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He’s trying to weather L.A. 69 love songs to 50 musicals

Times Staff Writer

“What do you do about the morning sunlight?” Stephin Merritt asks, like a newcomer seeking advice from a local about earthquakes or some other native affliction.

Merritt knew he’d be dealing with this when he moved to L.A. from New York, and he does what he can to resist. His Los Feliz apartment is darkened by heavy curtains. When he parks his Mini Cooper after a short drive, he fits a foil-surfaced reflector inside the windshield. He picks the shadiest block for the walk to a bistro on Vermont.

But it’s one of the city’s unseasonably warm winter mornings, and a year and a half after relocating, he’s still squinting in the face of the inevitable.

“There’s so much sunlight here,” he says in his deep, droopy voice. Finally, he concedes a point. “It’s nice not to have to pay attention to the weather, I guess.”

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Merritt might be a grudging transplant, and as the owner of a Manhattan apartment he can claim bicoastal status, but he’s ours now, and like a museum’s acquisition of a coveted artwork, his presence has enhanced L.A.'s creative landscape, even if he stays pretty much out of sight.

He is, after all, one of indie-rock’s most acclaimed figures, with a hand in four different bands and a growing presence in the borderlands between pop and theater. “69 Love Songs,” a 1999 collection by his group the Magnetic Fields, was a watershed in indie annals, an audaciously ambitious three-CD panorama of pop vernaculars that opened new horizons for singer-songwriters toiling in the underground.

It finished at No. 2 in the Village Voice critics’ poll, and the success brought its reclusive auteur out from obscurity. He signed in 2002 with the Warner Bros.-distributed boutique label Nonesuch, where he’s in the company of such multifaceted artists as Randy Newman, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Brian Wilson.

Though he recently made an unlikely connection with Volvo for a TV commercial, he remains a cult artist with decidedly wary sights on bigger game.

“I feel like I’m approaching the mainstream in significant ways that I haven’t done before, and I don’t especially care whether they lead me more toward the mainstream or away from it, because I think the mainstream is always changing.” Merritt says.

“Who cares anyway? I don’t want to follow what I happen to think from moment to moment is the mainstream, and I’d probably be totally deluded about it anyway. I’m happy being halfway between being an art project and a commercial proposition.”

He thinks that “Distortion,” the Magnetic Fields’ just-released eighth album, has a potentially larger audience because it’s based on the aggressive sound of the relatively popular Jesus and Mary Chain. And he’s hoping that the musical “Coraline” will add a more accessible entry to his resume of stage collaborations when it opens off-Broadway, perhaps later this year

But Merritt’s Holy Grail, the reason he moved west, remains unclaimed.

“I wanted to be closer to Hollywood to help realize my dream of making 50 successful Hollywood musicals,” he says, drinking green tea at a table inside the cafe. That figure is a downward revision from the 100 that he was aiming for a few years ago, though it might still seem quixotic for a man of 42.

“That was before. Recently having worked on more than one musical at a time, I realized it’s better to write one musical a year. Fifty seems the right number.”

Fifty or 100, it starts with one, but after a year and a half, Merritt says he’s simply been too busy on other projects to make connections yet. At least he’s here, for what it’s worth.

“It’s really more about having the appearance of being accessible to the movie studios. Really, my [recording] studio could be anywhere, but apparently they like you to be nearby. I don’t know why. In New York no one cares.”

The multifaceted music man

MERRITT’S shrouded apartment is crammed with musical instruments and recording gear. Standing in front of a handmade clavichord, he wiggles a key to create a delicate, vibrato effect. He demonstrates a quick cadenza on a hammer zither and points out his new harp -- he just had his first lesson last night. A bass banjo leans against a wall, and in his bedroom is a pile of ukulele cases.

Add synthesizers and you have the ingredients of Merritt’s oeuvre, which sprawls across a vast musical topography.

As the Gothic Archies, Merritt applies his “goth-rock bubble gum” to catchy, macabre ditties illustrating the 13-volume set of novels “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” whose author, Lemony Snicket, is Merritt’s friend and frequent accordion accompanist Daniel Handler.

Future Bible Heroes, his teaming with singer Claudia Gonson and DJ/producer Chris Ewen, makes evocative electronic pop, while the two albums by the 6ths put pop-leaning songs in the hands of assorted vocalists, including Bob Mould, Gary Numan, Melanie and Odetta.

