Natalie Merchant – Interview 2018

When she was just 17, Natalie Merchant was working in a health food store and was considering a career in special education whilst at college in her home city of Jamestown, which sits just below Lake Erie that straddles the border with Canada. Harbouring no more than your average desire to sing in a band, she was invited to do some vocals for a group called Still Life in 1981. They inexplicably decided to call itself Burn Victims, before settling on 10,000 Maniacs all in the same year, performing their fist gig under that name on September 7th. Named after the obscure 60s low-budget grindhouse splatter flick Two Thousand Maniacs!, and often cited as one of the worst band names in history, 10,000 Maniacs nevertheless became huge on the alternative college circuit, as well as finding an early fan in the shape of John Peel, who turned on his radio listeners to the band via their song ‘My Mother The War’. “The only solid plan I had was to go to New York City to attend art school,” says Natalie Merchant. “I wanted to be an artist and in the end achieved that goal.”

Fast forward to 2018, and Natalie Merchant is fast approaching elder stateswoman status. She’s a rare breed, an artist with the utmost integrity, one who has never compromised, and whose work is infused with a mixture of intelligent thought and musical poetry. Now 53, she left 10,000 Maniacs at the peak of their success in 1993, forging out a solo career that continues to this day. She’s in the UK to perform some intimate shows in places she rarely visits, such as Brighton, although she does remember being here before with 10,000 Maniacs, “The first visit was in 1984. We did a photo session for some music magazine on the pier. It was way off season, rainy, windy and so cold.”

Where is she today? “I’m in St. Ives today. I decided to come over from the States in advance of the shows to acclimatise and do some exploring. I spent some time in London first. The heat was disturbing, but I took in some art exhibitions at The Royal Academy, Tate Britain and the V&A. The Frida Kahlo was a religious experience. I’m in St. Ives now looking at the sea and visiting Barbara Hepworth’s studio and rehearsing for the tour.”

A Summer Evening With…. will take in 12 cities beginning in St. Ives, and ending in Oxford at the end of July. She’ll be visiting Brighton and performing in St. George’s Church on 27th July. “This tour is unusual for me, I’ve just come with a single guitar player, Erik Della Penna. We’ve performed and recorded together for 20 years and he knows my catalogue well. We have been enjoying playing some of the more obscure songs. I’m expecting to play a bit of piano on stage (a very uncommon occurrence). We are going to be very nimble as a duo, all songs will be stripped away from their arrangements. I’m thinking of this almost like a poetry reading with scarce accompaniment. I hope it works!”

After a fruitful solo career that included top 30 US albums Tigerlily, Ophelia and Motherland, Merchant delved deep in to her folk roots, inspired partly by her accordion playing Sicilian grandfather, and partly by her on-going interest in history, an interest framed around human exploitation, environmental degradation and political ideology. She is, after all, like all non-Native Americans, from a family of immigrants. In 2003 she released a collection of traditionals but which saw her subsequently withdraw from the music industry while it was dealing with the turmoil of the internet revolution. “I released The House Carpenter’s Daughter when the major labels were disintegrating as a result of the free music revolution. Elektra let me walk out on my contract even though I owed them one more album. I felt like I was running from a burning building. The album came out coincidentally the week my daughter was born. I did one interview with the New York Times and no tour. It sold 150,000 copies in the first six months. It was an interesting experiment, but when I was ready to put out Leave Your Sleep seven years later, I took the masters to Nonesuch. It’s been a very safe harbour for me and my work. I really enjoy working with Nonesuch. It’s a label run by a very respectful group of intelligent people who love music. They did a beautiful job on the last three albums and my box set (released in 2017)”.

Stereogum once described her music as, “Unsentimental songs about confronting the horrors of the American past as well as its often brutal present”. What’s peaking her interest at the moment? “I’ve been working the past year with impoverished pre-school children in a small city in the Hudson Valley. I’ve been bringing music and dance and theatre into their classrooms and we produced a beautiful little musical together for their parents in June. So many of these children had never seen or heard live music before and it was magical to watch their response to hearing a violin or a clarinet or upright bass for the first time. I have this conviction that beauty should not be a privilege for the few. I’ve committed to four years of working with this school as their artist in residence, and I can’t wait to see the kids again in September.”

Jeff Hemmings