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Stephin Merritt’s Hardly-‘Unfortunate’ Side Project

Stephin Merritt, the musician best known for fronting the Magnetic Fields, always has his hand in many projects. One of his more under-the-radar efforts has been collaborating with Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler, the writer behind the children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events, by penning a song for each audiobook edition to the series. In honor of The End, the final book in the series, Merritt is releasing a compilation of the tracks entitled The Tragic Treasury: Songs From a Series of Unfortunate Events. The soft-spoken Merritt explains the inspiration behind the project and what else he’s working on now. EMILY ZEMLER How did you initially get involved with the Lemony Snicket books?
Stephin Merritt: Well, Daniel Handler played accordion on 69 Love Songs and we’ve been writing a musical together called “Songs From Venus.” We’ve been pals for seven years or so. I’m known for writing depressing but funny songs, and I seemed like a natural person to write for the audiobooks in the Lemony Snicket series. So I’ve been doing one song per audiobook for all 13 books.

What is it about the Lemony Snicket books that attracted you?
They’re very funny and literate and vastly entertaining.

What is your songwriting process like for these songs?
I read the books first and write songs that have to do with the concepts of the books. I try not to actually explain the plot of the book. I don’t want to ruin it. Although that might have been a good idea: “Stop listening here if you don’t know the plot of the book.

Do you have to be more careful when writing for a children’s audience?
I just make sure not to use any obscenities. A lot of the titles of the books contain long words and expect children to try to follow them and be curious enough to run to a dictionary if they don’t know it. I would say, though, that it isn’t necessarily for children. The books aren’t particularly for children either. I like to compare it to the Bugs Bunny cartoons, where there’s a lot in it for children, but there’s a lot more in it for adults.

Do you have a favorite track off the compilation?
The last one — “We Are the Gothic Archies.” I’ve always loved songs that explain who the band is. Every band should have a song named after the band.

What was your favorite children’s book growing up?
I tended to like the more minimal books like Harold and the Purple Crayon.

What is the musical about that you and Daniel Handler are working on?
It’s a film musical. We’re about two-thirds of the way through the screenplay. It’s about a record that’s sent by the Venusians to invade Earth by making everyone fall in love. But it turns out there’s an odd number of people in the world.

Are there plans for a new Magnetic Fields album?
Yeah, we actually just finished recording an album. We’re editing and mixing it now. I’m hoping it will be out by March. The title is still in flux. It will sound like no previous Magnetic Fields record, but that’s pretty normal.

Now Hear This:
Stephin Merritt – “When You Play the Violin”

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