merritt, who does most of his writing by sitting in gay bars and immersing himself in the incidental noise. In January 1998, inspired by Stephen Sondheim, composer Charles Ives' book 114 Songs, and alcohol, Merritt is compelled to write a musical revue encompassing the sound of the 20th century, called 100 Love Songs. When this seems too unwieldy, he decides to strip it down to the visually appealing and suggestive 69 Love Songs. On July 21, 1998, Merge puts out a Magnetic Fields seven-inch for a new song called "I Don't Believe You" (b/w "When I'm Not Looking, You're Not There"), while Merritt constructs a massive chart on his apartment's wall to document the progress of his 69 Love Songs project, which actually does yield 100 new songs. Gonson informs Merge that the next Magnetic Fields release will be a triple record with a 76-page booklet; upon hearing of the project's scale, the label is both ecstatic (McCaughan) and concerned (Ballance).

1999 to 2001
Merritt completes the 6ths album Hyacinths and Thistles but devotes his attention to 69 Love Songs. At the same time, friend and collaborator Daniel Handler conceives of the literary alter ego Lemony Snicket and his A Series of Unfortunate Events books. "We both watched the other person's career-changing moment happen," Handler recalled. "It was all in this tiny, tiny apartment and he was just working on it all the time." Handler contributes accordion to 69 Love Songs and musicians like L.D. Beghtol, Chris Ewen, Dudley Klute, Ida Pearle, and Shirley Simms also appear throughout the album. Merritt, Klute, and Beghtol form the Three Terrors ensemble, a live-only group that explores different musical themes (i.e. French pop, movies, intoxication, New York, etc.) for each respective and infrequent performance. On some occasions, Handler, Jon DeRosa, James Jacobs, and Kenny Mellman join the Terrors as well). The Magnetic Fields appear on Pop Romantique: French Pop Classics, which is released on February 23, 1999; they breeze through "Le Tourbillon," made popular in the film Jules and Jim, as sung by Jeanne Moreau and Bassiak.
Because of 69 Love Songs' scale, there is much cost haggling between Merritt, Merge, and the label's distributor Touch and Go. Get Lost had sold 17,000 copies at $12 apiece, so there's no reason to assume many people might shell out $36 for a Magnetic Fields triple-album; the creation runs counter to Merge's generally rational economic approach. Merge and Touch and Go reach a compromise with Merritt: 69 Love Songs will come out as three individually priced CDs with a limited, 2500 copy run of the box set, including the booklet. Upon its release on September 7, 1999, however, a small explosion of praise and adulation occurs due to the brashness of the project and the fact that the material ― exploring love songs from multiple angles and all manner of musical genres ― is undeniably stellar. Merritt appears on NPR and the cover of the Village Voice; Spin, The New York Times, Magnet, and Rolling Stone all come to rank 69 Love Songs as one of the year's best albums. The band's audience grows exponentially in turn and Merge, quickly sold out of its 2500 box sets, is unprepared and unsure about how many more copies to manufacture. "Nobody could buy it for six weeks," Merritt recalled. "I was very happy that the initial run had sold out. I was obviously not happy with the amount of the initial run, or that it was taking so long to repress." Both Merge and Touch and Go admit to underestimating the appeal of 69 Love Songs but suggest there was no precedent for its success. Within three years, the Magnetic Fields ― which now regularly consist of Merritt, Gonson, Davol, and Woo ― are commissioned to perform the album in its entirety at the Hammersmith in London with Peter Gabriel, and at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, as part of the American Songbook Series. Between the individual CDs and the set, 69 Love Songs goes on to sell 150,000 copies and sales spike every Valentine's Day. Merritt compiles a list of his favourite recordings of the 20th century ― one for each year ― for Time Out New York. Douglas Wolk interviews Merritt about 69 Love Songs and asks him what direction he sees pop heading in, in the new century. Merritt responds: "What I'd like to see in the year 2000 is the abandonment of music being categorized by the race of the artist, or the perceived race of the audience. It's disgusting, and I would like to be amazed that it's still happening. [Eliminating] racism and sexism would be major improvements, and it would make an enormous difference in the music industry. It would be really nifty if black people were allowed to make records that didn't have to constantly refer to very recent traditions of black radio. It's absurd, and at this point, it's as though the only thing the American public were allowed to hear were 'coon songs' and ragtime. It's worse, I think, than it was in 1899." On July 18, 2000, Merge puts out a new Future Bible Heroes EP entitled I'm Lonely (And I Love It) and on September 5, Hyacinths and Thistles by the 6ths is released, accompanied by a bio written by Handler, proclaiming it to be Merritt's "best album." The Magnetic Fields cover "If I Were a Rich Man" for the Knitting Factory comp, Knitting on the Roof, which is released on November 16. On their 2001 album The Coast is Never Clear, San Francisco band Beulah reference 69 Love Songs in the song "Popular Mechanics for Lovers.

