STEPHIN Merritt, founder of American rock group The Magnetic Fields, tells EDWIN GILSON about his unique new project.

WHEN a musician or writer creates an autobiographical piece of work, it’s tempting to assume a number of things. A) that they desire the reader or listener to identify or connect with them, b) that the artist sought to understand himself better in the process and c) that it must have been “cathartic” in some way.

None of these assumptions are relevant to Stephin Merritt. The songwriter – who essentially uses The Magnetic Fields moniker as a vehicle for his work – recently released his sprawling 50 Song Memoir, penning a track for each year of his life. He and his band will perform it in two parts at Brighton Dome. In Weird Diseases, he wonders if he might have Asperger’s. In Be True to Your Bar he salutes his local. In Wonder Where I’m From, the track written for his birth year, he ponders whether he’s the spawn of “barefoot beatniks bunk[ing] on a boat”.

Merritt has form for basing his records around concepts – his critically acclaimed 1999 record 69 Love Songs would have done what it says on the tin if the songs were more traditionally romantic and less offbeat. While 50 Song Memoir is clearly Merritt’s magnum opus, the inner reflection required to write it was not, according to the man himself, a journey of self-discovery.

“I have not done this album for my own therapy,” he says. “I’m not trying to change my own mind about my own life as though I were method actor. I didn’t care about learning about myself. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as learning about oneself in any profound way, and I’m suspicious of profundity anyway.” Merritt is emphatic when asked if the process made him see any part of his life differently. “No, absolutely not.”

The songwriter has an unfair reputation of being a little terse in interviews – perhaps due to his baritone voice and dry delivery. He’s happy to discuss the writing method, it’s just that a lot of his reasoning revolves around subverting expectations that fans might have about music. For instance, his view that “records by and large don’t really have purposes”. This verdict comes when I ask what he was trying to convey to the audience with 50 Song Memoir. The words, he says, are more of an “excuse to make a lot of music”.

Eventually he concedes that the motive of the album is, “in some way, to establish the song by song musical memoir. But I could have commissioned someone else to do that. Hopefully somebody else who is else turning 50.”

Despite Merrit’s denial of the 50 Song Memoir as any form of “therapy”, it must have been difficult to write about some of the more tumultuous periods of his life? “There are some that were hard to write but none of them were emotionally wrenching,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to force myself to sing an emotionally wrenching song every two days on tour.”

What Merrit strives for is “emotional ambivalence”, where songs can be read in a number of ways. He adds that he hopes listeners don’t feel like they have to identify with him to enjoy the album, joking that it’s difficult to identify with a voice that is “99 per cent lower than most of the population”.

But he must be aware that with an album of this nature his fans will, if not necessarily attempt to connect with him, then at least try to understand him through the lyrics? “Sure, they can try, but if they feel like they can understand me at the end of the first listen I’d feel I’ve failed horribly.”

Even if 50 Song Memoir wasn’t an emotionally gruelling process for Merritt, it must have taken a lot out of him physically and mentally.  So where can he possibly go after this life-encompassing, all-consuming record? “I have no idea.”

The Magnetic Fields, Brighton Dome, September 7 and 8, 7.15pm, visit