The summer sun is marking its return in a big way this afternoon, the kind of mid-'80s boiler that Hudson hasn't seen in a year. But beneath the umbrella of the coffeehouse courtyard where Stephin Merritt sits, it's not the glare that's testing the comfort level: It's the humidity. True, we're not into the dreaded dog days of August yet, but the mugginess is nevertheless bothersome, a sticky steam bath that makes movement a less-than-enticing proposition. Thankfully, we don't have to move. For the moment. And there's a bonus: After a few minutes of conversation, Merritt's famously cool, deliciously dry wit has reduced the oppressive air to so many harmless cubes of ice. Or it least it feels like that. Cocktails, anyone?
Not today. It's mint iced tea for Merritt—perhaps surprising to some of his fans, since the singer-songwriter's work as the genius behind, most notably, the Magnetic Fields, is well spiked with bittersweet tunes about the demon drink. "Last year, after decades of sitting around in bars writing songs about drinking in bars, I stopped [drinking]," he confesses in his trademark measured monotone. "I thought it would improve my lung function. It hasn't. Actually, the drinking songs on the new [side project] Future Bible Heroes record were written after I'd quit. But, really, the worst thing about my not drinking is that it hasn't made much of a difference overall for me. It is cheaper, though. And it's kept me out of trouble—in some ways."
Whatever kind of trouble Merritt's alluding to, it's hard to figure when, exactly, he'd have a spare second to get into it. In addition to his crushing catalog as a solo artist and with his bands the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and the Gothic Archies, as well as myriad other recording and touring projects, the composer dubbed "the Cole Porter of his generation" by Time Out New York also regularly writes music for film, TV, and theater. The weekend before our interview, he presented a new minimusical at a broadcast of NPR's "This American Life" from the Brooklyn Academy of Music; not long before that, he performed a solo ukulele accompaniment to Todd Browning's 1927 silent The Unknown at the San Francisco Film Festival and did the music for choreographer Rashaun Mitchell's dance piece "Performance." Next, he's off to DJ and judge short films at the Provincetown Film Festival. Does the 49-year-old force of nature ever allow himself a day of rest? "Actually, I took a day off yesterday," he confesses. "I helped my friend bring his dog to the vet and I put all my CDs in alphabetical order. That was my relaxing day." Not exactly the kind of respite one equates with the rock-star life. But, then again, it's hard to picture the droll dean of snide indie snark lounging poolside or swinging a wedge out on the golf course.
Merritt was born in Yonkers and raised mainly in the Boston area by his single mother, a teacher and physical therapist. "When I was 23, we counted everything up," he recalls, "and by then, I had lived in 33 different places." He didn't meet his father, folk singer Scott Fagan, until just last year, at a screening of a documentary about Fagan's mentor, songwriter Doc Pomus. Merritt says the meeting was, predictably, "complicated." (Fagan, who composed the music for the pioneering 1968 Broadway rock opera "Soon," recently held a Kickstarter campaign to fund an album of covers of his son's songs.) "My mom was big on Shakespeare, and she exposed me to his plays as early as possible—not that they stuck with me," admits Merritt. "But I guess that's where I got my love of the theater and stage sets."
Moving around so much as a child unsurprisingly made it tough to forge friendships, especially for a natural outsider, and it was literature and music that became Merritt's closest early companions, the latter in particular. The Beach Boys and Phil Spector were formative heroes, for their sublime songs and arrangements. "The Beatles, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees ... I consider myself lucky to have grown up in an era in which you had all these bands with multiple singers and great songwriters," he says. Perhaps the most immediate influence on Merritt's brand of skewed-but-hummable pop was Abba. "As a composer, Irving Berlin is my model," offers the songwriter. "But, yes, as far as contemporary pop music goes, for me Abba is the pinnacle." It was the Nordic foursome that inspired him, at age 14, to begin making the four-track recordings with a cheap synthesizer that sowed the seeds of the lo-fi electro/chamber pop sound he eventually took to soaring heights with the Magnetic Fields, et al.