A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Natalie Merchant first made a name for herself back in the early 1980s as front woman and songwriter for the band 10,000 Maniacs. In the 1990s, she moved on to a successful solo career, continuing to captivate fans with her unique, hypnotic voice. Since then, Merchant’s artistic impulses veered away from the world of pop into folk music, orchestral performance, and, inspired by her daughter, children’s poetry. Now, she has released her first album of original songs in 13 years. The work, titled “Natalie Merchant,” is the fullest expression of her songwriting voice to date. A conversation with Natalie Merchant about three decades in music.
- Natalie Merchant singer and songwriter
Listen To Natalie Merchant’s New Album
It’s been 13 years since Natalie Merchant released an album of new songs. A new self-titled album was released this spring in anticipation of a summer tour that kicks off July 3.
Get a sneak peak of her work with these videos from the new album:
“Giving Up Everything”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant first performed with the band, 10,000 Maniacs, at the age of 17. A successful solo career followed, then motherhood. And experimentation across musical genres. Now 50, she's released her first album of original songs in 13 years. Critics have called the self-titled work dark, brave and thoughtful. Merchant herself says she feels she's finally found her own musical voice.
MS. DIANE REHMNatalie Merchant joins me from a studio in Woodstock, New York to talk about her latest album and three decades of songwriting. I know Natalie Merchant has many, many fans out there. Do join us with your questions, comments. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Natalie Merchant, it's so good to be able to see you and hear you today.
MS. NATALIE MERCHANTIt's a pleasure to be here, Diane. Thank you for having me.
REHMNatalie, I understand that you have been called a reluctant pop star. That your publicity shy, that you like to stay in the background and yet, now here you are, 30 years later, about to go on tour with a brand new album. Tell me what's motivating you at this point.
MERCHANTWell, what's motivating me right now is I have this collection of new songs and I really want to share them with my audience. And I haven't seen my audience in a bit of time. So, I'm all excited about doing that, and that kind of helps me overcome any timidity or shyness.
REHMSo, I mean, did you find yourself having to work on the idea of, well, I'm gonna have to be out there. I'm gonna have to be in front of an audience. I'm gonna have to talk to people like Diane Rehm. You know, how did you get yourself there?
MERCHANTWell, I'm not operating at a level of impairment. It's just I prefer a quiet life, but I think I'm very proud of the work that I do, and I really crave that connection and the adrenaline helps a lot. Once I see the people, and I just want, I have so much I want to tell them, emotionally.
REHMAnd you've said that with this album, you found your voice. Tell us what you mean.
MERCHANTWell, it's interesting, because that might be referring to a comment I made about Virginia Woolf when she wrote "Dalloway," that she said she had found her voice. And I believe she was 43 at the time. And that's an author finding her voice. For a musician, and especially a recording musician, it's more complicated than that. I'm not the only artist involved in the end. I have to know how to transmit my vision through other musicians. And then even beyond that, in today's world of mega-multi communication, I have to know how to have the visual component that's both still and moving.
MERCHANTAnd then there's the internet, and it's just -- there's so many components. So many moving parts these days, and I feel like I'm finally more in control. I'm not, you know, being dragged by the rapids anymore. I feel like I understand how to write songs, how to produce records, how to communicate with musicians, all of that.
REHMWas that part of your resistance? That is, that you were being told to do -- what to do and that money was always something in the forefront?
MERCHANTWell, working with large corporations like Warner Brothers Communications, Time Warner Communications, was a challenge for me. For years, I was with a huge major label for 18 years. And I fought to protect my vision for years. Because I know their main objective is to maximize profit, but mine is to commune with my muse, you know? And tell the world what my muse has to say. But I did that for many years. Once I'd established myself as a solo artist, I would fund my own projects. And then I would go to the label and say, well, this is what I've done.
