Stephin Merritt's new solo album Showtunes is a collection of twenty-six songs written for three shows: The Orphan of Zhao, written by the Yuan Dynasty playwright Ji Juanxiang, circa 1330, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, with a book by David Greenspan and music and lyrics by Merritt and premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in July, 2003; Peach Blossom Fan, written in 1699 by Kung Shang-Ren, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, with a book by Edward Mast, and music and lyrics by Merritt and premiered at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theatre in Los Angeles on April 9th, 2004 and My Life as a Fairy Tale, co-produced by the Lincoln Center Festival and the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, with a book by Erik Ehn and music and lyrics by Merritt. Although the complete recordings for each show are available as digital downloads, there are only a selection from each on Showtunes, mainly chosen because they can be listened to out of context. I spoke to Merritt about this album, The Magnetic Fields, and his other bands, which he is keen for the world to know are emphatically not side-projects. |
SM: Can you tell that there are bloody footprints on the CD sleeve? I'm not sure people can tell what that is.
There's a reference to that in the lyrics, isn't there? The drops of blood to dye each thread?
Uh, no...that's from My Life as a Fairytale. There's blood in all three shows, but there's a lot of blood in The Orphan of Zhao. Three hundred people get killed.
Not on stage, anyway...
I was wondering how Chinese theatre of that era (circa 1330) compares to say, Greek tragedy?
It's more close to the circus. They don't really have tragedy in the circus, now do they? Even what seems like a full-ahead tragedy like The Orphan of Zhao they would have zany interludes and martial arts demonstrations and food being served throughout the performance completely disregarding what might be happening on stage. People talk and go to sleep and talk to each other and see who else is there.
How long would these shows last?
[Sighs] Many hours. They generally took place at festivals. People wander in and out and everyone knows the plots. A new play written would tend to be based on a story people knew. I don't know how much that is true of Greek tragedy, I guess it's partly true but...um...obviously the histories...but it's certainly true of Shakespeare; almost all of his stories are being reused wholesale rather than being cobbled together.
I suppose with Greek tragedies audiences would be familiar with certain situations or how figures had been represented before. An audience going to see Euripides' Helen, for example, would have knowledge of Helen's situation and how she's being used here?
So what's the source material with the Chinese plays?
A mix of history and myth, I guess. Like where does Tristan and Isolde come from?
I don't know. I am definitely not a scholar of Chinese theatre. I've read one history of Chinese theatre. It was three years ago and I don't remember all that much. The interesting thing I remember is that they didn't have what we would call "the straight plays" until they had them in imitation of Western theatre. They actually grew out of performances of Western plays. What we would call straight plays they would call boring plays [laughs.] Where's the music? Where's the martial arts demonstrations? Where's the dancing? Where's the fire-eating? Fireworks?
Well, then, given that you're not a scholar of Chinese theatre, what drew you to write the music for these two stage versions of Chinese plays?
Um...my experience of theatre before I started doing these was-- my experience of opera is really almost entirely Brecht and Weill. Neither my mother nor I never cared particularly for eighteenth and nineteenth century Western opera. And in school... I did a lot of theatre in high school but it was a very theatre of the absurd-orientated theatre department. Very. [laughs.] I'm only just now learning about mainstream, traditional Western theatre. And musicals. In the last few years I've been collecting Hollywood musicals on DVD and I don't know that much. I haven't known them. I didn't grow up with them at all. And I've been trying to go to Broadway plays and such. The Hollywood musicals are startlingly better than the Broadway plays. And so much cheaper.
Your song "The Little Hebrew Girl" from My Life as a Fairy Tale, the musical about Hans Christian Andersen that makes up a third of this Showtunes album seems to have some references to "The Little Match Girl." But the song's not based on that story is it?
No. We also did "The Little Match Girl" [on the extended, downloadable version]. "The Little Hebrew Girl" is based on Hans Christian Andersen's story which gets translated different ways... I don't think it was ever "The Little Jewess." Anyway, there's an incredibly patronising...um...yet not exactly anti-Semitic attitude towards Judaism in the story. In fact, she's buried near the churchyard where she can hear the bells announcing the resurrection and we hope that in her grave she will convert before the resurrection. I think Christianity is at least as stupid as Judaism and I'm happy to send both of them up in the same song.
You've mentioned looking at Hollywood musicals. Did you look at the Danny Kaye version of Hans Christian Andersen?
[sighing deeply] Shi-Zheng wanted to have "Wonderful Copenhagen" playing in the lobby as people wandered in and I had to actually say "I will not do this show if you do that." He kept bringing it up and bringing it up and bringing it up and I kept saying "I'm actually going to take my name off this show if you do that. I don't care if it's two days before the show and you still want that. No! I will take the music back. I will retract it."
Why was it so important to him to play that song?
He thought it was hilarious.
The song was hilarious, or your reaction was hilarious?
No, he thought it would be hilarious if we had this incredibly stupid song...it's really a terrible song. I think Frank Loesser is a genius for Guys and Dolls, but Hans Christian Andersen is a terrible show. A terrible movie. People seem to love those incredibly stupid songs.
What do you think of Andersen as a writer?
Um...weird, demented genius. Trying to write lyrical equivalents to some of those stories, I discovered I couldn't out-weird Hans Christian Andersen, so I decided not to try.
I think that's true. Something like "The Little Match Girl" is.
