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The song's original sentiment recently resurfaced when Melanie was contacted by Merritt, the oddball leader of the underground pop outfits the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, and the Gothic Archies. In 1995 Merritt assembled a selection of indie-rock royalty to sing his songs for a project called the 6ths. Wasps' Nests included Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, Yo la Tengo's Georgia Hubley, and Luna's Dean Wareham interpreting Merritt's tunes. Last year he followed it up with Hyacinths and Thistles, taking a different tack by including the voices of Odetta, Marc Almond, Gary Numan, Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto, as well as Melanie. Merritt called her out of the blue and sent two songs for her to consider. She chose a drunken, late-night pay-phone lament titled "I've Got New York."
"I never met him," Melanie explains. "I didn't really know his stuff, so I didn't know what I was in for. He sent me the song -- just a little toy piano track -- and I did the vocal." She expected Merritt to add flourishes to the song -- "some kind of Cole Porter orchestration" -- but the finished track is nothing but a plinkity toy piano and Melanie's sandpaper rasp. "When it came out as it is," she says, "I was totally astounded!"
"Surprise! It's me. It's drunk. I'm three," she slurs the song's opening line, before adding, "... I can't imagine why I'm wasting quarters on the telephone to say... I've got New York/But I ain't got you."
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In 1999 Merritt's Magnetic Fields scored beaucoup best-of points with the three-disc magnum opus 69 Love Songs. Yet Hyacinths and Thistles has created a slight backlash with its rather uneven content; Melanie's contribution is alternately loved and loathed. "The sound of an alcoholic grandmother picking warts off her feet," slammed one disgruntled critic.
"I tried to find a key in there somewhere," Melanie reports, "but it wasn't easy. But that's just my normal everyday Melanie voice." And "I've Got New York," she adds, has introduced her to a new demographic who probably had no idea who she is.
As Melanie admits, it's difficult to predict when the next career curve ball will be lobbed her way. She's taken a passive approach to the business for a long time, bobbing like a cork in the sea. At any time, she realizes, another phone call like Merritt's could come. "It was kind of an honor," she says. "You never know who's thinking about you."