MERCHANTI wouldn't go to them first and ask for an advance. And that's been a model that I've been using for a long time, and I even made an independent album, which was liberating on some levels, but a bit overwhelming on others. I don't really want to market myself and, you know, have to distribute my own products, and you know, manufacture and distribution -- it's too much.
REHMI understand. I want to hear a song from this album. This is "Ladybird."
REHMNatalie, tell us what this song is about.
MERCHANTWell, it's about that limbo that we find ourselves in when we know a relationship isn't working, and we have to act in some way, but it's more complicated when you're older and you have children. So, it's talking about a woman who has a family, and she's not satisfied, but she's not the only one involved. And then, you know, the metaphor of a bird, and I keep asking her, is it time for you to fly? And we don't really find out at the end. I love the dynamic range of this song. It starts so softly, and then it's so fierce at the end. And then the strings are woven all through it, which I really love.
REHMI wonder, to what extent, you draw on your own personal experience when you create your songs.
MERCHANTWell, it's always -- I'm always drawing on it, to some extent. It's really difficult to separate yourself from years of that process of forming your own biases and your own preferences and your own, you know, vision of the world. But I usually, I like to write -- I create characters. And then I infuse them with life. And then I have conversations with them in the songs.
REHMYou have conversations.
MERCHANTThere's a dialogue that happens with "Ladybird." And I'm singing, (singing) maybe it's time to fly. It's like being in the car, singing to my own song on the radio. (singing) Time to fly away. When you gonna spread your wings and fly? This is when it gets pretty fierce. (singing) When you gonna fly away? When you gonna fly? You gotta turn it up here.
REHMTurn it up, Natalie.
MERCHANTCrank it, Diane.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Natalie Merchant is my guest. She is, of course, singer, songwriter and musician. She has performed with the band 10,000 Maniacs and as a solo artist. Her self-titled album, "Natalie Merchant" was just released at the end of May. She begins the American leg of her tour tomorrow and to learn more about when and where she'll be playing, just go to our website, drshow.org and follow the link. Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Natalie Merchant joins me from Woodstock, N.Y. And she has a brand new album out titled "Natalie Merchant." And she begins the American portion of her tour tomorrow. I'm delighted she could join us before she goes out on the road.
MERCHANTBefore I pack.
REHMNatalie, your work has always touched a lot on social issues. On this album you've written a song about Hurricane Katrina. Tell us about it.
MERCHANTWell, the song's called "Go Down, Moses." And along with everyone else, I watched in horror as the hundred thousand people who were remaining in New Orleans were left to fend for themselves. And that trauma and aftermath is what I write about in the song. Even years and years after I can't imagine that the trauma that people experienced in that city on that day and the subsequent weeks will ever leave them. So, you know, I don't consider this dated or topical of -- it's not of another time. It's in the present for those people. You know, soon -- I mean, August 20 -- is it 29th, is that the anniversary, it'll be coming back.
REHMYou talk here about the muddy water. And you titled this "Go Down, Moses." Talk about why.
MERCHANTWell, it's just -- that's Corliss Stafford singing. And when she says part the muddy -- I sing part the muddy water and let your people cross over, it's talking about how people -- so many people I saw the day after in film footage were praying, and praying for some kind of deliverance, some kind of miracle probably to save them. So that's what I was referring to.
REHMAnd the idea that many were not saved.
MERCHANTNo, they were not. One-thousand-three-hundred were not saved.
REHMDid you go to New Orleans to see for yourself?
MERCHANTNo, I had not gone to see for myself.
REHMSo you watched this footage and it implanted itself so much in your heart and in your brain that...
REHMAnd I was far, far away. I was living in Spain at the time as my ex-husband was Spanish. So we were in this tiny village in the south of Spain. And I was trying to understand what was happening with, you know, my remedial Spanish that day. And we had no internet connection so it was just -- and we had no television. I remember being in a small bar in this town watching these images and the news was in Spanish. And it didn't look like my country.
REHMIt didn't look like your country.
REHMIt looked like some foreign land that was not the United States you knew.
