Natalie Merchant will be performing with the Louisville Orchestra this Saturday, November 2, at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall as part of the Brown-Forman WOW! Series. Louisville.com  caught up with the former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs - who has also enjoyed nearly twenty years as a successful solo artist - as she waited for car pool at her daughter’s school one afternoon last week.
Natalie Merchant spoke in advance of her show, which will feature material from her most recent release Leave Your Sleep, an ambitious two-disc set begun a number of years ago for her young daughter and ultimately based around the theme of childhood. On the record, Merchant put more than two dozen 19th and 20th century British and American poems to music, many with orchestral arrangements. The album reached #1 on the U.S Billboard Folk chart and 17 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Articulate, gracious, and soft-spoken, Merchant discussed the musicality of Leave Your Sleep, her daughter’s tastes in music, and how she twice turned down Oliver Stone’s offers to be in his films. In the conversation, Merchant - who turned 50 just days after the interview - looked back at her past with great clarity and also ahead to the possibilities in her future.
LC: Thank you for taking the time to do this.
Natalie Merchant: Thank you for doing the interview. I want people to come to the show.
LC: You’ve used strings before – Verdi Cries, Jubilee, Life is Sweet, King of May, and a lot of the Motherland record. There were some pretty complex string arrangements on those songs. Is this whole project – just music part of it - something you had thought about long ago?
Natalie Merchant: Well it’s been moving in this direction for a long time. And the last album, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, features a lot of symphonic instruments. My first was doing a show about four years ago by invitation of the Boston Symphony. It was a huge undertaking to create all the scores, and they helped me.
LC: One of the things about those arrangements and some of the things you’ve said about the Leave Your Sleep project, you mentioned that you were a novice at poetry, but it often seems that your songwriting is very literal, meaning that you can take social issues like child abuse and illiteracy and put this concrete imagery to it, incorporate historical settings, even Ophelia, based on Shakespeare’s character, it’s a little surprising you would consider yourself a novice. Other than the lullaby part for your daughter, how did you come by the poetry aspect?
Natalie Merchant: Well, I was very excited about language in general because I was teaching someone how to speak, and using magical simple poetry from my own childhood whether it was nursery rhymes lullabies … I was just trying to pass it on to my daughter.
LC: Did the music writing for this differ from your normal writing? Did you sit at a piano? Not just the string parts, but on something like The Janitor’s Boy, there’s that great Dixieland jazz sound. How did you go about the melodies? Was that different than a normal song you come at with lyrics of your own?
Natalie Merchant: The challenge of this was to discover the song within the poetic structure of these words instead of trying to match the feelings and emotion that I had with the music and usually the rhythm comes after that and it always starts to me with a chord progression. I had to pick up the rhythm with the poets’ words, and I tried to interpret that. I really loved taking the setting of the poem or the characters within the poem and then try to illustrate them with music. It was a completely different approach to writing than I had ever taken before. I liked it, but it was different. I had the desire to collaborate with different musicians that I had met over the years or that I had been admiring their music for years, but I definitely didn’t want to do an entire Classical record, or entire Cajun record, or an entire Chinese one. [Laughs]
I just curated the project by picking out these musicians who were the best in their field. And then I had to master how to collaborate with them. Some of these musicians I collaborated with – I’d never seen the instrument that they played. Such as the uilleann pipes – I mean I’d seen it, but I’d never stood next to it. I just know how it was strapped down to the body, part of the body made up that huge bladder that fills up with air and makes that Rrrrrr, the erhu and the theorbo, a stringed instrument that’s about seven and a half feet tall. I never knew there were so many different types of recorders...
LC: The only ones I’ve seen are the ones they give out in kindergarten music class, the plastic ones. Not quite the same thing. Yes, certainly none of those instruments were featured on The Wishing Chair. This is a totally different path, but like so many artists who’ve had a long career, I would guess you want to do different things. To do the same thing would probably become a bit tiresome as an artist; you want to branch out.
Natalie Merchant: You know there’s only so many sounds the Hammond organ can make, and I love the sound that a Hammond organ makes, but I kind of wanted to find out what a Bassoon sounded like.
LC: You did use that on I’m Not the Man, right?
Natalie Merchant: You did your homework.
LC: Well, I know that because when I was 19, I listened to Blind Man’s Zoo over and over.
Natalie Merchant: It was actually, I think, three bassoons, played on that song. Like I said, I experimented with this format before , and I introduced a lot of these instruments over the years, but never to this extent. My repertoire has gotten so large, and I think we debuted three new songs the last few months, and we have four new songs to debut in the next few months.
LC: And might there be a debut in Louisville?
Natalie Merchant: Well, we’re doing three new songs that we’ve only done Lulu three times.
LC: Since you’ve been touring in this format the last couple years with an orchestra, you mentioned you added songs, but has anything changed with the arrangements of certain songs or maybe how you interpret the songs now than how you looked at the poems originally?
Natalie Merchant: Yes, there are several examples of songs that had some electric arrangements which now have been scaled down from their original incarnations. We do a version of The Letter which was just piano and voice on the album and now it has a whole string section. Sometimes people don’t recognize the songs until I start singing. There’ll be 16 to 32 bars of introduction, and they don’t know what the song is, and then I sing the first line and they clap. We change the song so much that people don’t recognize it.
LC: Being such a noted songwriter, for you is it ever tough to learn other people’s lyrics when you’re doing them live – more so than remembering your own songs?
Natalie Merchant: No, I love interpreting other people’s songs.
LC: You started the project with your daughter in mind. What grade is she in now?
Natalie Merchant: She’s in the fifth grade.
