Natalie Merchant, the American singer/songwriter originally known for her work with the band 10,000 Maniacs, has enjoyed a long and successful solo career. In the coming months, she is releasing a new album of original compositions, Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, which will harken back to her first solo release, Tigerlily (1995). That first solo album, along with her second release, Ophelia (1998) feature her warm, resonant vocals and lovely poetry set to mostly down-tempo, dreamy electric and acoustic instrumentation. After her third release in this style Motherland (2001), she expanded her pallet with two compelling explorations into historical music and literature, introducing listeners to a series of oft forgotten artists of the past. These were The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003) and Leave Your Sleep (2010).
The House Carpenter’s Daughter found Natalie playing musical anthropologist, taking listeners on a journey through a collection of primarily American folk music from traditional to contemporary ballads, hymns, and protest songs. Before the studio album was even recorded, I was able to catch her on a tour that showcased these songs and it is still the best performance I’ve seen from this artist. She was visibly happy, telling stories about each piece, and connecting the audience to their shared history, via a well-chosen set of rescued folk classics. During one of the songs from that evening, an old children’s ditty from the Deep South, “Soldier, Soldier” she skipped rope, as the song was originally intended to accompany that diversion.
Similarly, her next album Leave Your Sleep presented a collection of poetry for children put to music. The tracks were a result of six years conversations with her daughter about poems, stories and songs she found to, as she says, “delight and teach her.” What she discovered is a wonderful selection of prose from British and American poets clearly inspiring her to pen and record a very remarkable set of songs to match. She spent over five years researching and writing the “poem-songs,” finally whittling what ended up being 50 songs down to 26 for the release. The 2 CD package came with a picture book based on the album, for which Natalie collaborated with award-winning children’s book illustrator Barbara McClintock. The introductory prose by Mother Goose says it all:
Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street
I was able to catch the supporting tour for this unique recording at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The show was filled with a series of sweet, poignant revelations from this artist as she shared family anecdotes and her love of poetry with the enthusiastic audience. She projected a few slides for each song, showing a photo of the poet and accompanying artwork along with a story, a bit of the author’s history and why she chose it.
On record, I found it took several spins to begin to appreciate the diverse all-acoustic set, played in varying traditional styles, at mostly slow tempos. But as performed in concert the music and imaginative arrangements came to life. The first set was all from Leave Your Sleep, after which Natalie returned for a collection of standards from her back catalog, including several tracks from her days with 10,000 Maniacs going back to their seminal release In My Tribe. In short it was a beautiful performance.
Last year Natalie released her sixth studio record simply titled Natalie Merchant, her first album of all original material since Motherland. I completely missed this one, only learning about it while preparing this article. It’s a shame, as the album continues where she left off in 2001, enriched by scores of musicians including strings and woodwinds players, and supported by a tour with some dates including a full symphony orchestra.
In her liner notes to The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Natalie Merchant, opining on the great tradition of folk music writes, “…a song that is universally loved and understood will endure the test of time and become folk music because it has made itself useful to so many of us.” To her fans, this applies to her music, meaningful poetry, and compelling live performances. Looking back over her career, seven albums in 20 years might not be prolific, but each is a quality work of art. We are now eagerly awaiting the next showing.