On January 22, Merritt releases a soundtrack album for Eban & Charley under his own name. A hearty, mixed exploration of his love of bubblegum and experimental music, it's his first "solo" release. Eban & Charley also marks the final album Merritt releases on Merge; after years of being courted by major labels, the Magnetic Fields finally sign to Nonesuch, a division of Warner Music Group. "I think Stephin was excited by things about the Nonesuch catalog," Gonson observed. "It's been an important stamp for Stephin to feel that he's a Nonesuch artist as well as a Merge artist." Though Merge is sad to see them go, there's no animosity about the split; McCaughan and Ballance simply warn the band to expect to lose some artistic freedom. "Nonesuch are much more involved in the creative process in a way that I think Stephin has found frustrating," Gonson admitted. "They ask him to do re-records, they ask him to change titles. They ask him to change artwork. There's a whole different level of back-and-forth than we had with Merge." Merritt has a slew of projects on the go, including: collaborating with the director Chen Shi-zheng on a Chinese opera in development at Lincoln Center Theater; plans for a musical based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen; composing the score for a series of Lemony Snicket children's audio books with Handler; and he begins writing a sci-fi film called The Song From Venus. In a New York Times Magazine profile, Merritt's Williamsburg, NY three-room studio is described as containing the following: "A thunder sheet, thunder drums, two long plastic ridged tubes that make a windlike noise when you whirl them around, bells, whistles and a thumb piano made from a cigar box. There are xylophones, congas, chicken shakers, pipes, a rain stick, a melodica, chimes, two danmos (Vietnamese percussion instruments made of hollowed wood), a Marxophone and several maracas. ('I go through maracas very quickly,' Merritt said.) There's a Sruiti box from India, a harmonium, kazoos, egg shakers, many ocarinas, Tibetan meditation bells, gongs, blocks, sticks, triangles, steel drums, spoons, two Slinkys and a musical saw. 'I like buying instruments,' Merritt said. 'I don't have any other hobbies. I generally buy an instrument if it suggests two or more songs.'" On August 20, New York-based electronic music label Instinct Records releases the latest Future Bible Heroes effort, Eternal Love, which features Gonson singing lead on every song.

2003 to 2006
On January 21, Instinct releases The Lonely Robot, a remix EP of Future Bible Heroes tracks from Eternal Youth, along with two new songs. The collaboration with Chen Shi-zheng yields a new production of the 12th century opera, The Orphan of Zhao; it proves to be the precursor to 2004's Peach Blossom Fan and 2005's My Life as a Fairy Tale (based on the life and work of Hans Christian Andersen), completing a musical theatre trilogy. Select musical pieces are eventually gathered together by Nonesuch for the March 16, 2006 release, Showtunes, and credited to Merritt. Charged with overseeing the soundtrack to Pieces of April, a film starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson, Merritt writes a batch of new Magnetic Fields songs and credits one new song to himself; Nonesuch releases the all Merritt-related soundtrack (with only three previously released songs) on November 4, 2003 and Clarkson receives a host of awards, critical praise, and an Oscar nomination for her role. The long-awaited Magnetic Fields Nonesuch debut and follow-up to 69 Love Songs finally appears on May 4, 2004; i is a brilliant batch of 14 songs whose titles all begin with the letter "i" and are sequenced in alphabetical order. Played by the core quartet, the album is startlingly spare sonically and marks the beginning of what Merritt calls the "no-synth trilogy." On May 16, 2004, The New York Times publishes a "playlist" by Merritt, which consists of short reviews of seven new releases that he chooses from a stack of provided CDs. Blogger and New Yorker journalist Sasha Frere-Jones seizes upon the fact that all of Merritt's choices are albums by white artists, beginning an odd campaign to label Merritt a racist. Chicago Reader writer Jessica Hopper joins Frere-Jones' crusade, citing a May 1, 2004 article, in which Merritt says he enjoyed "the first two years of rap," but is bored and offended by contemporary hip-hop. "I think it's shocking that we're not allowed to play coon songs anymore," Merritt said, "but people, both black and white, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It's grotesque." Merritt also criticizes the ubiquitous OutKast single, "Hey Ya!" "I'm desperately sick of hearing it," he said. Frere-Jones and Hopper also reference Merritt's 20th century popular music survey for Time Out New York, pointing out that few of the 100 recordings he cites are by black artists. They're further aghast when Merritt appears as the keynote speaker at the Seattle-based Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference in April 2006. In a panel discussion, Merritt suggests that the popular classic "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" is a "great song." Unfortunately the tune is part of Walt Disney's infamously racist 1946 musical, Song of the South; Merritt describes the production as unwatchable with just "one great song. The rest of it is terrible, actually."Hopper is present for the comments and storms out of the room, while Frere-Jones posts an email by Thomas Bartlett, the author of the Salon piece, citing an unused interview excerpt that quotes Merritt as saying that, based on the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. in the 20th century, he may have "over-represented black artists" on his Time Out New York list. Merritt declines all comment on the matter. Merritt moves to Los Angeles in 2006 to achieve his goal of writing 50 Hollywood musicals but keeps his New York apartment. The Future Bible Heroes submit a faux-British vaudevillian dance hall tune called "Mr. Punch" to the Neil Gaiman tribute album, Where's Neil When You Need Him?, which comes out on July 28. Merritt contributes "The Meaning of Lice" to Plague Songs, a compilation album of songs about the ten Plagues of Egypt described in the Book of Exodus, which appears on October 3. On October 10, Nonesuch releases the critically acclaimed The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events, a CD companion to the best-selling Lemony Snicket books credited to the Gothic Archies. Featuring Merritt, Handler, and Woo, the tracks were previously only available on the audio book versions of the thirteen-volume Series of Unfortunate Events. As part of Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, L.D. Beghtol writes an illustrated oral history about the making of 69 Love Songs, which is published on November 3. On November 27, Merritt appears in conversation with author Ricky Moody at a New York City YMCA; the two discuss lyric and music composition and Merritt performs a solo set accompanied by ukulele.

