Strange Powers documentary screening: Mar. 21 // 8 p.m. // Englert Theatre // FREE
The Magnetic Fields, the brainchild of pop prodigy Stephin Merritt, hold a unique place in my musical heart. I came across the group purely by chance in 1994 after finding their Holiday album in a dollar bin (the record store clerk who priced it clearly didn’t realize what a gem it was). Rarely have I placed a bet on an unknown record that paid off so handsomely. Its infectious melodies seemed too good to be true, though I soon discovered most every record Merritt makes is fairly flawless.
There is another reason The Magnetic Fields are special to me, and that has everything to do with living in Iowa City. It’s where I met Claudia Gonson, Merritt’s childhood friend, musical collaborator and manager. She was dating a friend from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in 2000, and they would sometimes come over to my house to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For more than a year I had no idea Claudia was in one of my favorite groups, so you could imagine my surprise when I found out!
We stayed in touch and I recently had a chance to talk to Claudia about her three decade-long friendship with Merritt, The Magnetic Fields’ new album and the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields.
Because the film portrays Claudia as a key musician in the group, I asked her why she primarily identifies herself as Merritt’s manager. “It’s in no way self-denying about my role as a musician in the band,” she says. “But if you drew a pie chart of my life you’d see that 90% of how I spend my time is working as manager—digging through royalty statements, hiring musicians for recording sessions, getting Stephin out of bed in the morning to make sure he makes an interview and that sort of stuff.”
Claudia reminds me that the group only exists as a touring act once every three or so years, and for just a month at time. “The fact is that the performing band isn’t a big aspect of any of our lives,” she says, “but every now and then I get the rewarding and creative job of playing in Stephin’s band.”
Director Kerthy Fix, who made Strange Powers with Gail O’Hara, tells me that they made a conscious decision to anchor the film around Claudia and Stephin. “We were not interested in making a lone-genius movie. I think it was clear that the relationship between them is integral to the success of the music.” Fix adds, “Many people have nurtured his creativity, and I think those sorts of people are important for the creation of art.”
It takes a village—and a good manager—to keep The Magnetic Fields going. “As Stephin says in the film, he can’t do anything but write music,” Claudia says. “When I met him when I was fourteen I made the decision fairly early on that I wanted to help him build a career. I don’t think my downplaying my role as a piano player in his band negates my extreme sense of self-worth I get from what I do in my daily life.” I tell her how strange it was for me to voyeuristically watch a film about the life of a friend, so it surely must have been weird to be a documentary subject herself. “I’ve been interviewed in a number of different films now,” she says, “and after seeing the other people’s treatments of me, I have nothing but praise for Kerthy and Gail’s film. It actually made me feel really good about myself.”
“They weren’t very self-conscious about how they were portrayed,” Fix tells me. “The only feedback was creative or had to do with biographical details.” Claudia agrees, noting that she provided the filmmakers with vintage footage of their 1980s teenage years. “Kerthy and Gail made a great film about us in the 2000s, but I supplied the materials to give it more depth, in terms of our past.” Fix says that the only pushback she got from Merritt had to do with the use of his music on the micro-editorial level, like cutting into a song precisely on the beat. “We had a lot of control over the film spelled out in our contract with the filmmakers,” Claudia says. “To Stephin’s credit, he chose not to exercise any control over how he was portrayed. They kind of made him look a little difficult at times, but he was a real gentleman about it.”
When talking about the different live and studio incarnations of The Magnetic Fields, the conversation turns to the new album, Love At the Bottom of the Sea. “In the 1990s Stephin made most of those records at home with his computer and other equipment, but the live band sounded completely different.” By the time of their breakthrough album 69 Love Songs, released in 1999, Merritt began recording with more traditional instruments (guitar, piano, strings, etc.). And throughout the 2000s, every Magnetic Fields album featured little or no electronics, better reflecting the live band’s sound.
“Love At the Bottom of the Sea signals a return to the more 1990s sound,” Claudia says. “It is predominantly electronic.” It is also the first Magnetic Fields record on Merge Records in thirteen years. In the interim, their albums were released by Nonesuch, though Claudia is careful to emphasize that they still have a great relationship with both labels. “It’s just that this album fits the style of those earlier Merge records,” she says, talking about their flexible contractual arrangements. “Bands these days are not signed for life anymore, and we hope to continue to work with both labels.” The Merge connection seems to have worked its magic. After one listen to the electro-pop stylings of Love At the Bottom of the Sea, it is clear that the dream of the 1990s is alive and well on this new album.