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Natalie Merchant On Her New Music And Tour And the

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If you came of age in the 90s you understand just what a huge figure in music Natalie Merchant was. First as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, then as an acclaimed solo artist, Merchant was one of the seminal members of the alternative and indie scene.

Merchant has been largely absent from the music scene this century, focusing on being a single mother as she tells me. But with her daughter ready to go off to college, and needing an emotional outlet during the stress of COVID, Merchant returned to songwriting with a renewed fervor the last few years.

The result is the superb Keep Your Courage, Merchant’s first new solo album in nine years. An absolutely stunning collection, it is vintage Merchant in displaying heart, intelligence and integrity wrapped in indelible hooks and gorgeous melodies.

The album is also being accompanied by a tour, which Merchant is particularly excited about. She explains that after a medical emergency that left her unable to play piano or sing she is very appreciative now of everything musical she gets to do. I spoke to Merchant about the new album, the tour, the 10,000 Maniacs songs she still plays and much more.

Steve Baltin: It’s a wonderful record. Was there one song that really began the writing process?

Natalie Merchant: I can’t remember. Things are kind of blurry back there in the lockdown. I did write it in 2021. End of 2020, beginning of 2021.

Baltin: I read the artist notes where you talked about craving human connection and love. And it’s such an interesting thing because I really do believe that most good writing is subconscious. And then it leads you to where you need to go. And so then, of course, there are things that emerge that kind of surprise you. So were there things in this record that really surprised you?

Merchant: Just the fact that I wrote an album surprised me. I got to the point where I didn’t know if I knew how to do that anymore. It’s been so long. But, to write about love, I’ve always written about different forms of love, but this was a high concentration of songs about love.

Baltin: At what point did you realize this was going to become an album?

Merchant: I think by the time I’d written the fifth song, I thought this was developing into an album. But at first I was just looking for a good emotional outlet that I could keep my mind on. I’ve been through a pretty horrible health crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had emergency spine surgery. And because of the spinal disease that I suddenly found out I had, I lost the use of my right hand for several months. The nerve damage was healed. So, I think that this album was as much about the isolation of COVID and retrospection and all that. As much as that, it was about really appreciating the fact that I do have a voice and I do have my hands, because I didn’t have them for a while. I couldn’t sing for almost nine months and I couldn’t play the piano for as long.

Baltin: Having lost the use of your hands, did it give you a much deeper appreciation for writing and being able to sing when you were able to do so again?

Merchant: Yes, definitely. And I didn’t realize how often I normally sing in my daily life. I sing all day and to not be able to do it, i was an emotional outlet that just wasn’t available to me anymore. So yeah, it was sobering and then it was almost miraculous when I was able to do both again. Took a long time.

Baltin: At what point in all of this did you sort of have that epiphany of how much you sing every day and what it means to you?

Merchant: Oh, I guess the whole time. That epiphany was several months long, I think [laughter]. It’s hard to explain. Before I had the surgery, I had to sign a paper that said I wouldn’t hold the surgeon accountable if I could never speak again or if I was paralyzed. So when I could speak, at least when I woke up, I thought, “Well, there’s a victory.” But then I couldn’t really sing with my full voice, I sang in falsetto for months.

Baltin: Do you find that there’s that appreciation and all that you went through is manifested in the record in different ways, just in the sense of like, there’s a buoyancy in the record that maybe wouldn’t be there otherwise?

Merchant: Well, yeah. Each one of the songs was written at a different time and reflects a different mood. So, I wouldn’t say “Guardian Angel” is that buoyant, but there’s a lot of variety in the album and instrumentation and tempo and arrangement, all those things. And it was written over about an eight-month period. There was a lot of mood changing in there. I’ll have to be honest, it was a good distraction, because days started running into each other during the lockdown and I like a project, so it gave me purpose. And also, I’ve been a single mother since my daughter was five and she was going off to college. So I realized that my life was going to drastically change and that I would suddenly have the freedom to create an album and then also possibly tour, which I didn’t allow myself to have that opportunity. I prioritized being a mother for many years, 20 years actually [laughter].

Baltin: Are you excited to get back out and tour? Are there songs that you are particularly excited to do in front of an audience?

Merchant: Yeah, I’m very much looking forward to performing the orchestral shows and hearing these songs fully realized in a live setting. Because of the COVID situation, we could only have five people in the studio at a time, and so these songs were built through layering. We did one rehearsal back in November with orchestra to check all the scores and it was pretty thrilling. And I’m playing with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center and I’m playing Lincoln Center and several other orchestras, Atlanta Symphony. It’s going to be very moving to hear these songs with a full orchestra.

Baltin: Are there songs from your past that you’re particularly excited to do in this format?

