Natalie Merchant was still a teenager when she strolled into the community college radio station in Jamestown, New York, arms loaded with albums and eight-tracks she wanted to hear. She met DJs Steven Gustafson and Dennis Drew, and together with Robert Buck and John Lombardo, they formed the band 10,000 Maniacs. They came out with their first record, "Secrets Of The I-Ching," in 1981.
In 1987, the Maniacs released "In My Tribe," selling more than two million copies in the U.S. alone. The band's eclectic lyrics and Merchant's voice, which shimmers, smolders and soothes like a glass of cabernet, captivated alternative-rock fans. In the 1990s, Merchant launched a successful solo career, touring constantly and selling millions of albums over the next dozen years on the Elektra label, including quintuple-platinum "Tigerlily," her solo debut released in 1995.
In 2003, Merchant married documentary filmmaker Daniel de la Calle and had a daughter; she and de la Calle later divorced. Merchant turned full her attention to motherhood, which inspired a new project: "Leave Your Sleep." Over a five-year period, she researched an array of unknown and celebrated poets, putting their nursery rhymes to music in a collection of 26 songs released in 2010 by Nonesuch Records. I recently spoke with Merchant about her career, motherhood as muse and the constraints on women in rock. (Our edited conversation appears below; check out our slideshow at the end of the story for some classic performances and vote for your favorite.)
Talk about the evolution of "Leave Your Sleep."
I had an anthology of children's poetry and was nursing and spending a lot of time sitting still in a chair reading these poems, and I was really delighted. With my hands that full it was difficult for me to have hours and hours of uninterrupted creative time -- which is what I need to write lyrics normally. But then I just thought of adapting the poems. The research phase was really fascinating -- I'm not a closeted nerd, I'm an out-of-the-closet nerd. I love research and I really enjoyed learning about the lives of the poets who were more obscure -- such as Nathalia Crane -- and writing what became their first biographies. Turning someone else's words into music was meaningful.
You recorded the album with 130 different musicians in styles ranging from jazz to reggae, bluegrass to Celtic, Zydeco to chamber music. Why is collaboration important to you at this point in your career?
Being in a band for years is limiting; there's only so much creativity, even when you pool together five people. With this project I wanted to work in many different styles of music and with people who were masters in their style. Wynton Marsalis is a walking encyclopedia of jazz; the reggae players were Jamaican artists; the Celtic players were some of the best folk players in Ireland. I felt honored to be in presence of all those musicians; I learned so much.
"Leave Your Sleep" isn't really a kids' album.
It's a work about childhood rather than a children's record. Having my own child I know there's nothing worse than having to listen to really bad children's music over and over. I wanted to give parents something they could listen to too. In October, MacMillan is publishing a book featuring 20 of the songs with illustrations by Barbara McClintock. I wanted to make a perennial classic.
As part of their curriculum, 3,500 New York City school kids in grades K through 3 focused on "Leave Your Sleep" last fall, learning about the poets and writing their own verses. You performed at the YMCA for hundreds of kids from Brooklyn, Bronx and Harlem. What was that like?
I had a wireless microphone and went through audience and the kids sang the songs they had written. I sang "Isabel," an Ogden Nash poem in which Isabel encounters a witch, a bear, an evil doctor and a giant Cyclops. I asked them what makes a great fairy tale, and one of the kids said, "magic!" and another yelled out, "it has heroes!" They were so bright and so beautiful; I felt really lucky.
"In My Tribe" turns 25 this year. Are there things you have learned artistically or personally that you would tell your younger self now?
I wish I had appreciated my youth -- I should have worn tighter clothing when I could have! But when I look back I don't have a lot of regrets. We actually had our 30th anniversary last summer and when I went home they gave me the keys to the city. I saw the guys in the band and I hadn't seen them in so many years; everyone but John has kids now, so that was the common denominator. It's amazing that you get to a certain age where you have conscious memories of things that happened years ago. You feel old. I even remember Bobby Kennedy's funeral; we lived in Detroit at the time and I remember the riots -- and that seems like a long, long time ago.
Talk about growing up in Jamestown. You were the third of four children and your parents divorced when you were young.
My mother was a single working mother; she started having children very young. There was a tension inside her about who she wanted to be and what she wanted to do and how she couldn't achieve the things she wanted to. My mother went to college after having children -- she studied liberal arts and got a master's degree in fine art, but I don't she think got it until her mid-50s. My mothering experience has really contrasted with that because I had a really long career before I had a child. My mother passed away last year. I admired her strength and I understood a lot of her frustration as I got older and realized how much energy it takes to be a parent -- and I only have one child.
I read that you grew up without television.
We were avid television watchers until 1973 or 1974. It was in the early days of cable where Showtime or HBO or whatever existed back then would allow you two weeks of free movie-watching. My mother came home and saw us watching an age-inappropriate film about Lenny Bruce -- someone was naked and had overdosed on the floor -- and she pulled the cable so hard she tore the sheet rock off the wall. She said, "Not my children!" And it was over -- cold turkey. It was the best thing she did for me as a mother.
How did you spend the time after that?
We played in the forest and wrote little books and drew and we had to talk to each other, deal with each other. Up to that point we would get home from school and turn on the TV and eat bowls of sugary cereal until my brother started pounding on one of us, basically. We came home and fended for ourselves until my mother came home, like a lot of kids. Television was like a drug, a one-way ticket to brainless, numbing, nothingness -- to oblivion. I've raised my daughter with no television.
You just announced some upcoming performances as a guest soloist at orchestral shows. Is this the next direction for you?
I enjoy working with the wide variety of instruments the symphony provides, and the textures and the emotional resonance of those instruments. I'm trying to find a way to mature in this field called pop music, which really loathes the aging process and loves youth. I just feel like I don't want to do the same thing I did when 25 or 35. The songs have endurance and have retained a lot of validity. But I'm focusing on how to make the experience appropriate for the way I feel now, with new material.
It's an awkward thing to talk about, but it's true: It's possible to be a musician, but you can't be a pop musician and be a woman and continue in this forever. There's so much lived experience and some wisdom I've gained in my life, and there must be room for that. Emmylou Harris is still making good records; Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel matured and have grown through pop music -- and nobody expects them to do the same thing as they did in their early 20s.
What about Patti Smith? She took a break for 17 years and devoted herself to raising kids before returning to performing.
I did a few shows with her because we were both supporters of Tibet House. It was just after she had just started performing again -- and it felt like there was a log-jam and a dam had burst. There was great intensity there, as if she had kept it contained for so long. I wondered, "if she has all this in her, how could she go about living the life of a stay-at-home mom?" I know it's totally natural to want to raise your children and become involved in a different community of people who have similar aims and passions. You can still maintain a creative life, but it's more interior, it's more internalized.
Has motherhood been the muse for any new projects since "Leave Your Sleep"?
For black history month, my daughter's school is focusing on Marian Anderson, who was a big heroine of mine. I went to Penn State where they have all her photographs and sat up late last night for three hours, looking through the archives of her personal photo albums. She has a photo in every European capital; there are photos of her with Frida Kahlo and Martha Graham; performing in Haiti and Cuba and Japan. What a life!
She came from extremely humble origins; her father was an ice and coal deliveryman. She was 13 when her father died and she had to leave high school to work to help support her family. I came from working-class background in a pretty obscure town and music took me to European capitals and introduced me to some luminaries of the day. I could have embraced more opportunities, but I feel like I've had a good run and I'm still having a good run -- and all because of music.