Stephin Merritt says he learned a crucial lesson from a group many musicians might sneer at.
"I read an interview with ABBA a long time ago," says Merritt, the creative force behind the cult-phenom band the Magnetic Fields. "They said they never write down the music — because they figure if they can't remember it, then other people won't remember it."
Merritt does most of his writing sitting in a bar, with throbbing music in the background.
"Some recording artists write in the studio," he tells All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. "I think they're crazy."
So for the first installment of a new multimedia experiment called Project Song, All Songs Considered set up a bar for Merritt in NPR's Studio 4A, an expansive wood-floored room with plenty of space for a creative artist to spread out and experiment. We supplied him with a grand piano, an assortment of other keyboards (including a '70s MOOG synthesizer), drums and guitars — even a sampler, from which Merritt extracted the sound of a vintage Mellotron.
And just as we'll do with each Project Song artist, we showed Merritt six vivid images, along with six words or phrases printed on white cards.
The instructions: Choose one photo to inspire the subject of the song; choose a word or phrase that will inspire the style.
From the words, Merritt picked "1974." The photograph he chose, by artist Phil Toledano, is an incredible image of a man covered head to toe in what looks like a bodysuit made of baby dolls.
Then we left him alone in the studio to write. Over the course of two days, a song emerged: "A Man of a Million Faces."