The Magnetic Fields Frontman Stephin Merritt on Lil Nas X, Long COVID, and the Legacy of ‘69 Love Songs’

“Papa Was a Rodeo” is regarded as one of the most beautiful songs on the record. I won’t use the “favorite” word, but do you hold it in similarly high esteem?

The first review I ever read of 69 Love Songs specified that not all 69 songs were worth listening to, for example, “there’s horrible country claptrap, like ‘Papa Was a Rodeo.’” In this reviewer’s mindset, all country music is terrible, and so the fact that I had dared to put something from such a terrible genre on the record showed my contempt for the audience.

There are daggers shooting out of my eyes at the thought of that.

That’s why country’s popular.

Especially now that Beyoncé is doing country.

And Lil Nas X.

The last track I wanted to ask you about was “100,000 Fireflies,” which is not on 69 Love Songs. I read in an interview published after her passing that vocalist Susan Anway said you told her, “Don’t sing like you know how,” which I thought was evocative. Did you use that approach for your side project The 6ths, in which you write for other vocalists? What appeals to you about letting the lyrics shine more than the emoting?

Well, I think when people are in a situation like The 6ths, they can be overly concerned with making the producer happy. Maybe they want to show off what they can do. I wanted to make sure that they were not showing off what they could do, but that they were singing as though this lyric were their daily lives. The songs on The 6ths records are describing characters. They’re mostly not describing cataclysmic events in the characters lives; they’re just describing their everyday life.

In the song “Dream Hat,” the character lives in a trailer park, but has discovered a magical hat. We don’t know if this is a metaphor or not. Generally, things are not metaphorical until you are told that they are, but you can always assume that they will mean something as though they were metaphorical by the end. I tried to keep “Dream Hat” literal, but I don’t know.

Mac McCaughan, who sang “Dream Hat,” can belt like nobody’s business, and I wanted him to just sing it straight. So I famously asked him to sing it as though he were bored, and I got good results with that. “Sing it like you’re bored” is really synonymous with “let the lyrics take care of the emoting.”

It works for me, certainly. I’m so excited about the 25th-anniversary tour. What’s your hope for the 50-year anniversary of 69 Love Songs?

I will be president at that point. I will be in my 80s, old enough to be president, and I will not have time to go on tour, but the technology will have changed and I can send my avatar on tour because that technology has already changed. ABBA have sent their avatars on tour. So we will be able to send our avatars on tour across the galaxy to all the various terraformed worlds that we will have instituted around Alpha Centauri.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Magnetic Fields are touring the U.S., the U.K., and Europe with a special two-night performance of 69 Love Songs from late March to November.

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