Tag: memory

"I chose the Oprah story"

Stephin Merritt by Marcelo Krasilcic

Stephin Merritt, the mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields, is not a man of many words. And yet, his new album tells the story of his entire life. A conversation about false memories, big post-its and Kate Bush.
As the title indicates, your new album 50 Song Memoir is not just an album but also your autobiography. Each one of the songs mirrors one year in your life. I must admit, I was quite stunned to hear that the least autobiographical person in the music business is about to release one.
I am not the least autobiographical person in music.
So who is?
Kate Bush. Unless she actually robs banks.
Like in her song There goes a Tenner
Or was trapped under ice. But I doubt that. It’s not an experience most people survive.
So this album …
…I wonder what she does all day long … what is her personal life like? I hope she writes a memoir. A song memoir maybe. Like mine. Maybe it becomes a thing. I hope so.
I wonder why musicians would go and write an actual book memoir when they could just do it through music. Why would they choose another medium for this?
[long pause] I don’t know. I did it. But it took some convincing. I would have never done it if my record label would not have suggested it to me – not a chance.
Because it is not something you would have come up with or did you need outside confirmation that it is a good idea?
Both maybe. I think I have a very boring life. All musicians do once they become famous and turn 21. The whole thing is more just a frame for me to work with. It was the same with 69 Love Songs. I mean who wants to listen to 69 love songs?
Was your life more exciting before you became a musician?
Of course. It was more unique.
Because life as a musician always follows the same patterns?
You record, you go on tour, you come home, you break up, you start writing about the break-up, you record, you tour. You miss Canada, you write a song about missing Canada in the middle of which you realize you are actually re-writing White Christmas which is about missing New York. It’s a cliché of a cliché.
You mean Joni Mitchell’s River.
Yes. It’s an example of how being away on tour makes you miss home and then you realize that it is the same for every musician. Touring is an essential part of our life and other people don’t have a clue about it. So what’s the point of writing about it? I spend so much time in airports, I practically live there.
Would you do another song memoir? Like a follow-up?
[pause] 100 song memoir is going to be the next. 75 is too soon.
Have you read Grace Jones’ memoir?
No, I have it but I deliberately made sure to not read any biography-related stuff during the making of this record. When I’m finished with this tour and have nothing to do, I will gladly take it up and read.
Are records not by definition biographical? Lyrics do not form in a vacuum but often reflect situations you lived through.
Your musical taste is in there too. Being influenced by music from your past is also biographical in a way. Every song is autobiographical because it reveals what you want to hear. Unless you just want to make money. There was a rumour in the 90s that Madonna does not like her own stuff and is actually just a funk fan. I hope that is not true because it sounds very bleak.
Listening to the record, I noticed that there are quite a lot of musical references, but none regarding your own music. There is no song about recording an album or things like that. Why?
[Long Pause] There are a lot of things I did not write about. I did not want to write about the other people in the band. I also feel that so much has been written about us already, that I saw no need to add anything. There were more interesting issues.
Like what?
In 1999, our album 69 Love Songs came out. But it was also the year I was put in contact with my real father for the first time. So for 1999 I chose to write about that and do the song Fathers in the clouds. The album had more impact on my life but is it also the better song? I was 34 years old and had never met my father. There is more emotion in that. I basically chose the Oprah Winfrey story. The human interest story always beats the Wikipedia story. It’s the same with other bands. There are no songs about the experience of making or even listening to Pet Sounds or Revolver. You wouldn’t want that to become a thing.
I would.
[Pause] A genre of songs that are actually record reviews. It is a good idea, yes.
Some songs of the record are pretty straight forward but others, I am completely clueless or at least puzzled about.
Which ones?
Judy Garland for example. I know what it is about, but you were four years old and probably not able to understand the significance of Judy Garlands death and the Stonewall riots.
True. The song is actually more about us trying to get to Woodstock and being stuck in traffic. But of course Garlands death and Stonewall became significant to me much later and so I wanted to incorporate it.
Some of these songs are based completely on personal memory, others draw from collective memory …
…my memories from when I was four years old would not fill the lines of a 200-words-song.
Have you seen it in the snow? Is an interesting one because it’s 2001 and it’s New York but it sort of leaves out the big event: 9/11.
That song I actually wrote in 2001. It is an artefact from that year. The same is true for Ethan Frome which is a song from 1988.
Memory is something we use to make sense of the past and to learn for the present and future. Have you reached any conclusions about the past fifty years while working on this album?
[long pause]No, not really. Maybe at some point in the future, I will learn something about my past by listening to this album. I have not gathered deep insights about my life nor can I give advice on ageing.
Were there memories you were reluctant to use because they would put you in a bad place mentally?
[long pause] My first memory is me rolling around in a birdcage under a big piano and on a Persian carpet.
Very visual.
There is every reason to believe, that this memory is completely made-up or from a dream. The other memory from that time is me at a tennis court in Baden-Baden, where we lived, facing a castle in the light of the setting sun.
Sounds a lot less frightening.
But does not make for a good song.
The birdcage on the other hand …
…would make a great video.
Is there a memory from making this album that might be important to you many years from now?
[pause] The importance of whiteboards. And post-its. Colour-coded. Also: having an assistant.
I doubt that will make a good song for your 100 Song Memoir.
I will not, no.
Maybe a good video.
[pause] You can buy really big post-its. Like ten inches. Very practical when you have big group meetings, so even people in the back can read them. As my vision deteriorates, I will probably need those. A whole wall of giant post-its that my assistant will constantly re-arrange.
Maybe there is a song in there after all.
Assistant wanted: must be good with ladders.

