Natalie Merchant sounds exactly like one might expect. With her clipped
tones, old-world accent, and a stoic yet reserved demeanor, she clearly
inhabits her persona as pop's foremost folk princess, a role she first
assumed nearly 30 years ago at the helm of 10,000 Maniacs. At age
46, she still appears as starry-eyed and earnest as the whirling
20-something singer who first soaked up her influences from the rustic
melodies spawned of Anglo and American origins. Currently trumpeting
Leave Your Sleep, her first new album in seven years, she's embarked on
an extensive national tour, including tonight's Broward Center performance, the first she's undertaken since the birth
of her daughter, Lucia, in 2003.
Yet, even though Merchant hasn't been all that visible for the better part of the past decade, she hasn't been idle either. The past several years have found her immersed in the study and research that culminated in that latest effort, an ambitious double album that culls the verses of revered British and American authors and poets (Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, e.e. cummings, and Edward Lear among them) and incorporates those verses into a series of delicate, dreamy songs with multigenerational appeal. A diverse all-star cast of musicians assists in this elaborate endeavor, a crew that includes the Wynton Marsalis Quartert; Medeski, Martin & Wood; the Fairfield Four; the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York; the Klezmatics; the Ditty Bops; and the New York Philharmonic.
Merchant recently took a pause in the midst of her roadwork to brief New Times on her spate of activity. Phoning in from Seattle, she also admitted that she missed her daughter. "That wasn't part of the equation years ago," she reflects. "But this record is really fun to perform live, and the ultimate test of a new set of songs is when you take them out on the road and you see how people respond to them."
New Times: What inspired you to undertake this project to begin with?
Natalie Merchant: Um, well the poetry. I really thought I was going to do a lullaby album based on the Christina Rossetti poetry when I started, and in the end, only one of those poems ended up on the project. But I became really intrigued by the process and the works that were available to me out there.
How did you go about enlisting these other musicians?
Many of the musicians I knew, and many I knew through their reputations. And some were total strangers. I even found some through the internet and contacted them just through a cold call. "I really like what you do. Would you like to be on my record?" [chuckles]
And what was the reaction?
Everyone said yes except the Dap-Kings. They were the only holdout. And I love the Dap-Kings, but we couldn't work it out.
Once you got involved in this undertaking, was there any point where you said, "What have I gotten myself into?"
Like every day! Once I got the other people involved, that thought was an everyday occurrence. This was my moment to say, "Am I out of my mind?" [chuckles] But I found it in myself. So once I passed the $500,000 mark, I started to question my sanity. Especially since there's no guarantee I'll ever recoup. I think it's a project that will have a long arc of people discovering it. I don't think it's a record that's going to reach its peak in the first six months or a year.
After not having released anything new for seven years, coming out with something so decidedly noncommercial seems pretty brave.
I'm pretty confident in my belief that people are looking for alternatives to the kind of disposable culture that we're surrounded by. And with all the exhibitionist pop star excess, there are also people who only really want a good song that touches them. They don't need everything that comes along with the music we have today. I think MTV kind of corrupted the way people perceive pop music.
Those early 10,000 Maniacs albums were very successful. Were you at all surprised that you achieved such rapid success with such a quaint style of music?
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I've been surprised by any kind of success I've had because people's attention is pulled in so many directions. But I think it is possible to carve out a little place for yourself. There are so many places in America where I can go and nobody has ever heard anything I've recorded or seen my face or anything, but then occasionally I'll meet someone who says "You really touched me" or "You really helped me figure out the worst part of my teenage years" or "I danced with my father to one of your songs at my wedding." [laughs] The little place I carved out for myself is such an emotional place for so many people, and that makes me feel good that I've made something that's so useful.
8 p.m. Wednesday, August 25, at Au-Rene Theater, Broward Center for the
Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $35 to
$60. Call 954-462-0222, or click here.