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Elliott Smith, Either/Or

June 20, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Emma Straub revisits Elliott Smith’s album Either/Or.


For a little while, starting around 1998, Elliott Smith and I were the best of friends. I was a freshman at Oberlin, making myself depressing mixtapes to match my mood, and there was nothing that matched my mood better than Either/Or. I didn’t know anything about lo-fi music—everything else I’d ever truly loved was glossy and studio perfect: Madonna’s Immaculate Collection and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411—but all of a sudden, my sadness was so great that I only could have loved Either/Or more if it had literally been covered with dirt. It was street-level misery, whispered and simple. Read More »

The Magnetic Fields Tour Diary, Part 3

April 30, 2012 | by

There comes a point on every tour—very early on, after about the third show—when I completely forget that my traveling companions play music. We sit in airports together, we ride in crowded minivans, we play games, we eat both terrible and amazing meals. I think of them as my older siblings, some of whom are grumpy in the morning, others who always want to chat. What happens onstage is so separate from the rest of the experience that I really do forget that they all speak this other language—when I duck into the crowd every night, for just a few minutes here and there during the down times at the merch booth, it’s like waking up and realizing that the rest of my family is fluent in Japanese.

When all together, we talk about the merch more than the music. That is not a joke or an exaggeration. Is that because it’s easier to talk about T-shirts (a quantifiable object) than the experience of playing music? I don’t know. But it was bothering me, this distance, so I decided to ask the band what they enjoy about the act of playing music. The first three responses came to me live, while we were all sitting in our hotel’s lobby bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Because they were (sick? warm? perverse? besotted?) individuals, the people in charge of the hotel sound system played nothing but the Magnetic Fields for the entire first day of our stay, and so while we were talking, we were also listening to their albums, played on shuffle. When there was an unusually long pause between songs, Stephin Merritt said to me, “We are listening to the absence of ourselves."

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On Tour with the Magnetic Fields: Part 2

April 3, 2012 | by

The People Behind the People

This tour is the biggest the Magnetic Fields have ever done, in terms of the number of people traveling. In addition to the five members of the band and one eighteen-month-old baby, there are five members of the crew: me and my husband (merch, blog, Twitter), Jason Thompson (tour manager), Mike Yesenosky (sound), and the very lovely Julia Knapp (nanny). That brings the grand total to eleven people, and with all the suitcases, instruments, and gear, we are a small society all our own. Someone is always holding the leftover snacks from the previous night’s greenroom, and someone is always holding assorted painkillers and stomach remedies. We are all getting very good at traversing airport terminals and hotel lobbies en masse, like a pack of nomads, or zombies, depending on the amount of sleep achieved the night before.

The Hotel Life

This tour is more grueling than the last few I’ve done with the Magnetic Fields, and we are rarely in one place longer than a day. This means less time for exploring the cities and more confused moments in the middle of the night when one wakes up and needs to pee. Stephin Merritt (vocals, harmonium, melodica, kazoo) told me a story about their last European tour, during which he was staying in a room so small that when he opened what he thought was the door to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he in fact had opened the door to the hallway and promptly locked himself out. In the last ten days, we’ve stayed in six different hotels, and so in addition to having no clue what day of the week it is, I also now have no clue where the bed is in relation to the door or what floor my room is on.

Of course, there are perks to staying in so many hotels. At heart, I am not a kleptomaniac, but when it comes to hotels, I can’t help myself.

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On Tour with The Magnetic Fields: Part 1

March 27, 2012 | by

I’ve worked for the band the Magnetic Fields for the past ten years and have sold their merchandise on every tour since they released i, in 2004. Their latest tour, for their new record, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, began last week, and, as is my wont, I’ve been taking notes. After a warm and fuzzy show in Hudson, New York, the first completely positive experience in Philadelphia in recent memory, and a very quick trip to Minehead, England, for All Tomorrow’s Parties, the Magnetic Fields took the Tour at the Bottom of the Sea to Austin, Texas, for their first-ever appearance at South by Southwest, the juggernaut music festival that turns the entire city into a beer-and-taco-stained pair of jeggings. Half the band and crew flew in from New York, and the other half from Boston, meeting up in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for the puddle jumper to Austin. We shared the plane with several members of the E Street Band, which made Sam Davol (cello) quiver with excitement. When we landed, the steamy Texas air relaxing our synapses, Sam asked E Street violinist Soozie Tyrell for her autograph, and I made a proclamation: in Austin, I was going to find a) Bruce Springsteen or b) Timmy Riggins, my very favorite fictional character on Friday Night Lights, played by heartthrob and Austin resident Taylor Kitsch. I find that wishes are more likely to come true when spoken aloud. Read More »


Miss Piggy, Literary Icon

December 13, 2011 | by

Though most people love Miss Piggy for her work as a film star, I have always loved her best as a writer. When I was in elementary school, I bought Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life at a library sale in Westport, Connecticut, the posh town where I was born and where my family spent our summers until I was ten years old. The book has been of vital use to me ever since. I was a sturdy child and entered puberty what felt like light years before most of my friends, my thick girl body morphing into a curvy one. Miss Piggy’s womanly advice reached me at a vulnerable moment, when I needed all the help I could get.

Miss Piggy covers all the bases: romance, finance, diet and exercise, etiquette, and fashion. Though of course the book (“as told to Henry Beard,” and originally published by Knopf in 1981) is intended to be humorous, I think it reads like a rallying cry for the full-figured glamourpuss—that she should love her body and her clothes and her lovers, and, most of all, herself. Miss Piggy is a confident and witty faux-Francophile. She has perfect hair, she wears great dresses, and who cares if she has thick ankles? Certainly not her paramour, Kermit, who would sleep on railroad tracks if she asked. Read More »


Dear Stanley

November 3, 2011 | by

When I was a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, I was one of the editors of our school yearbook. We used the school darkroom to print every photograph in the book by hand, a massive task. My fingernails smelled like chemicals for months, and my eyes, I was sure, had permanently adjusted to the dark. There were eight of us, six girls and two boys, whom we called the “sex toys,” as if any of us had ever seen such a thing. Saint Ann’s had (and continues to have) the reputation of an artsy school, and we did our best to keep it that way. We divvied up the tasks with the guidance of our photography teacher, Heather, whom we trusted because she sometimes snuck cigarettes in the school building after hours.

Somehow it fell to me to take a photograph of our founding headmaster, Stanley Bosworth, for the front of the book. The picture I took of Stanley was unremarkable—he is leaning against the building, looking slightly off into the distance. He’s wearing a plaid sports jacket, and the frames of his eyeglasses are tinted. He looks like an owl crossed with the hero of a seventies French film, and that’s just how Stanley was. He had founded the school in 1965 and had been its fearless leader ever since. I printed the photograph on the same paper as a photograph of the school building, so that the building and Stanley would be together forever. I certainly couldn’t imagine one without the other. The limestone lines of the beaux arts building zigzag across Stanley’s plaid jacket, and come to a point over his head; he is the mermaid on the prow of the ship, hands behind his back, always at ease.

Stanley loved the photograph. One evening, when I was alone in the darkroom, Heather passed me a piece of paper, told me it was top secret, and that she would take it back when I was through reading it. It was Stanley’s letter, which was to run opposite the photo in the yearbook, and it was addressed to me. Read More »