Fashion-wise, Stephin Merritt has long adhered to a wardrobe stocked with hues of brown.
Aside from its practical advantages as a colour and the fact that it matches his beloved dogs, there is an emotional component, too.
“I wear brown because it doesn’t commit me to any particular mood,” he said. “Brown can mean anything; I can be festive or glum or do abrupt transitions.”
Listening to many of the tracks on the latest Magnetic Fields release, the sprawling five-disc 50 Song Memoir, Merritt’s dry humour and restless creativity comes through and his preference for surprising sonic transitions is evident.
His music collection, he says, is the most important part of his life. From Patsy Cline to Joni Mitchell, Dick Schory to Roxy Music, these acts have all been vital parts of his musical education.
In particular, ELO’s 1977 album Out of the Blue and the song ‘Wild West Hero’ elucidated key songwriting concepts to him.
“It was an album of pastiches where you know ELO is imitating The Kinks or Herman’s Hermits, you always know that you’re hearing quotations ... but for me there are several songs on the album I can’t hear without crying.
“I have known since the day I bought it [the album] that clichés are clichés because they work,” Merritt says with only the slightest hint of cynicism.
“The way to make people cry is to combine two different things that [the listener] wasn’t expecting to hear together, but those two things can be completely clichés.”
"‘Wild West Hero’, he says, “goes back and forth from country and Gershwin.
“It has a little of everything in it … it’s like a little MGM musical with a dream ballet.”
It’s indicative of a diverse sounding record, he says.
“It’s a Shakespearean sweep where you feel like you’ve learned a little about humanity in every context. There’s lawyers and doctors, peasants and kings – a little view of the world,” Merritt says about Out of The Blue.
“’In Wild West Hero’, I understood that I was hearing something to do with country music and wasn’t country music ... it was about country music.
“A novel is a story with something wrong with it. ‘Wild West Hero’ is definitely a story with something wrong with it and you’re supposed to pay attention to the demented part, not just the country part. You are definitely hearing a story about wishing you were a wild west hero, but there’s a sense of how ridiculous that wish is,” he says.
“Maybe part of the fantasy is that there are cameras rolling; you want to be a wild west hero in the movie, but really you want to be not on the screen. You want to be on the movie set. You might be allergic to the real tumbleweeds.”
There’s a sense of exploring where reality and fantasy clash, and if one is more valid or authentic than the other.
Part of his connection with this song is his tendency to question the state of things.
He puts this down to his upbringing within what he has referred to as a “cult”, with much of the first disc of his 50 Song Memoir dedicated to those early childhood years.
‘I’ve spent my life rebelling against my mother’s hippie sincerity,” he says.
“My mother actually believed things her guru said. I thought it was such a load of crap, I was against that sort of thing from a young age. If someone is telling you that one thing is true, my reaction is generally, ‘Oh, is it? Is that the only thing that’s true about this situation? Could you describe the same phenomena differently?’”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Stephin Merritt on Don't Look Back.