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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

New Magnetic Fields Album Is A Stephin Merritt Memoir

Marcelo Krasilcic
Nonesuch Records
Stephin Merritt is lead singer, songwriter and producer of The Magnetic Fields.

The Magnetic Fields formed in 1989 in the Boston area. Their seminal CD, 69 Love Songs, made them the darlings of rock critics a decade later. The band is fronted by lead singer, songwriter and producer Stephin Merritt, who lived for awhile in Vermont as a child.

Two years ago, Merritt turned 50 and was challenged to write a song for each year of his life. The resulting new album, 50 Song Memoir, includes the song "'78: The Blizzard of '78" in which Merritt tells of a time when he and his mother lived at Karmê Chöling, a Shambhala Buddhist retreat in Barnet, Vermont.

The song recounts the devastation of the storm, but also Merritt's musical pursuits during this time.  The lyrics detail the creation of a band by some of the children, naming the mix of instruments being played – guitar, tambourine, even tin cans.

As far as the sound quality of the kids' band? These lyrics provide some insight: "We called ourselves The Black Widows / We weren't the last nor the first / But we were almost certainly by far the worst."

And "'78: The Blizzard of '78" sounds cacophonous and discordant as it evokes the sounds of that memory being described.

"It's maddeningly repetitive, played on a somewhat out-of-tune electric dulcimer, which is basically a cigar box guitar with only three strings, with the electrical connection close to shorting out – at one point it does short out – and a particularly trashy sounding rhythm unit that simulates the sound of a 12-year-old banging on tin cans," Merritt says of the song.

Despite the kind of "mish-mash" sound, Merritt says it wasn't an improvised recording.

"It's a set of cultivated accidents that are herded into some simulacrum of intentionality," he explains. "I mean, I'm not improvising. But I am playing at the edge of replicability."

Merritt recalls that his mother was in Boston during the blizzard – she had moved down to the city and the storm's impact delayed Merritt from joining her. The blizzard also occurred during the second period of his life that he had been living in Vermont.

"I lived in Vermont twice, in the same place," he explains. "I lived there in 1974 when it was called Tail of the Tiger, and then again in 1977 to ['78], when it was called Karmê Chöling, which it still is."

Merritt doesn't have particularly fond memories of his time at public school during his first stay in the state.

"We were learning by rote, and we were learning all in a group, and there was no individual instruction whatsoever," he recalls. "It was basically 19th-century teaching techniques … Some people would have loved that, but I had been in hippie, progressive schools where it was all about basically playing with the teacher one on one.

"So for me, it was like a horror movie version of school. I'd probably like it now, but at the time I was very oppressed by it. And then for recess we would go out in the yard and do calisthenics, which I really couldn't do – still can't do. I don't understand how people manage to do jumping jacks, for example."

When he was back in Vermont for the second time, Merritt says the private school he attended this time around was "more hippie – but not as hippie as I was used to."

Now with 50 Song Memoir completed, Merritt says he hopes to turn his attention to the stage.

"There are some musicals that I want to finish and other ones that I want to start, so what I'm looking forward to right now is working on musical theater," he says.

Update 4:45 p.m. 05/02/2017: The copy of this web post was edited and expanded from its originally published version.

Listen to the song and the Vermont Edition interview with Merritt above. Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Monday, May 1, 2017.

Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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