Music interview – Natalie Merchant: ‘My output the past 15 years has been slim but I’d rather be good parent than a prolific artist’

Natalie Merchant. Picture: Jacob Blickenstaff
Natalie Merchant. Picture: Jacob Blickenstaff
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Natalie Merchant’s singing career – first as frontwoman of the band 10,000 Maniacs and for the last 23 years as a solo artist – has taken her all over the world. But this summer the 54-year-old has decided to take the road less travelled to towns and cities she has never visited before.

Ahead of two shows in West Yorkshire she spoke to the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Your ‘Summer Evening with...’ tour includes some of the most picturesque towns and cities in the UK. Did you purposefully choose places you have not had the chance to perform in before?

I’ve been to the UK so many times since the early 1980s but have rarely ventured outside of a handful of major cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow. I asked my booking agent to put together a tour of smaller cities and towns with scenic or historical interest. I’m really pleased with the itinerary; there are many stops in places I’ve never visited before. It’s the first tour I’ve ever done that I’m anticipating in the same way I would a vacation.

Do you feel the set that you are going to be playing at these shows lends itself particularly well to more intimate settings such as the Trades Club at Hebden Bridge and Kings Hall in Ilkley?

This tour will be extremely unusual, I’m only bringing one musician along my guitarist, Erik Della Penna. I will also play a bit of piano (a very rare occurrence). It’s impossible for us to be more intimate. The songs will be stripped down to their bones. I enjoy seeing songwriters in this sort of setting; it has more in common with a poetry reading.

Natalie Merchant. Picture: Jacob Blickenstaff

Natalie Merchant. Picture: Jacob Blickenstaff

Last year Nonesuch released a well-received box set of your solo recordings, complete with lyric book and a pictorial history of your career since 10,000 Maniacs. When you were compiling it, did you find yourself occasionally pausing for reflection on where life has led you over the last 25 years?

Preparing the box set allowed me several months to indulge in retrospection: there were the eight studio albums, the book, a disc of rarities to compile and an album of newly recorded material with a string quartet (a mixture of new and rearranged catalogue tracks). I was also curating a new website with an interactive timeline so I was deep in the archive looking for press, photos and video. It was important to me to gather everything together in one place and box it up. I actually made my first album in 1981 and it’s obvious that we’ve reached the end of an era for recorded music, one that we could never have imagined when 10,000 watched the lacquer being cut for our first EP. That sounds like a wax cylinder sort of memory now when the vast majority of people prefer their music in a “cloud” where they can “stream” it. I suppose that making the box set was my parting gesture toward the tangible 3-D physical format.

Are there particular songs that feel like snapshots of the time in which they were written? And have any perhaps taken on new meaning as you’ve performed them over the years?

That’s a very apt description of all songs, they are all just fleeting moments in time...experiences, observations, interactions, emotional responses. Although we capture them, time changes them. Time changes everything and everyone, and it changes our perception of the past. I feel like I’ve been several different women in the intervening years since I started writing and recording these songs.

I just spent eight months working in a free pre-school for some of the poorest kids in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York State. Bringing poetry, music and dance into their classrooms was like carrying water into a desert.

Natalie Merchant

I’ve written songs about people who were very close to me and now they are gone from this world, Don’t Talk and Seven Years. Our stories together are finished now; I never imagined outliving the people who inspired these songs. There’s a time lapse film playing in my mind now when I sing and entire lives unfold. The neighbour boy I wrote What’s the Matter Here about was in kindergarten in 1987 and is now a grown man, tragically in prison. My little brother was an 18 year old soldier when I wrote Gun Shy and now he’s 50 with a son of his own graduating from college. My niece was an awkward, self-doubting 13 when I wrote Tell Yourself and now she’s a woman in her mid-30s. Aside from my own associations with the songs, I can add all the encounters with fans and their interpretations. The recordings have taken some interesting journeys by themselves.

In 2015 you revisited your first solo record, Tigerlily, with a young band of musicians, to mark its 20th anniversary. What did you learn from the process?

I loved that project, both the recording and making the companion film. I particularly enjoyed adding string arrangements to several songs, it gave them more depth, they sound more mature.

Your song Wonder inspired a novel by R J Palacio, that was later made into a film. Were you heartened by the effect it has had?

The ripple effect of that song has amazed me. I love the quite way that it’s become part of the culture. Through both Palacio’s book and Chbosky’s film, the song has been the catalyst for two beautiful works promoting tolerance and empathy. It was a small seed that seems to have grown into a tall sheltering tree.

You have frequently addressed social issues in your songs, and you have long been involved in activism on issues such as fracking and the crisis of domestic violence. As an artist, do you feel a strong need to be involved in the community about which you are writing?

I’ve always been drawn to music that has a meaningful message and I admire artists who have strong principles and are engaged. That said, I don’t expect every artist to be an activist, it may not be in their nature. I just thrive on being useful. If I don’t have a purpose I feel worthless. The past 15 years I’ve been more devoted to being a community organiser and volunteer than a professional musician. I just spent eight months working in a free pre-school for some of the poorest kids in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York State. Bringing poetry, music and dance into their classrooms was like carrying water into a desert. I can’t describe to you the joy that the children gave to me.

Tell us about Hopes and Dreams: The Lullaby Project that you have recently been involved in. Is there any connection between that and Leave Your Sleep, your 2010 album about childhood?

The Weill Music Institute is part of Carnegie Hall’s mission to educate and do community outreach. For the past few years they have been sending professional musicians into homeless shelters, hospitals and prisons to partner with expectant and new mothers to write lullabies. I didn’t meet the woman who wrote My Baby Boy, (the song I recorded for the album) but I understand that she was a prisoner on Riker’s Island at the time she gave birth and wrote the song. She has since been released. It’s such a tender song about the first time she held her child in her arms, very beautiful.

You have always retained full control of the publishing rights to your songs. Has it been important to you to maintain the integrity of your work?

I remember Michael Stipe telling me back in 1985 that I should never sell my publishing rights and it was the best advice anyone has ever given me. I have retained complete control over my compositions my entire career.

Do you feel your ‘voice’ as a writer has changed over the years? And do you have an inkling of where you would like to go with your next musical project?

My voice as a writer has been silent for years while I have prioritized mothering. My output the past 15 years has been slim but I’d rather be good parent than a prolific artist. The long periods of isolated creativity that made it possible for me to write are just not accessible to me now. I really need to go deep into the cave of solitude to summon up my muse (and who wants a mother in a self-induced trance?). I find other outlets for my creativity and expect that as she gets older and needs me less I will write again. I’ve been taking steps toward a musical theatre piece based on Leave Your Sleep, that should be satisfying.

Natalie Merchant plays at Hedbden Bridge Trades Club on July 18 and Kings Hall, Ilkley on July 24.