Tête-à-Tête Natalie Merchant
Plus The Constellations, Lay Low, Turbo Fruits and more
Natalie Merchant started young. She was 17 when she joined 10,000 Maniacs in 1981, and the band hit it big with the 1992 Our Time in Eden. Merchant left the following year and, in 1995, released the solo album Tigerlily, which spawned the top-10 single “Carnival.” A successful follow-up, Ophelia, coupled with extensive touring cemented her solo status.
Merchant explored folk and traditional musical styles on 2001’s Motherland and 2003’s House Carpenter’s Daughter, before deciding to step out of the limelight. Her efforts on behalf of a variety of charities continued, and now she’s back with a double album, Leave Your Sleep, a collection adapted from poems, nursery rhymes and lullabies. Many of the songs were done live. We spoke while she was in London prepping for her European shows.
Nic Harcourt: Did you ever think it would be this long between album releases?
Natalie Merchant: My intention was to take a leave to focus on my family. But I continued to write—much of Leave Your Sleep came from this period. I curated two compilations: Campfire Songs: The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings of 10,000 Maniacs and Retrospective: 1995–2005. And I collaborated in the studio with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Dan Zanes, on film with the Cowboy Junkies and onstage with Vusi Mahlasela, Philip Glass and others at various benefits.
Your daughter, Lucia, was born in 2003. How has being a mom affected you as an artist?
There’s more tenderness and playfulness on these albums because of it—more depth of feeling. I think having children pushes you to your emotional limits.
What was the genesis of Leave Your Sleep?
I started conceiving it the week I came home with my infant daughter amid a great amount of postpartum euphoria. I wanted to find a way to transfer the tenderness, intimacy and warmth of that experience through music. There was a book of poetry on the shelf, and I took the melody I’d been singing under my breath, found the words to an anonymous lullaby and put them together. The project went through a few stages of evolution during the six years I devoted to it.
What exactly was your musical process for integrating the poems?
I looked first at the structure of the poem—rhythm, accents, internal rhyme schemes, alliteration—and read it aloud over and over until I felt I understood how the poet had wanted it to be read. I would begin to sing the poem a cappella, and then finally, I’d sit down at my piano.
What was your thinking in using the work of poets as lyrics?
I thought it would be an interesting exercise to adapt extant poetry to music, and I wanted to draw from this wealth of creativity—the voices of both men and women, celebrated and unknown. I narrowed the field to poems that were for, by or about children, and I gravitated toward poems with strong central characters, like The Sleepy Giant, The Equestrienne, The King of China’s Daughter, The Peppery Man and Griselda.
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So many diverse collaborations on this record—what was that like?
Singing with Marsalis and his quintet was quite an honor—honestly, it was a bit intimidating. Some of the members of the vocal group the Fairfield Four have been together as long I’ve been alive. I felt like a part of history with the Memphis Boys, who did “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” with Elvis Presley. The four days I spent with the Irish band Lúnasa go down as the most fun and satisfying musical experience of my life. I could go on and on—every session was unique and memorable.
Do you plan on touring with these new songs, and will you perform any earlier material?
I am touring a bit now in the U.K. and will do a multimedia presentation in libraries and museums in selected cities in April, with a full tour across the States in the summer. It’ll be a combination of Leave Your Sleep, my solo material and the odd Maniacs cover.