Sixty Frames

We take photos to remember. But which frame should you choose to capture, which to recall?

Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.
― Marc Riboud

A human lives, on average, for 25,915 days. Each day contains 86,400 seconds. Each of those contains trillions of instances, of frames. Of these we exist in all, remain in none, remember, perhaps a few. Each second, our brain is only capable of perceiving an average of sixty frames.
We see sixty out of trillions of moments of life. We must choose our frames wisely. So smile for the camera. Be still. Look at or through the lens. See.
We are here, we are here now, but we and time are fleeting.
Quick, take the photograph. Snap the shot.
The only proof this moment ever existed will be in our memory.
The first frame: the beauty spot on the left temple, slightly below the eye, of a little boy sleeping in my arms on a Sunday afternoon in June. Second frame: the angle at which the eyelashes curl, the barely visible crow’s feet. Third: the light, at the most perfect of a trillion angles, capturing the gold in his hair.
Pause in this frame. Stay an instant in this instant. Then move on to the next.
There are the obvious frames and moments that shape our lives. The time-stopping, happy milestones at which we take photographs. The family portraits in Sunday clothes on birthdays, weddings, lunch on Christmas Day, college graduations, anniversaries. The flash-infused commemoration of ourselves, inevitably solemn and confused, against the white or blue background of a passport, driver’s license, student or voter’s card.
Then there are the broader frames that define our lives, with their own obvious protagonists. The zoomed-out shots of inaugurations, revolutions, jubilees and celebrations, crowds in the streets on New Year’s Eve. The portraits of politicians, popes, queens, economists, businessmen, movie stars. The mugshots of murderers and terrorists. Fashion trends immortalized on a runway, peace deals over a handshake. History written by war declarations, rocket launches, touchdowns, standing ovations, raves.
Sixty frames out of trillions, in every second of every life. Even those, if we blink, we might miss. So we take photographs; a choice of the moments of our lives we want to commit to memory.
Zoom in on the fourth frame: looking up at mother’s hand. Fifth frame: father’s shoulders, looking down. Sixth: the seesaw partner in the playground. The stuffed animal; guardian of the bed. The siblings, the superheroes in comic books. The doodles in the margin of the page. The eternal baker in his eternal shop. The flour on his arms and mustache. The friends, the posters of boy band members, the flyers of missing pets.
We do not choose or shape our lives. Where we are, or for how long. But we are here and we have now. Let us be here now.
We create reality, we exist in every frame we choose to see. In the oceanic folds of the bed sheets on a Tuesday, the creases on the pillow left by a cheek. In the steam wafting out of a coffee cup, the precious last crumbs of a croissant, silken gold mixed with green flakes of thyme on the white porcelain plate.
Look at where, when, who we are,
at and through the lens. See.
Now. Immortalize this trillionth of a second in a photograph.
Forty-eighth frame: ice cream stickily dripping out of the corner of a mouth. Forty-ninth: the dimple that appears in the exact same spot every time that mouth laughs.
Fiftieth: the musician in the metro, playing that French song you like. Fifty-first: the lonely two pennies and bill in his open guitar case. Fifty-second: the dog sitting patiently by his side, as he has done for hours, days, weeks. Fifty-third: the hand scratching his ear gently, his eyes closing happily.
Fifty-fourth: an old couple in the park, on the sunny side of a bench. Fifty-fifth: her fingers interlaced perfectly in his. Comfortable, matching shoes. Fifty-sixth: a cloth bag on the ground next to them. Bread and oranges peaking out. Fifty-seventh: the kitchen table a short walk away, on which butter and honey await.
Fifty-eighth: a sonogram. Fifty-ninth: tears. We can be infinite in sixty frames per second. Quick, snap the shot. We were here.

On a Thursday

Getting lost in memories, on trash day.

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ten o’clock in the morning, another alarm snoozed too long. The sun’s rays, sprinkled on the white sheets, have gone progressively from a gentle warm to an uncomfortable hot, and the early morning, indigo silence has given way to the bustle of a city well into its day.
Eyes still closed, she observes: today is Thursday. She parts from the pillows and puts on her robe, double knot around the waist.
The small steel mocha is in the kitchen, in the same spot on the counter as it was yesterday. And has been since the day they first set it there, years ago, till they could find a better place.
That spontaneous, three-euro buy long ago, on a road trip through Tuscany. The old stove that had to be coaxed and wooed to work, in a friend’s kitchen in Sant’Angelo. The first cup of coffee the mocha proudly brewed, which tasted like garden soil. That he drank with a smile nonetheless and declared the best he had had in his life.
Now it smells strongly of the many cups of coffee it has since, more expertly, poured. This morning, same as yesterday, it pours one cup more. She sips it on the couch she remembers them buying with their savings some time back, and contemplates this day she already knows, has already lived a few times.
Today there will be letters and emails to answer, phone calls and the bed to make.
The clumsy, wonderful first time he tried to make the bed himself.
Groceries to be acquired, dinner to be cooked.
Frozen pizza and chopped lettuce, on the floor that first night. The for-no-reason, romantic dinners, the dozens of dinner parties since. The lazy Monday night take outs, the Thursday night pairings with wine, dancing in the kitchen, stove forgotten, dinner left to burn.
Shirts to iron, a week’s worth of laundry to do, dry, and put away.
Bubble baths wrapped in those dryer-warm towels, Sunday mornings in those sheets. The day, three years ago, the exact shelf and aisle, where a younger version of him and her first picked them out.
A distinguishing note: the trash to take out. Today is, after all, Thursday.
When did coffee become just coffee? When did the white couch turn grey? She really must have overslept; today looks just like yesterday. She wonders what happened to the color, the laughs, the poems she used to have. What else she absent-mindedly, lately, threw away with the trash.
The bin by the couch is full to the brim, overflowing with the remnants of other days; bits of ribbon, an old newspaper, landscape cutouts from travel magazines. Plane tickets and movie stubs, out of focus photographs. She kneels by it and rummages through, looking for the life she misplaced.
Drafts of letters, half written, unsent; receipts for paintbrushes and bouquets. Last month’s utilities bill, the synopsis of a ballet. The program of an evening of chamber music, a recipe for chocolate soufflé. An empty bottle of Saint-Hilaire,
Love at the first glass she tried, it must still be here, the poetry, the love. She cannot have used it all up.
Suddenly, a silver chocolate wrapper studded with dark blue stars. Baci, her favorite, one, two, five of them. The bin was full of stars!
A summer in Florence, 2015. The first bite-size piece of chocolate and hazelnut, wrapped in a love note. ‘We choose our joys and our sorrows long before we experience them,’ it read. Gibran, like everything, sounded better in Italian.
Un bacio is one kiss, baci are many, and of chocolates and kisses she slowly remembers hundreds, since that first one they shared.
Love Note number 7 is Dickinson: ‘Till I loved, I did not live enough.’
‘Love is the poetry of the senses,’ Balzac. Note number 139.
‘Grow old with me,’ writes George Sand. ‘The best is yet to be.’
‘In dreams and in love there are no impossibilities.’ János Arany, number 42. The sun bounces off the shiny notes as she pulls them out one by one. The fog lifts as she reads the last word; she knows where she left her life.
She rushes back to bed and starts the day over; today is Thursday. Eyes still closed, from the walk-in closet, she picks out a white lace dress.
Today she will make coffee again, and the bed, wear opal earrings and ballet shoes. Answer correspondence in verse, iron shirts to jazz. She will cook with wine and use the bottle as a vase for wildflowers she will pick. She will empty the bin, and tonight there will be new Baci wrappers to fill it with.
‘Yes, there is a Nirvanah; it is in leading your sheep to a green pasture, and in putting your child to sleep, and in writing the last line of your poem.’ And taking out the trash on Thursday.
Seven o’clock in the evening, another day gone too fast. The sun’s rays are receding quietly, the neighbor is playing Chopin. ‘[…] Love coming out of the trees, love coming out of the sky, love coming out of the light.’ Same as every day, same as yesterday, except today is Thursday.