Yeah, the whole story is a little girl freezes to death because she doesn't want to go home and be beaten by her father. Period. The end. And she hallucinates her grandmother taking her away.
Bruno Bettelheim wrote that identifying with that story would drive any child to utter pessimism and defeatism.
I have cried at the end of "The Little Match Girl" twenty times. It's pretty wrenching.
Following on from that, I wanted to ask you about your music for the Lemony Snicket books and the stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline.
I'm almost finished with the Lemony Snicket.
So how have you found that?
I just fell off the couch. What?
What attracted you to those books?
Oh, I was actually in on that project before the books came out. I've done all of the music for all of the audiobooks. Daniel played accordion on 69 Love Songs before the first of those books came out. So I knew him as the author of adult novels...not adult novels, but not children's books. Um, Coraline, the Neil Gaiman one is coming along, but unfortunately we've just started doing a completely different interpretation of it so we may be completely back to square one. It seemed to have been coming along until a few days ago.
What happened a few days ago?
Uh, I woke up one morning with a really different approach.
Is that an occupational hazard of writing songs to fit a concept? If the concept changes, all the songs have to change instead of just one?
Well, it doesn't usually happen as drastically as it may be happening now.
Is that something you can talk about?
Well, I can't talk about what the concept is without an hour long interview. Uh...[sighs deeply]...previously I've worked with a director and a producer and a whole crew of actors workshopping so there may be big changes like one of the actors is going to speak only in Chinese. But not...um...this is really a radio play, and we're not going to have anything happen on stage. Because I'm only working with the writer we're free to make these drastic changes that force us to start all over again.
Is that with Neil Gaiman?
No, it's with David Greenspan who's...and it's all my fault, because I thought of all the changes.
Do you think about the actors when you're writing songs for them?
Um...yes. If I know a song is going to be sung by someone who doesn't speak English very well, someone with a Chinese accent for example, I try not to have words that have Rs and Ls right next to each other and that kind of thing. And not too many consonants in a row.
Are those restrictions inhibiting or do they open up new creative territory?
Both. I thought Qian Yi was very brave for singing "The Little Hebrew Girl" and her English has come along shockingly well, it's amazing. I know people who have lived in New York all their lives who are totally unintelligible and Qian Yi has lived in New York for four years and went from being completely unintelligible to sounding like an educated speaker. With a strong accent, but her vocabulary is fantastic. [Sighs.] Smarter than she looks.
I've read that DJing is important to you. Does that affect how you write songs?
It hasn't yet. I've being DJing bubblegum and psychedelic rock from 1965 to 1972, basically. That really hasn't shown up very much. Certainly not on Showtunes. Somewhat on the new Gothic Archies album. I have a little backward vocal in one song.
Will you be checking out the Gothic exhibition at the Tate while you're here?
No, I'm going to go see Billy Elliot tonight.
When's the next Magnetic Fields album due?
Probably early next year. I'm going to start recording it in the next few months or so.
Will that be another concept-driven album?
I don't know.
What about the other side-projects?
[with mock outrage] Side-projects?
Sorry, what should I call them?
I expect the Gothic Archies to sell better than 69 Love Songs.
So you don't see them as side-projects?
In fact, they've already sold better than 69 Love Songs because they're on the audio books of the Lemony Snicket series. I don't know how well audio books sell in proportion to print books but I assume they sell hundreds of thousands of copies in a book series that's that popular, which sells in their millions or tens of millions. So I feel Magnetic Fields are about to become the side-project to the Gothic Archies.
You laugh now, but that's probably what's going to happen. It would be nice if people would stop using the word "side-project."
Why does the word "side-project" upset you so much?
It's just weird for me to have people take the Magnetic Fields more seriously than all the other things I do when for me they're exactly the same process. And it's not the other Magnetic Fields that people seem to be taking seriously, it's me. The other Magnetic Fields' work in the Magnetic Fields is shockingly underrated, in fact. It certainly isn't them...isn't they...that other people are making that distinction about. It's simply the name "The Magnetic Fields."
And for that matter, it's really 69 Love Songs...all other Magnetic Fields albums would be characterised in the side-project.
Right. How did you feel about the way Pieces of April turned out?
Um...hmmm [sighs]. I only have Eban and Charlie to compare it with, and I'm much happier with the way they used my music in Pieces of April. The music that I made for Eban and Charlie was very targeted to specific shots and shot-lengths and it all got rearranged in ways that I thought made things corny that weren't supposed to be corny which I thought was kind of a disaster to the extent that I would say the movie was a lot better before the music was put on. It actually made it more boring... out of the intended context suddenly the movie was cornier. Whereas in Pieces of April the director and I agreed on where the music was going to go and for how long and we worked together and apparently that's a good idea.
Closer to your work for the stage?
Yes. Actually being in the same room with the director agreeing on what was happening was a good idea.
Are you going to work with Shi-Zheng again?
Well, he seems to be working with Damon Albarn. Gorillaz, in fact. A stage play based on the Chinese novel Monkey, translated here by Arthur Waley. It's a great, great book. I don't know whether I would've done that if he asked me, because I don't know if I'd have had time while doing six albums and a musical [Showtunes, The Orphan of Zhao, Peach Blossom Fan, My Life as a Fairy Tale, all extracted on Showtunes; Coraline; the Gothic Archies and the Magnetic Fields] all in different stages. But I'm eager to see this.