I‘m patterning my life after Claudia Gonson. Claudia is the vocalistpiano player, drummermanager, co-conspirator and female husband to the great composer Stephin Merritt (spelled almost the same way as Steppin Fetchit, but pronounced Steven) of the miraculous New York City–based musical ensemble the Magnetic Fields. Claudia reminds me of a young Katharine Hepburn channeling the sexy body of Jennifer Connelly. She’s a dynamo, acting as overseer of all the business aspects of Stephin Merritt Enterprises, which includes his other musical manifestations the 6ths, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes.
The pair recently wound up a U.S. tour here in Los Angeles, where their performances of songs from their epic and highly lauded triple-CD set, 69 Love Songs, turned into the artistic and social event of the season. I welcomed Claudia‘s bustling energy as she shepherded the handsome, diminutive Mr. Merritt into my studio lair. They were both warm, funny and in a gracious mood. My friend UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle (who along with Claudia shares noted scholar Eve Sedgewick as a mentor) provided the sumptuous minifeast that helped us get through the evening’s vigorous chittle-chattle . . .
L.A. Weekly: What are the origins of the Magnetic Fields?
Claudia Gonson: We originally formed without Stephin. We were a cover band for Stephin Merritt‘s songs called the Wayward Bus.
Stephin Merritt: How I got to be a singer I’ll never know.
CG: Stephin didn‘t like performing. We had this concert at a Harvard dorm and I sang.
SM: I didn’t go.
CG: Everybody was miserable. We all cried. I brought Stephin to the next rehearsal and he said we were horrible, so I said, ”You‘d better institute yourself as the ringleader, because I don’t know what I‘m doing,“ and the rest is history.
Stephin, it’s obvious to me that you were a musical prodigy, creating songs in the womb. Have you ever wanted to do anything else?
SM: I thought I was going to be Walt Disney and operate theme parks and movie studios.
You‘ll segue into that later. I foresee you writing and producing a film musical that will be far better than anything ever released during the MGM heyday of the Arthur Freed Unit.
CG: We’re actually working on a musical film.
SM: 69 Love Songs may become a stage revue, but I‘m writing a film musical with Daniel Handler, the novelist, and our accordion player. The film will be called The Song From Venus. It’s a science-fiction love story about a record from Venus that invades the Earth and makes people fall in love.
I can‘t wait. Do you have a director lined up?
SM: Oh, maybe Tim Burton, or Paul Verhoeven.
Just make sure it’s not Joel Schumacher. As an Armaggedonist, I appreciate the grandiosity of your music. Do you see it as grand?
CG: The poetry of Stephin for me is more ”not with a bang, but a whimper.“
SM: Big dreams, little legs. You can take the songs literally or figuratively. Take them literally and they are gigantic and grandiose: ”Grand pianos crash together when my boy walks down the street.“
The images stay with you like an acid burn. I love it when you two both sing together, even if Claudia just sings a little bit in the background, punctuating. The way your voices scratch and bite at each other on some of the tunes is just delightful. I also love Stephin‘s sex-man voice, it’s so butch.
SM: Yeah!!! [In a heavy basso] I have the voice that people imitate on phone-sex lines.
CG: Courtney Love brought Chris Rock to our show after they‘d been to a black church. She promised Chris that she’d take him to the whitest show he‘d ever seen, and they succeeded.
I guess Chris Rock and I were the only black people in the audience. But I think your show is very soulful.
CG: I do too, actually. It’s a marketing problem . . .
I find it insulting that you‘re lumped in with tired indie rock. That era is ovah . . . At the end of your El Rey evening you were serving some fierce Judy P. Garland soul, ”I Could Go On Singing“–style. It was very dear.
SM: I love Judy; she could stand there looking pathetic and your heart would go out to her. I hate Mickey Rooney; I wish he and Judy never made a movie together. He had beautiful hair and he was incredibly sexy, but as soon as he opens his mouth, I can’t stand it.
You take ”prolific“ places it‘s never been. What is your writing process like?
SM: While writing 69 Love Songs I had a three-songs-a-day quota, which I always filled successfully. Most of the songs came out well, a few of them didn’t, and I had to throw them away. Generally I edit them a little bit later, and if the music isn‘t quite up to snuff, I might keep the lyric and change the music or the other way around. My main activity is sitting alone and writing songs, so it’s easy for me to be prolific.
I don‘t like quiet when I’m writing songs. I like to be in a bar or cafe. There has to be music on — a jukebox playing. The Dick Bar in the East Village is good for that, because no one bothers you there. The problem with me is that my whole purpose in going out to a bar is to be alone — to hear the music and not hang out with friends. At this point I know everyone at Dick‘s Bar, so I do more talking than writing, so I have to find a new place.
That’s going to be hard in the East Village. Have you tried the Phoenix Bar?
SM: I know everyone there too.
That‘s why you have to have a place in L.A., and be bicoastal like the late, great Peter Allen. You need a residence in Biarritz, and Barcelona.
SM: I don’t have to worry about anyone ever talking to me in Barcelona.
People are mean in Barcelona.
SM: I like that.