Stephin Merritt


“Everything pleasurable takes a toll on the sense with which you apprehend it.”
Triggers for Stephin Merritt’s hyperacusis:
Babies screaming
Drunk women laughing
Acid-house music
This one cocktail-jazz solo

When Stephin Merritt arrived at my apartment, a three-story walk-up, he wheezed for several minutes, too breathless and speechless to introduce himself. He seemed nonplussed by the effort that the situation required of him. He drank a glass of water, set down his shoulder bag, used the bathroom, and when he was ready to talk, we began.

Merritt is notorious for his calcified, curmudgeonly temperament, one suited more to a hermetic Victorian writer than a beloved touring musician such as himself. In photos, he wears a long, dour face; in interviews, he critiques the questions asked of him; and all the while his fan base remains enamored by his disposition and its delightful musical reflection.

Pop music is often a reflection of the artist’s persona, and its songwriting is often confessional—or at least expressive—but Merritt keeps a keen emotional distance from his subject matter. He deflates sentimentality with pessimism and deflects wallowing with an unrefined, nonchalant vocal style that hints at but never indulges in sardonicism. His droll lyrics and lilting, addictively satisfying melodies recall older generations of popular music, when musical theater was the form and composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin filled their songs with winking humor and charming romance. He is a master of the American song form.

His primary group, the Magnetic Fields, plays in a variety of musical styles, including peppy synthesizer dance tunes, chamber pop, and lugubrious ballads, on which Merritt usually strums a ukulele. The group is best known for its 170-minute album 69 Love Songs, which Merritt has described as “an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.” He’s also written for film, musicals (including the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline), commercials, and an accompaniment to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. His most recent project, a book of poems, 101 Two-Letter Words (with illustrations by Roz Chast), serves as a mnemonic aid for avid Scrabble players, such as himself, who struggle to remember that qi and za are valid, high-scoring options.

When I have seen Merritt perform live, I have often noticed him plugging his ears during the audience’s applause. At first, the gesture seemed like another expression of his misanthropic facade, but I later learned that it serves to dampen the resonating feedback of hyperacusis, a rare, deteriorative condition of the ear. We discussed his hearing, reading, and songwriting when Merritt visited me from his current home, in upstate New York.

—Ross Simonini

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Ross Simonini is an artist, writer, and musician living in New York. He is the interviews editor of the Believer and the executive producer of KCRW's the Organist. His website is

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