Natalie Merchant: The Waking Dream

July 2010 / Chronogram

Jamestown, New York, situated along the southern edge of Chautauqua Lake in the southwestern corner of the state, was once called the furniture capital of the world, thanks to its being a leading producer of mattresses and wooden furnishings. Today the city of 32,000 is, arguably, better known as the birthplace of two of America’s most iconic female entertainers. One is Lucille Ball, who has a museum there dedicated to her beloved sitcom, “I Love Lucy.” The other is Natalie Merchant, whose former band 10,000 Maniacs sold millions of records, took her around the world, and led her to the incredibly successful solo career she’s enjoyed since the mid 1990s. Like Ball, unsurprisingly, she didn’t stick around Jamestown when her star began to rise. By the time Merchant took her very first steps on the long musical road, however, there wasn’t much to leave behind.

“In the ’70s, when I was growing up, it was already pretty economically depressed there,” says Merchant, whose mother, a secretary, and father, a jazz musician, divorced when she was very young; her stepfather was a college professor, a writer, and an artist. “What was great, though, were the outdoor concerts they had at [nearby historic education/performance center] the Chautauqua Institution. My mom was single for most of the seventies and didn’t have a lot of money, but she loved music and the arts. So in the summers she’d sneak me and my sister and two brothers under the fence there to hear the symphony and see people like Nuryev, Barishnikov, Art Tatum, Beverly Sills. But the furniture industry had long moved south, before, I guess, moving again to China. The other big export was automatic voting machines, and now those are being phased out. So there were all of these empty factories.”

One such factory was Broadhead Worsted Mills. A former textile plant, it was taken over by artists and became the site of early gigs by Still Life, the band that would rename itself 10,000 Maniacs not long after Merchant joined in 1981, when she was 17. “I was already in college as part of an advanced placement program,” she recalls. “I’d studied piano and sang in school for fun, but I’d never been in a band before. The plan was to go to art school; I’d been accepted to the School of Visual Arts in New York. But that didn’t quite end up happening.”

Not quite. But, then, what may have been the visual arts world’s loss has certainly been the music world’s gain. Spearheaded by Merchant’s plaintive but full-bodied voice and gift for graceful pop songwriting, 10,000 Maniacs’ ubiquitous modern folk rock pretty much defined college radio’s late-’80s arc into mainstream alt-rock. After scoring a hit in the UK with “My Mother the War,” off its 1983 sophomore indie album Secrets of the I-Ching (Christian Burial Music), the quintet signed to Elektra and released a string of albums, The Wishing Chair (1985), In My Tribe (1987), Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), and Our Time in Eden (1992), all of which rode the charts for weeks on end, carried along by hit singles like “What’s the Matter Here?,” “These Are Days,” and “Candy Everybody Wants.” With the Maniacs, Merchant visited Europe for the first time when she was 19, for a while lived in London, and even performed at President Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993.

But eventually it was time for a change. Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs after the release of 1993’s live MTV Unplugged (also Elektra). “By then I’d been in the band for 12 years, and since I was so much younger than the other members I’d always felt like the little sister or something,” the singer says. “I needed to mature, to emancipate myself. The group and I didn’t always agree on everything and I really had to be able to speak for myself, not for everyone else.”

To say her departure paid off would be the mother of all understatements. The very same day she left the group Merchant began writing the material for Tigerlily (Elektra Records), her 1995 solo debut. Home to an incredible three hit singles—“Carnival,” a Top 10 smash; “Wonder” and “Jealousy,” both Top 40—the album sold a staggering five million copies and right away made her one of the decade’s leading solo artists. “[The album’s instant success] shocked everybody at the label—and me, too,” Merchant says. “As far as major-label records go it wasn’t really a big production, and the band I had put together was all really young players. So it was very gratifying.”

Her newfound cachet at Elektra enabled her to record 1998’s ambitious follow-up, Ophelia, a lavish conceptual album with symphonic arrangements by British composer Gavin Bryars and guest work by smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and other star players. The disc went platinum as she co-headlined that year’s colossal Lilith Fair tour with Sarah McLachlan, and she capped the tour off with a run of her own shows at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater, which were taped for 1999’s Live in Concert (Elektra). In 2000 she revisited 10,000 Maniacs’ folk influences, doing a tour performing traditional material backed by revisionist band the Horse Flies, and with Wilco, the tour’s opening act, and Billy Bragg, appearing on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II (Elektra), the second such project to set unearthed Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. She made one more album for Elektra, 2001’s stripped-down, T-Bone Burnett-produced Motherland, which was supported by arena shows with Chris Isaak, before leaving the label and starting her own Myth America imprint to release 2003’s acclaimed The House Carpenter’s Daughter, a record that saw her digging even deeper into the folk canon. And then…silence.

