For 15 years, Nicholas Currie has composed and recorded satirical songs. Using the name Momus, he has written mockingly of himself--his unquenchable lust, his desire for stardom, his hatred of babies--but also occasionally of others. And thus last year the Scottish musician found himself in a predicament that was perhaps inevitable for a late-20th-century man who took the name of the Greek god of ridicule. Momus needed a lawyer.
Any details of the case "can't come from me," says the 39-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs tonight at the Black Cat. Still, it's not hard to tell who was offended. A song titled "Walter Carlos," after the "Switched-On Bach" performer now known as Wendy Carlos, has vanished from subsequent editions of Momus's 1998 album, "The Little Red Songbook."
It was during the legal wrangling that Momus conceived the idea for his new album, "Stars Forever." The two-CD set contains 30 song portraits of Momus fans, each of whom paid $1,000 to be immortalized by the puckish synth-popster in the style he calls "analog baroque." Accompanied mostly by synthesizer riffs and rhythms, Momus crafts witty, self-consciously outrageous songs that draw on the traditions of Belgian song poet Jacques Brel, French pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg and early Depeche Mode.
The album "was a shot in the dark," the London-based singer recalls in his polished, precise manner. "I had to a pay a lot of lawyers a lot of money. It just seemed like the only creative way I could raise money was to do these portraits. So I put an announcement on the Momus Web site January 1, and within two weeks we had 30 people. I was very pleasantly surprised." The demand was so strong that Momus considered expanding the project to 40 songs, but after writing 20 he decided that he couldn't go beyond the original number.
Among those who hired Momus to write their portraits are a number of musicians, promotion-minded artist Jeff Koons, the singer's own publicity agency and a half-dozen residents of Japan, where the performer is much better known than he is in the United States. Considering Momus's previous repertoire, the most surprising participants may be the San Francisco couple who commissioned a song about their 3-year-old son.
"I'm known for my vicious and vindictive songs about babies," Momus concedes. "I've got a song that advocates the killing of infants. So I think the parents in that case were a bit nervous, but I managed to pull something off that a kid would approve of. I think 3-year-olds are cool. I probably have more in common with a 3-year-old than a 30-year-old actually."
The portrait subjects were generally pleased with Momus's renderings, he says, but the songwriter kept final control. "Although they were paying they weren't entirely calling the tune," he explains. "I really reserved the right to make the portrait that I wanted to. It's no coincidence that I chose Velasquez as my image on my Web site when I proposed the project. I admire his cunning."
Momus cites a canvas in which the 17th-century Spanish painter's patrons, the king and queen of Spain, "are just visible in the mirror in the back of the painting. He has the last laugh. And we know Velasquez now, but we don't necessarily know much about the king and queen of Spain."
The songwriter says the song portraits "gave me 30 new identities to play with. I just set up a little puppet theater and had a great time. It allowed me to escape from the typecasting that I had for Momus. I can get away with a certain amount of distortion of my natural proclivities, but people aren't going to buy me being a sailor-loving gay man, or a Japanese woman or whatever."
Commercially, Momus is most successful as a songwriter for such Japanese performers as Paris-based singer Kahimi Karie, and he sees "Stars Forever" as an extension of that work. "I tended in the past to write for other people if I wanted to indulge those kind of identities," he notes. "I wrote a lot of stuff for Kahimi Karie, and that was really me expressing my identity. Because I really would like to be a beautiful young Japanese woman. I'd like to be able to click my fingers and be one for a day."
Portrait subjects were asked to provide a 1,000-word biography as the basis of the song, and Momus seldom asked for more information. "Mostly I wanted to know less," he says. "I wanted the one colorful detail that really inflamed my imagination. Because I had to run with it imaginatively, and make it entertaining for strangers to listen to. Being followed by some person on the bus and being told their life story is not necessarily interesting."
Although the subjects included such acquaintances as Keigo Oyamada, an eclectic Japanese rocker who records under the name Cornelius, Momus says that in most cases he'll never know how accurate the biographies were. "On the Internet, no one knows if you're a dog," he says dryly. "I don't know if these people are real human beings. They might be extraterrestrials. These are just 1,000-word descriptions of people I never met. I don't know what's true and what's not. But that's essentially not interesting to me. I've never been interested in what's true and what's not. I'm interested in what's entertaining."
Momus says he's heard from all the album's subjects except Koons and a chocolate-loving woman who was in a Tokyo hospital with pneumonia when he wrote her portrait. "I hope she's okay," he says.
Among the portraits are several of gay men, with whom Momus claims a kinship as an opponent of prudishness and as a connoisseur of outsiders and subcultures. "I have cousins who are Plymouth Brethren, kind of extreme Calvinists, and for that reason I hate Puritanism. That's really been one of my targets all my career," the singer explains. "And though I'm not gay, I really like a culture that foregrounds its sexual activity as part of its public identity. So a vociferous gay culture . . . is very inspiring."
Clearly a seasoned self-analyst, Momus can tie his affinities for gay culture and "Hello Kitty"-style Japanese kitsch together in a quick paragraph. "Kitsch often comes from a sense of outsiderdom, and I think Scottish people have always felt a bit displaced from the central power, which was London," he muses. "Kitsch is a Yiddish word originally. It's the way Jewish people felt about non-Jewish cultures they were in. It's also a very gay way of looking at the world, where you feel like an outsider and you want to mock the mainstream. And I think the Japanese feel a little bit like that, too."
Momus admits that his popularity in Japan is "a weird thing" and that few Japanese fully understand his songs. That's one reason he's pleased that he finally has an audience in the United States. Although he's been making albums in Britain for 15 years--even scoring a hit there a decade ago with the Beck-presaging "Hairstyle of the Devil"--his first U.S release didn't arrive till 1997.
"I'm so used to Japanese audiences with their very kind adoration, but not picking up on all the stuff I put in my songs," he says. "My songs are like information overloads, with cultural references popping like firecrackers. It's a great to be in a culture that actually appreciates and understands those references."
Still, it's the income from Momus's work as a songwriter and producer in Japan that makes his English-language career possible. "It gives me the luxury to do what I want on my own records," he says. "I don't have to push them to get into the Billboard Top 50. They can be as ridiculous and perverse and experimental as they want to be."
Providing they don't attract the attention of attorneys, that is.