2007 to 2010
Launching his pursuit as a jingle writer, Merritt writes and sings "I'm in a Lonely Way" and performs "The Wheels on the Car" for a Volvo television commercial campaign; the two ads air in the summer and fall of 2007. Merritt participates in NPR's Project Song for All Things Considered, which challenges artists to write and record a song in two days; inspiration and a studio are both provided by NPR. From a group of six photos and six words, Merritt picks "1974" and a photograph taken by Phil Toledano of a man wearing a kind of suit covered with baby dolls. Two days later, he completes "A Man of a Million Faces" and it's available online on November 5, 2007. In a January 8, 2008 profile for The Village Voice, writer Rob Trucks broaches the racism controversy with Merritt who has declined all comment on the matter up to this point: "'Is the racist thing over?' I ask. 'Done? Finished?' 'Overdone? It's certainly overdone,' he replies, and grins a grinchy grin." The Magnetic Fields return with Distortion on January 15, 2008; the infectious, self-consciously funny concept record lives up to its name sonically (Merritt suggests it's an homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain) and is the second edition in the band's "no-synth trilogy." On February 28, Merritt is interviewed by Faith Salie and performs live on Public Radio International's Fair Game. Nonesuch begins reissuing every Magnetic Fields album on 12-inch vinyl in April. In July, a single for Distortion's "Please Stop Dancing" is accompanied by an alternate version of "The Nun's Litany" featuring Merritt replacing Shirley Simms' vocals. In September 2008, French fashion label Bluedy introduces a line of footwear entitled Stephin: The shoe drawn in homage to Stephin Merritt. When asked about it, Merritt is simply miffed to have not received any of the shoes: "You know, I'm supposed to be honoured that they named some shoes ― a whole line of shoes ― after me, but they don't send me anything? Nuke Europe!" After providing the music for its audio book, Merritt finishes work on a theatrical adaptation of author Neil Gaiman's Coraline, which he actually began in April 2005; its completion is due to coincide with that of a film version by Nightmare Before Christmas creator, Henry Selick. The film comes out in February 2009, while the stage adaptation, featuring lyrics and music by Merritt, finally opens to rave reviews on May 8 via the MCC Theater group at The Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York. In January 2010, Merritt reveals that he's working on a score for the silent film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The score will feature lyrics that sync up with the movement of the actors' mouths and Merritt and assembled musicians plan to perform it live at San Francisco screenings in May. On January 26, the Magnetic Fields complete "the no-synth trilogy" with Realism. As a companion piece to Distortion, Merritt suggests the albums could've been called "True and False," "but I couldn't decide which I wanted to be called True and which I wanted to be called False." Only permitting acoustic instruments, Merritt is inspired by Judy Collins records and British folk of the late 60s/early 70s; bouzoukis, banjos, cellos, violins, accordions, tubas, tablas, and even falling leaves are employed to create Realism's sound. "We didn't actually hit any drums," Merritt said proudly. "The sound on 'The Dada Polka' is kind of drum-like, but I think they are bongos." The song, which apparently dates back to 1986, does feature a bit of electric guitar. "It had been waiting for me to do my folk album, and here I am, doing my folk album," Merritt explained.

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