Until April 6, 2010, when Merchant released Leave Your Sleep, her first album in seven years and her debut for Nonesuch Records. Why the long wait? Two solid reasons. The first is the raising of her daughter, now six, something any young mother will no doubt relate to. The second can only become obvious upon hearing the album. Available as either a deluxe two-CD package or an abridged single disc, Leave Your Sleep has Merchant taking on the Herculean exercise of setting 26 poems by as many poets to original music played by a cast of over 130 musicians, a lineup that includes Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Hazmat Modine, the Klezmatics, the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, and others. Musically it plays like a voyage around the world, stopping at exotic ports to take in everything from blues to sea chanteys, Dixieland to Celtic folk, reggae to bluegrass, rock to chamber and early music, plus a boatload of other sounds. (Outtake tracks will be available for download on iTunes.)

Merchant’s co-producer on the album was the Brazilian-born Andres Levin, who worked on the successful Red Hot album series; with David Byrne, k.d. lang, and Tina Turner; and with Caetano Veloso and other high-profile Latin acts. “It was a huge project—there was an endless stream of people coming in an out of the place,” says Levin of the sessions that took place at Rhinebeck’s Clubhouse studio. “It was challenging to keep the flow, but watching it come to life was great. Working with Natalie was wonderful. She’d done a lot of pre-production, and she always has a very clear idea of what she wants.”

The program’s genius is in how Merchant pairs the poems with just the right accompaniment: Albert Bigelow Paine’s “The Dancing Bear” works perfectly as a sly klezmer tune; Jack Prelutsky’s “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” becomes a Randy Newman-esque New Orleans R&B stroll. Writing and arranging music that adequately evokes the feel of someone else’s words would seem no easy art, but on Leave Your Sleep Merchant somehow visits the brains of her de facto lyricists, most of whom are long dead, and gets them to tell her exactly what they’d like to hear. “Actually, I find it far easier than writing a song from scratch,” says Merchant. “Having to write melodies and chord progressions and then trying to come up with words that fit is almost a form of tyranny to me. By doing it the other way around—getting the mood of a poem and then using the structure as a skeleton makes me the tyrant; a tyrant informed by the lyrics.”

But while her fascination with roots music is obviously well documented, her love of poetry hasn’t been. Did she read a lot of poetry growing up? Merchant shakes her head. “No, I came late to poetry,” she says. “I was pretty much just a magazine/newspaper article reader, someone who mainly read for information, not entertainment. But I became friends with Allen Ginsberg before he died, so I got into his work, and he also turned me onto Anne Waldman and other poets. And then, about seven or eight year ago, I had this epiphany that became a fervor, especially for the Victorian poets. That’s why there are so many of them on the album. [The two-disc version features works by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Lear, Christina Rossetti, and several of their contemporaries.] It just really resonated with me, that even though these people lived so long ago the themes and emotions they were dealing with have never gone away.”

An outspoken progressive, the 46-year-old Merchant is known almost as much for her activism as her music, and frequently performs at benefit events. “Yeah, I guess I’m pretty ‘causey,’” she says with a smirk. “But that’s always been part of what I do. Even back in the 10,000 Maniacs days we’d have people from Greenpeace set up tables at our shows to collect signatures and donations. The first show that that band ever played was a Hirsohima Remembrance Day concert. But these days I like to do it in quieter, more under-the-radar ways. For instance, a few years back I was taking Pilates in [Kingston neighborhood] the Rondout and I noticed the playground equipment at the school there was falling apart. I made some calls, found out how much it would cost to replace it, and then donated the money from a show I did. It feels good to do those things.” Among the worldwide and area causes Merchant cites as favorites are Doctors Without Borders, Scenic Hudson, Family of Woodstock, Clearwater, Riverkeeper, and the local Head Start and Planned Parenthood chapters. She was recently appointed by Governor David Patterson to serve a five-year term as a member of the New York State Council on the Arts.

Also an avid painter and gardener, Merchant has been a Hudson Valley resident since 1990. “It looks really similar to the Jamestown area, actually. There’s more snow there, but the Catskills remind me of the Alleghenies,” she says. “I really love that this area is just far enough from New York and still so culturally rich. Everyone I know here is here because they want to be here, and they’re doing really interesting work.”

When asked about her return to the limelight and the state of the contemporary music industry, Merchant likens herself to another famous Catskillian. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to a totally different world,” she says, visibly overwhelmed. “When I left Elektra in 2002 the record people were just beginning to run around like the sky was falling, because it was becoming clear that with the Internet artists would no longer be powerless without them. Things really hit home when The House Carpenter’s Daughter was released online—the same day my daughter was born—and it sold 75,000 copies with no touring or press interviews at all. Since then I’ve launched a new website, and it’s very exciting as an artist to see the way the old business model is being replaced.”

As the determined Merchant arises from her lengthy hibernation, the lines of one of Leave Your Sleep’s standout tracks, her adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Nod,” come floating into view:

All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do—
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams