A 12 year stint singing with 10,000 Maniacs and a subsequent multi-million selling solo career cemented folk/rock crossover queen Natalie Merchant as America’s chief exponent of dolorous, sweet and gentle ballads. She last put out a studio album in 2003 on the day her daughter was born. That was The House Carpenter’s Daughter, an album of traditional songs and folk covers released on her own label after the end of a lengthy relationship with Elektra Records. Fast forward to now and she’s returned to release Leave Your Sleep, an unusual project immortalising words of poets to her own original compositions.
Merchant’s music can give rise to an expectation of her being a sombre, serious person, and so it’s a pleasant surprise to find that in person she’s nothing of the sort. While her make-up free face and dressed-down black outfit attest that she’s no lightweight pop princess, she’s a perky and giggly interviewee only too happy to open up and talk about what she’s been up to.
We break the ice by chatting about the tiny gig she played at London’s Conway Hall a few months back. Her first gig playing her own material in eight years, she forgot the words to Carnival, arguably her most popular solo single. “It was a fun night… we’d worked really hard on getting the new material sounding decent, but completely assumed we would remember the old stuff. And I was the one that forgot the lyrics.” People would assume that of all her songs, that one would have been ingrained in her head. “Well, it is now!” she exclaims, laughing at the memory.
Is she happy to be doing the press thing again after so long? “Leave Your Sleep is such a fun project to talk about,” she enthuses. “There’s so much involved between the poetry and the poets and the collaborations with different musicians and the whole ‘what have I been doing for seven years’.”
So, what has she been doing for seven years? “You know, during these interviews, I keep remembering other things I’ve done. I’ve curated greatest hits packages and I started my own record label. I recorded a Ladysmith Black Mambazo campaign. And worked with Wynton Marsalis, Philip Glass and sung on the new David Byrne record.” Her list of collaborations carries on taking in the likes of The Cowboy Junkies and Vic Chestnutt. “So to all those people who’ve been like ‘you’ve been away so long’ I’m like, ‘I haven’t stopped working’.”
Having convinced us that she’s not just been a lazy so-and-so, she moves on to the new project and why this time around it’s not been released on her own Myth America Records. “My label is idling for now. But this project – I wouldn’t be in London talking to you if it was an independent release. I funded the whole recording process and I just needed a partner. I didn’t have any money to manufacture it and put it out. I didn’t do any promotion for The House Carpenter’s Daughter. I didn’t do any touring. It was just a really under the radar release. So it was something that I could handle,” she says, although she can’t help but add that “it still sold 200,000 copies”.
It turns out that Leave Your Sleep has, in one form or another, been in the making ever since. “I started writing when my daughter was born. Originally it was going to be an album of lullabies and nursery rhymes, because people have been encouraging me for years to write a children’s record and I thought now was the time, since I was in it up to my elbows. I really felt like I understood what creating a soothing song for an infant was because I’d never really held an infant until I had one of my own. So that idea worked for about a year, and then since she started talking, and I started teaching her language and started introducing her to more and more poetry and she just kept growing and I kept writing and she kept growing and I kept writing until it got to the point where she was really capable of comprehending.”
This, of course, was a pivotal stage in the relationship between mother and daughter. “I started to understand how early it is that they have questions about the real essential and important issues of life – like illness and death and our existence on Planet Earth and what’s beyond Outer Space. And these are the questions she started asking me at four years old. So I realised that kids have really complex and sophisticated little minds and I thought now I want to make a very sophisticated record for older kids.”
And so poetry became involved. “I found a recurrent theme in poetry with loss of innocence and I started to see that in my child too. Even at a young age there’s a deflowering that happens, an awakening to some of the harsh realities of life. And rather than pretend they don’t exist, I think it’s better, once they’re exposed to it, to have a conversation and say it’s a beautiful, terrible place we live in. And people can be evil and they can be good and I know this affects you. And that’s why I started seeking out poems of lost innocence like the Charles Causley and the Robert Louis Stevenson, and definitely the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Spring Fall, which is the ultimate knife to the chest for a child – the question of why does everything have to die”.
“The ultimate knife to the chest for a child (is) the question of why does everything have to die.” – Natalie Merchant
When listening to the album the diversity of musical styles employed is immediately apparent. How did she decide how to showcase each poem? “Well the poems came first. Some of them I wrote with several different styles of music. For example The Peppery Man was actually an Irish jig before it became a blues song. The jig just wasn’t badass enough. I was like ‘that’s not The Peppery Man’. He’s kind of jaunty, and the jig wasn’t jaunty. The Peppery Man – he’s one badass dude and if I needed to make the theme of a badass dude it would be the blues.”