Merchant: It’s very universal. I still do some 10,000 Maniacs. I do “Jack Kerouac” and “These Are Days.” With orchestras, I usually do “Gold Rush Brides” and “Verdi Cries.” I acknowledge that people want to hear some of the earlier stuff, but I still enjoy playing those songs. I even do “What’s The Matter Here” occasionally and “Don’t Talk.” So I don’t have a wall between myself and my solo career and 10,000 Maniacs.

Baltin: Are there older songs that you’re particularly excited to do with an orchestra or that you feel have really changed for you or you have a different appreciation for?

Merchant: I’ve done about 70 orchestra shows, I’ve been doing orchestra shows since 2008. And many of the songs were expansions on string quartets. So I decided with this tour that I would make those full orchestrations, add woodwinds, add brass. And “River” is one of those songs. And “Seven Years” is another one of the songs that I’ve expanded. And that’s been really exciting because I’ve heard them with just strings so far. It’s a very elegant way to create music. It’s hard to explain how it feels to be standing in front of a full orchestra.

Baltin: For you, how inspiring is it playing with the orchestras?

Merchant: Well, the people who played on the album were all brilliant gifted musicians too. Everyone who played on this album was just amazing. It’s a thrill and a privilege. And I think I’m very adaptable, so I just kind of accept circumstances probably for longer than I should oftentimes [chuckle]. But I just sort of accepted that well, we just don’t play live anymore. It’s too dangerous, we just don’t do it. And that went on for so long that I still can’t even believe that this time next week I’ll be. I’ve done little small benefits and things like that but I haven’t done a real full scale show in years. Years and years.

Baltin: Now that your daughter’s going off to college, do you see this as being the beginning of a new wave of music and touring?

Merchant: It’s definitely a new wave, it’s a new chapter. And I think it’s gonna be extremely varied. It’s not going to be big record, big tour for me probably. I’m doing a project in Italy right now with a Italian band. There’s a lot of research going into that because I’m singing in Italian, I’ve been adapting the poetry of Lena Schwartz who’s an Italian Jewish poet who died in the 1947, so did most of her work in the early twentieth century. I’ve been asked to do a project with Chicago Symphony in the Chicago Children’s Theater. I’ve been appointed to a board at the Library of Congress, and that’s a six-year appointment. When I look at all the opportunities that are available, it’s more a question of how much am I capable of doing, ’cause there’s so much available. When my daughter was young, I used Patti as an example when I was like, “I’m just taking this time to be a mother.” ‘Cause she took about 16 years to raise her children. And I remember talking to her at the Tibet House Benefit, it was one of the first times that she’d performed. And I didn’t even knew her at that moment, but I always put that in the back of my mind that someone as significant and prolific as Patti Smith prioritized her children. And I thought that was wonderful.

Baltin: When you go back and listen to this record all the way through, what do you take from it?

Merchant: I haven’t done that in a while. Not since we finished mastering. Well I feel proud of the record. I’m proud of the production. I think it’s the best sounding album I’ve ever made. And I’m proud of the lyrics too, because I allowed myself to be more free, I guess more poetic. Play with the language more.

Baltin: What were some of the literary things that popped up in this record?

Merchant: Well, I’d definitely make reference to mythical characters, Greek mythical characters. Aphrodite and Echo and Narcissus. And then I always turn to biblical references. I find them pretty universal and very evocative. So Tower of Babel and even in the Feast of St. Valentine and Guardian Angels as Christian themes. When you use those as literary devices, cultural references that carry a lot of weight and you’re working in a really confined space when you’re trying to write lyrics. So any way that you can add another layer of meaning, it’s useful.

Baltin: Were there literary references that came or things like that, that maybe surprised you?

Merchant: On this album, no. I don’t think I was surprised by anything in that way. I’m looking at the titles. No, I was very able to write a song about Walt Whitman. ‘Cause I found him very inspirational. It’s been difficult to be in America the last six -seven years. So, with all the division happening in this country, I find when I read Walt Whitman, especially anything he wrote about America and the promise of America and his hopes for America in realizing that he was a witness to some horrific results of division when he was in the war hospitals in DC during the Civil War. And yet he still maintained his hope for this country. I found that inspirational.

Baltin: Is there anything that you want to add about the album that I did not ask you about?

Merchant: Well, “Sister Tilly” is an important song to me. It’s a song about a woman that I created who represents my mother’s generation, and we’re beginning to lose these women, rapidly. Women who came of age in the late ’60s, early ’70s. And I wanted to talk about them and show my appreciation for them, but also acknowledge that they’re leaving us. And it’s just when I discuss the theme of love, it’s love that I’m expressing for an entire generation of women. And the orchestration is very beautiful. It was done by Gabriel Kahan. I think that’s the song I’m most looking forward to playing from the new album.

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