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Over Natalie Merchant's 30-year career, she has earned a distinguished place among America's most respected recording artists with a reputation for being both a prolific songwriter with a compelling artistic vision and for having a unique and captivating performance style. With her latest and highly acclaimed Nonesuch recording entitled, Leave Your Sleep, which debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at No. 17, Natalie Merchant embarks on a new artistic path, creating songs with literary inspiration which are composed for expanded musical ensembles and orchestra.

Natalie Merchant on the rockIn conjunction with her next orchestral recording (release planned for spring 2012), Natalie Merchant will undertake an extensive touring project performing with symphony orchestras throughout the world.

Merchant began her musical career as the lead vocalist and lyricist for the pop music band 10,000 Maniacs and released two platinum and four gold records with the group between 1981 and 1993 (The Wishing Chair, In My Tribe, Blind Man's Zoo, Hope Chest, Our Time in Eden, and MTV Unplugged). Together with artists like R.E.M., they defined college rock and created the first wave of alternative rock bands, who collectively became  known as the alternative rock format on FM radio.

In 1994, Merchant began her solo career with a self-produced debut album, Tigerlily (1995). In the years following, she released Ophelia (1998), Natalie Merchant Live (1999) and Motherland (2001). In 2003, Merchant independently released an album of American and British folk music, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, on her own label, Myth America Records. In 2005, she curated a collection of her own work for a double album, Retrospective and another for her former band, Campfire Songs.

In addition to all this, the multi-talented artist has collaborated both on stage and in the studio with a wide range of artists including Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, David Byrne, The Chieftains, Mavis Staples, REM, Daniel Lanois, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tracy Chapman, Dan Zanes, Billy Bragg and Wilco, quite an impressive list! Throughout her career, she has also been dedicated to supporting a variety of non-profit organizations by lending financial support and raising public awareness. Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, The Center for Constitutional Rights, Doctors Without Borders, Tibet House, Greenpeace, The Southern Center for Human Rights and Planned Parenthood are among the social justice groups to which she has been devoted. Merchant has also served as an appointed member of the prestigious New York State Council on the Arts (2007-2011). Dish Caught up with Merchant just before Halloween recently to chat about her current and upcoming projects.

Dish: How did your double album Leave Your Sleep originate as a concept?

NM: My daughter was born in 2003 and it initially started as a lullaby album. Then it grew into a 20 headed monster because I discovered all these poets I wanted to use. Before it was done it was a seven year project. I probably adapted over 50 poems and I worked with 150 musicians by the time it was done. It was huge and such a great learning experience on every level. I ended up doing research on all the poets and tried to find images of each one which was a challenge a lot of times since there may have been only one image in existence. It’s amazing how elusive some of them were.

D: At what point did you decide to go with an orchestral approach to the music?

NM: I explored all sorts of different styles of music to best illustrate the poems. Many of them, it seemed to me needed harp and a full string section to really create this space that could be inhabited by singing the poem. Some of them I really wanted a sort of Jazz sound so I went to Wynton Marsalis who is such an amazing encyclopedia of knowledge. From there, I added some Chinese folk music ensembles and some Bluegrass and Chamber Music and so forth.  

D: I understand there will be a new album of similar material in 2012. How far along with it are you at this point?

NM: The songs are all written. I’m just working on the arrangements. I’ve gotten to the point after 30 years of making records where I have enough material that uses orchestral instruments to record – or I have adapted certain songs that were orchestral. I feel very comfortable with the medium.

D: How will this new release differ from Leave Your Sleep?

NM: There is a definite desire to work with more orchestral instrumentation so it won’t be as eclectic as Leave Your Sleep. I don’t think anything I ever do again will be as eclectic as that. Leave Your Sleep was supposed to be an introduction to music and poetry. So, it will be released a year from now, with 19 of the songs from the album, and is amazingly illustrated by Barbara McClintock. It is. So many teachers have been writing to me and telling me how useful the record is for teaching poetry to their students, so now this can be like a textbook.

D: How does your daughter respond to the music?

NM: She loves the music but it has just been a part of her daily life for so long she kind of thinks of it as our music instead of my music. *laughs*

D: You have worked as an independent and as a major label act. Currently you are on Nonesuch Records. Do you prefer being on a label or working as an independent?

NM: Nonesuch is an independent division that utilizes the distribution network of Warner Brother, but they operate in their own world and have their own standard, which is tremendous as an artist. It’s great to be in the company of so many of my contemporaries like Emmylou Harris and The Low Anthem and many others. The list is huge. But the truth is hardly anyone buys records anymore so being an independent is really the smartest thing. But who can really tell what will happen? I feel like a Vaudevillian already past the Talkies, and I don’t know what to do. (laughs)

D: You have collaborated with numerous luminaries over the years. Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with that hasn’t happened yet?

NM: I love Thom Yorke’s voice. I think it would be fun to sing with him. I also think The Punch Brothers are amazing. I would love to do a record with them. I also love The Low Anthem. But, I’m a wallflower so even though I’ve pulled off a lot of collaborations, I generally keep to myself. When I do come out of the forest and get on the stage with others, I’m reminded of what a wonderful kinship I share with them just by virtue of being a musician.

D: You do a lot of community work and support. What are you working on now?

NM: I’ve been doing a really fun project with the 92nd Street Y in New York. They have a public school “Introduction to Music” program. Now there are 3500 school children between the ages of 5 and 8 studying music in the schools. I’ll be performing concerts for them beginning in December. That has been a very fun collaboration.

D: Why do you feel so called to give back to your community?

NM: I just want to be a good citizen. We all pitch in the way that we can and use the resources we have. I always support my public radio station. Having a child of my own and realizing how impressionable they are, and how eager they are to learn, I’ve realized how important it is to devote myself to them. I see that as my future. / Issue 130 - September 2018
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