Saturday, February 04, 2006

An Interview with Claudia Gonson

photo by Clay Walker. I have been a fan of the Magnetic Fields since my freshman year of college. This band, as well as the other bands with Gonson and Stephin Merritt, are nothing but genius. Ms. Gonson sings and plays exquisitely on 69 Love Songs, as well as on The Future Bible Heroes' Eternal Youth, Memories of Love and a few others I haven't heard yet. She also played instruments on the Magnetic Fields' first two albums is the manager of all the Merritt bands, I believe.

Below is an interview I did with Claudia today.

How did you meet the bandmates and start playing with them?

I met Stephin in 1983, when we were in high school. Our high schools were nearby. He came over to my house with my older sister, who attended the same school as him. We almost immediately began playing music together, in a bunch of home-studio bands and eventually we formed a live band.

How big were your first shows and where did they take place?

We played our first gigs in Cambridge and Boston, Mass, where we lived. The very first shows were fairly small, I'd say 20 people. After a few months we had larger crowds, probably 50. That was considered pretty good.

What kinds of places do you like to play best?

Places that feel intimate, which aren't always places that are small. It really depends on the acoustic space. For instance, the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan feels really warm and intimate, and it's fairly small (I think the capacity is about 200), but Zenkel Hall, at Carnegie Hall, seats 650 and also feels really intimate. Town Hall, which seats 1500, also feels pretty cozy because it was designed to be for speech making and folk concerts.

Are you working on any outside projects or soundtracks?

Stephin is about to release "Showtunes" (in mid March 06, on Nonesuch). This is a compilation record of songs from the three musical plays that he's composed over the last three years, with director Chen Shi-Zheng. The complete scores from the three musical plays will also be available online for download. This fall, Stephin will release an album of songs he wrote for Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events." There will be thirteen songs for the thirteen books in the series, plus two bonus songs. The band will be The Gothic Archies (which is basically Stephin, with Daniel- aka Lemony- playing accordion). That'll be out in October on Nonesuch.

Your songs with the MagneticFields and the Future Bible heroes sometimes seem to come out of a very fictional place. Are these scenarios that the bandmates make up together or do they come from one person in particular? If you or one of your bandmates comes up with a song that expresses some fictional scenario like a lonely vampire or retired rockette, does it take a lot of explaining to get it across to the other bandmates?

Stephin Merritt writes every last word and note for all his bands: The Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and all his theater and film scores. He rarely collaborates as a songwriter, or performs other people's songs. So neither I, nor any other musicians he works with have anything to do with writing songs for our band. We often even do not develop our musical parts; they are sometimes composed for us by Stephin, who does the orchestrations in advance on music paper, and we play them from sheet music. The only exception to this process is the Future Bible Heroes, where Chris Ewen creates the music backing tracks, and then Stephin develops lyrics and melodies on top. But your question about songwriting still only applies to Stephin. Sure, sometimes I think; "What is this song about?" And, sometimes I ask him about it. But, sometimes I just enjoy coming up with my own interpretation, and maybe even believe it's the right one for two decades, until one day he says "that's not what that song is about at all!". This is fairly unusual, but it is not unusual for me to feel that a song is really moving, and then find out that he finds it comical, or vice versa. Not sure why that is.

If you had a weekend to just do whatever and all of your responsibilities magically disappeared what would you do?

Disappear. I really enjoy my life, but I feel burdened by a feeling that if I disappeared, to travel around or live somewhere else, be free of all contact or responsibility, it would really screw up my work with Stephin and his bands, which is an intense and ongoing process. We speak all the time, and are always brainstorming new projects, working on several things at once. Of course I would miss it intensely too, if I were to disappear, but I love the idea of just strolling around Barcelona, or becoming a potter, or living in Hawaii or something. Or working on a farm. Or hiking around mountains in Asia. Etc.

How have your ideas about musicianship changed over the years?

It's a pretty big topic! I guess I feel like the big thing that's happened is the internet, and file sharing and the kind of access and community that it brings. Which is really cool. I am impressed with how easy it is for a person to make music without having a lot of money. It's like film, you can do it much easier and cheaper in the digital era. I'm not sure how much of it is good... but it's complicated for me to discuss this since I'm not really paying attention. I'm in that place that older people get into, if they're lazy that is, which is that I'm not really listening to new bands or new music. If I have one piece of advice for people trying to get going in music now, it's that there's no right or wrong way to do it. People call me all the time, seeming to feel that I have an answer to how they can make it. I really don't know how anyone makes it; I certainly don't feel we've officially "made it" . What we have done is stuck with it. It's always helpful to do something for a long, long time. If you can get along with your bandmates and try to define your roles well enough so that no one feels trumped or hurt or stepped on. Frankly it's no different from a personal relationship, like a marriage or a long term commitment of some kind. If you can figure out how to be compatable, work out your ego issues, goals, differences of opinion in a way that remains effective, then you can keep going. It's not easy of course.

Thanks, Claudia!

Here's a nice little reveiw of Memories of Love:

And a little something from Neil Gaiman on Eternal Youth:


Blogger Tom Birkenstock said...

Great interview. The Magnetic Fields kick ass! Stephin Merritt 4 eva!

8:01 PM  
Blogger gringo said...

Thanks for that, very interesting.

Claudia is teh great.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Ernest said...

Nice job!

Funny, Claudia said that she'd disappear if she was free from responsibility. In this Chickfactor interview, when asked "What would you do with $20 million?", Stephin also replied "Disappear."

7:23 PM  

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