Stephin Merritt: Interview

Stephin Merritt: Interview

Magnetic Fields’ singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt has been, as usual, extremely productive. Since the January 2008 Magnetic Fields release, Distortion, Merritt has been writing and producing the music for the musical version of Coraline, which will be performed at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan through June 20. Here, Merritt discusses his attraction to the Coraline story, the process of putting together the music for the musical, and why, contrary to what some may think, Coraline is not exactly a children’s story.


How did you find yourself connected to Coraline? Were you familiar with the book?
I started this by doing a song for the audiobook. I was involved with the book from the moment it came out. I got an advance copy and worked on the song “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home,” which we are not using in the musical because it gives away the entire plot. And as I was doing the song, I realized that [Coraline] would make a good musical. I initiated the (musical) project.

Was there anything about the story of Coraline that really drew you in? For example, the themes covered, or the style of the book?
I think it’s a great book. I had an experience in my childhood that was more or less the opposite of Coraline’s experience. She has a very conventional upbringing that is upended. I had a very unconventional upbringing, and I was confronted with people with conventional upbringings, which I thought were supernaturally strange.

It’s mythical enough that almost anyone in western civilization would identify with it on some level. I’ve seen the Japanese edition of the book, and the illustrations are quite different, but it seems to translate well. They haven’t had to change it into a ghost or something — the idea of the “Other Mother” translates quite well. It’s pretty universal.

How does the music for Coraline relate to the work you’ve done previously, style-wise? Is it like the music on a particular album that you’ve released?
I don’t think of myself as having a style in particular, but other people hear a style. I’m kind of the last person to be able to judge how everything I do relates to everything else. I think of [the music in Coraline] as being different, but apparently not. A number of people say that they can’t really tell one from the other.

An associate of mine once told me that all of my songs sound alike. He meant that they weren’t rap. I, of course, immediately did a rap song.

How did you go about writing/arranging the music for Coraline? What was the process like?
The music for Coraline is played entirely on different types of piano: toy piano, main piano, and prepared piano. [Prepared piano involves] paperclips and screws and erasers stuck between the strings so it sounds very different from ordinary piano. So theoretically it’s all piano, but the sounds are highly varied.

Following Coraline, do you think you might consider working further with musicals and theater?
Yes. I have two other shows that are in the germination stage. They are both very different.

Is there any music in particular that you used for inspiration while working on Coraline?
Working with prepared piano and toy piano, there’s the obvious influence of John Cage, the 20th century’s main composer for toy piano and main piano. So (along with that) there’s been a surprising amount of indeterminancy (a philosophy of music that Cage pioneered, involving lack of explicit musical notation) worked into the score, more or less against my will, just because the pianist is a fan of Cage.

So I say, “OK, here come the ghost children, start bowing,” and she starts doing whatever she thinks of as bowing. So, if it’s not he same thing every time, so be it. If this was happening with Magnetic Fields, I would be kicking and screaming.

So would you say that there were more compromises involved with arranging the music for Coraline than what you normally confront with Magnetic Fields?
In all kinds of music, you have to make compromises that are intrinsic to that field, and the compromises in theater music are different than those in pop…
I have a crew of thirty people helping me to do whatever it is that is my vision. And on another level thirty people in the way of me realizing my vision. So it’s important to stop thinking of it as my own vision, and start thinking of it more as a collective endeavor that I’m starting to shape.

Do you like musicals yourself?

I love Guys and Dolls, but it doesn’t mean that it’s reflected in Coraline. Coraline is a very, very different kind of show.

Were you writing the music for Coraline at the same time as you were writing the music for Distortion?
Yes, I’ve been writing for Coraline for four years now.

Do you think the projects had any interplay, any influence upon one another?
If I hadn’t been thinking in terms of the prepared piano for Coraline, it might not have occurred to me to have piano on Distortion. I was using feedback piano, and I don’t know if anyone has ever done that before. They may have done that, but we made the piano feedback sound like guitar on Distortion. We did that without knowing whether it had worked or existed, and as it turned out, it worked out fine.

Is there anything else we should know about the musical, Coraline?
It’s probably worth noting that the show is not particularly aimed at children, and I think we’re discouraging small children from coming. Children under 5 years old are probably not going to enjoy the show and will make little noises that will impede others from enjoying the show.

Coraline is perceived as a children’s novel since it features a child, but I don’t think of it as a children’s show in any way.

A friend of mine complained about her experience when seeing the film Coraline in a cinema in Park Slope. Apparently there were many crying children in the audience. She was wondering why anyone would take really small children to see the film, as the posters for the film looked relatively scary.
We seem to base our genres on who the hero happens to be, demographically. This seems to be about a 9-year-old girl, and we’re not told particularly any more about her demographically: we don’t know her particular race, for example, but just because she’s a 9-year-old girl doesn’t mean that the intended readership is 9-year-old girls.

In fact, Neil Gaiman (the writer of Coraline) doesn’t specify her age. A few years ago I asked him about her age, and he said it was 14, and I said, “You’re a lunatic,” because she can’t be 14.

We’ve explicitly made her 9, but we have an actress playing her who hasn’t been 9 years old for decades. Maybe the actress trumps the character, so maybe people who haven’t been 9 years old in decades will flock to the show and people won’t bring their own 9-year-olds.

Does this take on audience demographics in part explain why a non-child actor was cast in the role of Coraline?
I do think we had the sense that this project would take a long time to come into fruition, as it has. If we cast an actual 9-year-old in the role, she would be an 18-year-old when the actual show came out. In fact, the book is dedicated to Neil Gaiman’s two daughters, Holly and Maddy. He began it for Holly and finished it for Maddy, and I think they’re several years apart in age. So maybe that explains why he thought that Coraline would be a 14-year-old, which to me seems too absurd.


Tickets to Coraline can be purchased at


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Graduate Student Extraordinaire. When Alexa is not reading and writing about postwar European history, she is listening to and obsessing over music, generally of the indie variety. When she IS reading and writing about postwar European history, she is also listening to and obsessing over music. It is a curse or a blessing, depending on which way you roll. So, there you have it.