LC: I have a sixth grader and a first grader.
Natalie Merchant: She’s doing long division. 'Will you help me with my homework? No!' [Laughs]
LC: Yeah, you’re thinking why can’t they bring home some Literature or Poetry homework. So you started Leave Your Sleep with her in mind, and it became a childhood project. What about her now in fifth grade? You can start getting your own musical fandom identity. Does she listen to your music? What does she like?
Natalie Merchant: She’s my only child, and a like a lot of children who are in one-child families - kids spending a lot of time around adults – she really identifies with adults so she really likes having things in common with my friends. So, she listens to oldies radio. She gets a lot of excitement from that connection she makes with an adult when she sings a song they know. She sings Rhinestone Cowboy or Wichita Lineman or any Supremes song or The Jackson 5. She loves it when adults ask her ‘How do you know this music? She loves The Kinks. She listens to some contemporary pop music, but she really gravitates toward oldies. She loves that pop infusion, and I wish I could hear the Supremes for the first time. I wish I could hear Otis Redding for the first time. I wish I could hear so many of the artists that she is discovering now for the first time.
LC: You know how some kids – especially going on 10, 11, or 12, they don’t think their parents are do cool, or other parents are cooler than theirs. Does she ever want to hear Like The Weather or a song like that? Or is because that’s mom’s old song, that’s not as cool as some of the other old songs?
Natalie Merchant: She doesn’t really know any of mine other than Leave Your Sleep. She knows the material as it exists in the live shows because she’s come to them; she doesn’t sit around listening to my old records. She listened to Leave Your Sleep because she was in the studio while it was being made and she was in my lap while I was writing it. She’s starting to write her own music. She took piano for a few years and kind of burned out of that at the moment, but she’s taken up the ukulele. I’ve never been able to play a stringed instrument, and I’m trying ukulele recently. I learned All My Loving by The Beatles.
LC: You could have a mother-daughter band.
Natalie Merchant: A ukulele band.
LC: There’s always a big audience for that.
Natalie Merchant: It could fit in our living room. No, it’s fun to see her get excited about playing an instrument again.
LC: There are some songs that I hear and associate with my two boys. It adds an emotional context to it. One song of yours that somehow resonated even before I had kids and more so now is How You’ve Grown. Now as a mom, do you listen to that song, your own song differently?
Natalie Merchant: Yeah because I wrote that song about my niece. My sister lived far away and I didn’t get to see my niece very often, and I remember that feeling of disappointment in my relatives when I would see them and they wouldn’t even know what grade I was in. I remember I was in that role. I remember them asking ‘So what grade are you in?’ I was like ‘ What kind of idiot are you? How do you not know I’m in third grade? My whole life revolves about being in third grade.’ (Laughs) I remember one time I thought my niece was in second grade, when she was in third grade. It just crushed her.
LC: I wanted to wish you a happy early birthday. That’s a big one coming up this week. It got me thinking – the last time I saw you perform was twenty years ago in the summer of ’93. You’re at a place now that affords you the opportunity to do a project of this huge magnitude like Leave Your Sleep. Is there anything from the music industry or from life in general that you wish you could have imparted on the thirty year-old you?
Natalie Merchant: I would have less hostility towards stylists. (Laughs) The record companies had so much money back in the 80s and 90s, and they over and over offered me the opportunity to go shopping with stylists, and get my picture taken more and make more videos and I sort of wish I had taken them up on that.
LC: While you maybe didn’t take advantage of all the perks, you did seem to be everywhere in the late 80s to early 90s.
Natalie Merchant: I was also offered a lot of opportunities to be in films, and I just felt that I would have to study acting, and then make that leap and I’d seen so many musicians who tried to be actors and fail at it so many actors who tried to be musicians and weren’t successful at it. I was frightened of it, and I kind of wish now that I had said yes. And Oliver Stone asked me to be in two of his movies - The Doors film and in Born on the Fourth of July, and I was terrified. I remember Edie Brickell got the part in Born on the Fourth of July, and in The Doors film, all they wanted us to do was play a warm-up band at some Doors concert, and I should have said yes. It would have been interesting, but that’s the 50-year-old me looking back at the twenty-something me and asking why didn’t you do that it would have been fun.
LC: So, say if Cameron Crowe comes to you know and says he’d like you to be in a movie, is that something you would consider now if that ever came up?
Natalie Merchant: Well, now I would have to play someone’s mother or grandmother – which might be fun.
LC: Well that would be interesting because you’ve always had a great stage presence and I know that’s easier said than done to translate that to film.
Natalie Merchant: There’s something ephemeral about, well, there was something ephemeral about – before everyone was filming you every night with their iPhones , there’s something ephemeral about a live performance. You’re not as attached to every gesture every word, but when you’re being filmed it gets more constricting. I have a great amount of respect for actors who act well.
LC: Well, you’ve always looked very at home on the stage, and we’re looking forward to the show. Is the show, by the way, with the orchestra for the whole set, or will there also be half with just a few musicians.
Natalie Merchant: We do a full orchestral show, and then we’ll do a few songs with a trio at the end of the night.
LC: Well, that should be really good. Again we’re looking forward to it, and if you get a chance while you’re in Louisville, there are a lot of museums and places to visit along Main Street by the Center for the Arts. Anyway, I just wanted to add that your music has become a part of mine and so many people’s lives, interwoven in the day to day, so thank you for that, and we look forward to your new directions as well.
Natalie Merchant: That’s so nice. And many musicians have done that for me.
LC: Thank you very much, Natalie for taking the time to talk with us.
Natalie Merchant: OK, thank you Kevin.
Photo: Mark Seliger