Merchant talks about the album with enthusiasm bordering on obsession. She did more than just record these songs; she researched and followed up on all the details. “I tell you, after all the researching the copyrights and getting permissions and tracking out the heirs to the estates and the photographs, I’m ready for a new career – maybe something that involves documentary film making. Or maybe I could be someone’s research assistant now.”“I helped find some of the photographs,” she explains, “and I researched the poets. Even though I had three research assistants who funnelled information to me about them I just became so fascinated by the lives of these people. They were my co-writers. For some, all I had at the beginning was their names, the date they were born and died. And it just wasn’t enough information. When I started to learn a little bit about them, I wanted to know more and I wanted to see them. And the quest to see them lasted two years because some of these poets are so obscure that there really is only one photograph. Arthur Macy, who wrote The Peppery Man, really eluded us. We had to go to an island in New England where his photograph was kept in a dusty musky box in Nantucket Historical Society. And it was interesting to see how excited the people at these archives were by the project.”
As she talks about some of the individual poems there is genuine excitement that her reinterpretations of these poems have been accepted and celebrated by the poetry community. “We played Spring And Fall: To A Young Child to scholars who had studied Gerard Manley Hopkins. And I met the great grandson of William Brighty Rands who wrote Topsyturvey-World and he showed us a first edition of the book of poems. I played him the song and it was so fun to be there with the great grandson of this man.”
When I inquire about the direction she took for Bleezer’s Ice Cream, written by American children’s poet Jack Prelutsky, she can’t stop from singing out “Ebeneezer Bleezer, come on” before explaining that she “sent Jack a copy of it and he sent me an email saying that he’d never thought of Ebeneezer in this way, and that he never would think of him in the same way again”.
“Originally it was going to be an album of lullabies and nursery rhymes…” – Natalie Merchant
“Then I made a manuscript for the book – all the poets are in there.” And at this point she shows me an incredible looking deluxe version of the CD. “This is full of biographical essays about the poets and the poetry. I found a really amazing book designer named David Pearson who works here in London and asked him to design a book spine for each poem that somehow referenced the style of music or the period of the poem. It’s 80 pages long, and if people decide to read it then that’s another part of it for them to enjoy.”
The combination of her sober demeanour and her quiet lifestyle out of the public eye gives rise to a perception that Merchant might be an artist wary of the media, one for whom the attention is an unwanted but necessary by-product of the work she does. On enquiring as to whether she’s nervous of being back in the spotlight, it appears I may have misread her. “My spotlight has a nice blue gel on it. It’s never been glaring white. My spotlight is very manageable.” Does she get recognised? “I’ve lived in New York State for 20 years. I get recognised because I’ve lived in the area so much. People know what I do but don’t make a fuss about it. People tell me they appreciate my work or that a particular song helped them or touched them. And I think this project is going to be a very useful project. I think I’m going to have a lot of teachers coming up to me saying ‘oh, that’s such a great supplementary teaching tool – thank you very much’. I think I’ll get that kind of feedback which I’m looking forward to. And then hopefully we’ll be able to keep it in control and I won’t have to put up a wall. I’ve always had an extremely respectful fanbase, and I’ve been around so long that people who listened to me in the ’80s now probably have grandchildren.”
When describing what she would like her listeners to take from this album, she explains profoundly that she’d like them to have “a good musical experience. To feel good about life. To feel things and feel more human. That’s what poetry and music both do for me. They make me feel connected to other people; they make me feel more in tune with what I’m feeling. Because sometimes there’s so much noise around, and chaos; but I feel like I focus when I listen to music. It gives me a space to slow down and reflect. And I feel like this record has a lot of slow, reflective moments and it has a lot of moments for celebration.”
She comes across as a thinker; a philosopher. With a beaming smile that draws you in, she has a gentle and friendly way about her. But Merchant is also someone who takes her work and life seriously. Leave Your Sleep is a phenomenally ambitious and creative project through which she has looked to these poets to help her comprehend the growing up of her child and her own development into being a mother. The words of others may have provided her with the answers she needed. Her gift to those with similar questions is to turn those words into song.
Natalie Merchant’s album Leave Your Sleep is out now through Nonesuch.