New York Stephin Merritt usually has a song cycling through his head. Makes sense, given that he's one of the more captivating and eclectic singer-songwriters around, heading such bands as The Magnetic Fields and The 6ths and creating music for movies, Chinese opera adaptations and the Lemony Snicket audio books.
But Merritt's inner soundtrack doesn't always live up to his creative output. During an interview, for example, it was Peter, Paul and Mary's "Lemon Tree."
"So, you could see why I'd want to have other music playing while I write," Merritt offered, explaining his creative process with a sad little smile. "I certainly don't want to write a song like "Lemon Tree" and then have to sing it. What if it's really good and I have to sing it for decades? What if it's a hit, and I have to sing it every day for decades?"
Such are the perils of popular music. Others include too much time in airports and unsolicited demos from "pathetic but cute" teenagers. Having just toured Europe and North America following the spring release of the Fields' latest album, "i," Merritt has had to confront plenty of both.
The album marks the band's first on Nonesuch, home to such pop luminaries as Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson and Wilco. After more than a decade with Merge Records, the quartet (with Sam Davol, Claudia Gonson and John Woo on a variety of hand-played string instruments) has signed a two-album deal with Warner Bros. Records.
"I think of Stephin as one of the great songwriters of his era," said David Bither, senior vice president at Nonesuch. "They have that singular voice we're always looking for. It was an easy marriage."
The synthesizer-free "i" is the follow up to 1999's "69 Love Songs," a three-disc set that greatly expanded the band's non-mainstream fan base and earned near-universal adoration from critics for its variety-style blend of genres and for Merritt's ingenious lyrics. A sample from "I Don't Want to Get Over You," on the first album: "I could dress in black and read Camus / smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth / like I was 17 / that would be a scream / but I don't want to get over you."
Merritt enjoys concepts and parodies, and "i" combines both. All 14 songs begin with the letter "i," a silly concept that gave Merritt writing parameters and allowed him to poke fun at the ludicrous task he set himself in writing 69 songs about love.
The reviews were favorable, but did not match the reception given "69 Love Songs."
"I was aware that every review was going to begin, 'It's no "69 Love Songs," but...'" Merritt said. "I was expecting a bigger backlash -- I didn't realize that the backlash was going to be against me, rather than the music."
Merritt has not had an easy time of it in the press, with adjectives running the gamut from "intimidating" to "rude." Some of this Merritt blames on writers not wanting to be seen as gushing. If they attack him, he reasons, they're free to wax rhapsodic about his music.
But he also cites some singularly incompetent interviewers, such as a woman whose nervous tic caused her to trail off midway through her sentences, leaving Merritt guessing at the questions.
"She would trail off literally at the ends of sentences in which she was trying to explain that she wanted not to trail off at the ends of sentences," Merritt remembered. "She was very nervous, which is completely forgivable. It's just difficult to come off as a kind, unintimidating, generous, intelligent interviewee under those circumstances."
On this day, battling a pernicious cold picked up on tour, Merritt was subdued but engaged. Swathed in baseball cap, puffy jacket and lumpy brown scarf, he mused on topics ranging from trying not to appear original in popular music to how many times one could hang out in a hotel lobby before being thrown out.
A slight man with dark, intense eyes, a winsome smile and wickedly low-key sense of humor, Merritt is not so much ungenerous as transparently weary of having to deal with the same silly questions ad nauseam (ask "Why '69 Love Songs'?" if you really want to ruin his day).
"Stephin is not socially gregarious," bandmate Gonson said. "His voice is very low and his hearing is spotty and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. But he's an absolutely lovely person."
That's true when it comes to apologizing to the tape recorder after a particularly loud cough or fondly remembering Fred Flintstone vitamins -- but ask Merritt if he considers himself a romantic, and you're in for it.
"What do you people mean when you ask me that?" came the exasperated response after a longer-than-usual pause. "I don't know. It's not part of my world view."
O.K., but it's everywhere in his songs, for which Merritt writes all the parts. He favors singers and musicians with "conversational" approaches -- no pyrotechnics to obscure his sophisticated blend of wit and emotion, as Merritt manipulates pop music troupes and cliches to delicious effect.
In "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin," he sets playfully nasty lyrics, delivered in his deadpan voice, against a yearning melody: "My evil twin would lie and steal / And he would stink of sex appeal / All men would writhe / Beneath his scythe."
"In theater it's a cliche that the second song of every musical is an 'I Wish' song," Merritt explained. "I probably wrote with that in mind, because I was thinking of doing a musical about dopplegangers, an adaptation of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers."'
At another point in the conversation, while discussing "Lemon Tree," he pointed to the "war film cliche of a quiet, irrelevant song playing during a scene of violence."
Merritt embraces such off-the-wall cliches.
"Part of the advantage of being hideously, cripplingly self-conscious is that I feel free to use cliches, rather than feeling compelled to seek out original expression," he explained. "The quandary in popular music is more about how to sound enough like other people that it is popular music ... while still making something identifiably new."