On his own, Merritt has scored two independent films, “Pieces of April” and “Eban and Charlie,” and written music and songs for three musical theater pieces directed by Chen Shi-Zheng: “The Orphan of Zhao,” “Peach Blossom Fan” (which played at Disney Hall’s REDCAT in 2004) and “My Life as a Fairy Tale.”

With playwright David Greenspan, he’s closing in on the final stages of a musical adaptation of “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman’s Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning young-adult fantasy novel.

Whether balancing the gravitas of his verse and voice against cheesy synth-pop or framing his theatrical exposition in folk-rooted formalism, Merritt’s music is unfailingly catchy and propulsive, reflecting his fondness for such acts as Kraftwerk, Phil Spector and ABBA.

“There’s a range of feelings and emotions that he’s very successful at musicalizing,” notes Greenspan. “He’s very witty . . . and he has a wonderful sense of language.

“He can write witty songs and charming songs, but he can also write songs that are much more emotionally naked. There’s a great variety to both the technical and emotional palette he works with.”

Merritt doesn’t consider any of his outlets a side project, but the Magnetic Fields is clearly the centerpiece, the project that releases records most frequently and gets out on the road. The band’s shows at the Music Box @ the Fonda on March 2and 3 quickly sold out.

The new “Distortion” is another abrupt change of direction, a collection of typically wry, often bawdy lyrics set this time to a sound that was painstakingly designed to hover on the brink of perpetual feedback. It’s virtually the mirror image of 2004’s “i,” a set of soft-rock songs whose titles all begin with the title letter.

“I can’t do any one thing really well except write songs, so I don’t feel married to any particular genre,” Merritt says, explaining his penchant for stylistic costume changes. “So I need to marry a genre before I can do a coherent album. So we keep switching what that is.

“But for me that feels normal, because growing up in the ‘70s that’s what people did -- 1977, we’ll go disco; 1978, oops we missed punk, we’ll go punk; 1979, we’ll have slap bass. I grew up thinking David Bowie was the norm.”

Merritt hardly seems like someone who could keep up this prolific pace. A tortoise in a world of hustling hares, he moves and speaks with painstaking deliberation. But you know what they say about appearances.

“He’s full of ideas and full of creative energy,” says Greenspan. “He’s very spirited about the way he works. . . . He does have that low-key, almost curmudgeonly aspect at times, but he’s always entered into the work with a sense of energy.”

A master of self-editing

Merritt does seem to take a quiet pleasure in that droll persona, a dry wit in the spirit of urbane humorist Robert Benchley, channeled through “Winnie-the-Pooh’s” morose Eeyore.

Sitting in the cafe, he’ll consider a question in silence for long moments, then deliver an elegantly designed reply.

On the topic of being a gay man writing for a general audience, for instance:

“In the lyrics, there’s only so much intimate detail that heterosexual audiences can put up with. So even if I were autobiographically inclined, I don’t think I would go very far into details. Fortunately for me, I’m not at all autobiographically inclined, and when I put autobiography into my songs I’m generally joking.”

Merritt says that he has been in long-term relationships, but cuts himself short.

“I don’t discuss details of my romantic life. Whenever I do at all, I regret it as soon as it gets into print. It’s amazing how that works. As we all know from reading the tabloids, nothing kills a relationship as quickly as writing about it.”

Merritt, dressed in shades of brown from his leather-billed baseball cap to hard-sole moccasins, says he has lots of friends that he’s too busy to see. If he seems comfortable as a loner, it might be chalked up to his formative years -- he grew up in the Boston area as the only child of a single mother.

“We moved around all the time,” he says, summarizing his childhood as “up and down.”

“I was a sickly kid. Fortunately, I was also perfectly happy being on my own.”

That’s where he finds himself now, on the opposite coast and in the sole company of his Chihuahua Irving, adjusting on the fly.

He enjoys excursions to the Amoeba record store, but doesn’t go to many music shows because of a serious ear problem (one that adds to his distaste for touring). He finds it hard to replace New York’s gay bars as a place to write, with their daytime hours and thumping disco music. Mostly, he feels a little lost -- literally.

“Well, I don’t know where anything is. I have a GPS system, but . . . I think that Los Angeles should be enlarged to swallow all of the surrounding towns, and everything should be put on a grid.

“I understand why the hills are not grids, so they look like spaghetti on the map. But everything else should be on a grid. With numbered streets. . . . Like New York.”

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richard.cromelin@latimes.com


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