MERCHANTFrom where I -- from my perspective, you know, when I walked in and saw this, because my husband said, something horrible is happening back in the states. And we ran to the bar to see and it just -- I didn't recognize it.
REHMNatalie, when did you first begin writing this song?
MERCHANTThe next day actually, I did. I wrote the melody and just the chorus. But then when I came back to the United States a couple weeks later and I was able to start reading the stories of survival, that's when I started writing the rest of the song. And then I worked on it on and off where some parts of it eluded me for about three years. And August 29 every year there would be memorials and remembrances.
REHMYou know, it must be both difficult and rewarding to bring in those memories of such sad and horrific pictures that implanted themselves in your mind. And yet at the same time bring to those pictures your profoundly beautiful and haunting music. I mean, that's a true gift and one that you must call on your very deep self to bring forth.
MERCHANTWell, to me that's what music can do. It can take those -- it can transform those emotional impressions into something tangible that can be transferred to somebody else. And I think you can take some of the higher aspirations of humanity and place them in music and it even elevates them higher. That's why liturgical music, you know, the music of the church has endured so long and is so powerful. Whether you're a believer or not there's something infused in that music that celebrates this eternal spirit of man, you know. And to try to do that in a pop song is challenging.
MERCHANTBut when Corliss is singing at the end, she captures all that hopelessness and desperation and fear that I found in the faces of the people that I've studied in photographs and film. And the incident that was really the most disturbing to me of everything I read was the Danziger Bridge incident when the New Orleans police officers fired -- they open fired on a group of civilians who were just trying to get across the bridge to get food. And some of them were teenage boys. And their mother -- many of them were related, cousins. They injured four and they killed two.
MERCHANTOne of the women -- I remember her name, Susan Bartholomew, actually lost her right arm as a result of the gunfire. And I remember reading a quote from her. I think she went to Texas to recover, to just hide actually, she was so frightened. And she said, I'm moving on. At least that's what I'm trying to do. And it brought chills up my spine because those are the lyrics I put in my song before I ever read her quote, you know. Moving on, moving on, that's what I'm trying to do. Just hold it back and keep moving on.
REHMYou spoke of religious or spiritual music. Is there a hymn that is a favorite of yours?
MERCHANTWe gather together to ask the Lord's blessings. He hastens and chastens his will to make known. Is that the Doxology? I'm not sure what it's called.
REHMNo. It's the -- we always sing that at Thanksgiving as a way of saying grace around the table before we eat.
MERCHANTMaybe Doxology is (singing) "Praise God from whom all blessing flow. That's -- I love that tune. I left the church when I was, I think, 12...
MERCHANT...because my parents divorced. They were both Catholic. They divorced and my mother didn't feel comfortable anymore because she couldn't receive the Eucharist. She felt kind of spurned by the church, shunned in a way so we didn't go back.
REHMWas this the Roman Catholic Church?
REHMSo you've never been back.
MERCHANTOh, I go back occasionally but, you know, the seeds were planted and I'm really grateful. Because that code of morality and this whole notion of having an ethical code was really powerful to me, and also just having that cultural literacy. When I go to museums and I see paintings of -- maybe I see a painting of St. Jerome and she's -- is he the one who beats himself in the chest with a stone, or St. Sebastian with the arrows, or St. Cecilia -- who's the one with the eyes in the plate? Is that Cecilia?
REHMThey all have meaning. They all have meaning.
MERCHANTThey have meaning to me. They have stories. And also I think a lot of the Biblical illusions that I use, the references to Biblical stories, you can pack a lot of meaning in just a few words.
MERCHANTMoses, one word and then go down, Moses. You appeal to a broad segment of the population with that imagery.
REHMAnd there is a song on the album titled "Giving Up Everything."
REHMNatalie, the New York Times review said giving up everything which suggests a Buddhist renunciation of earthly attachment. Is that what it is?
MERCHANTIt could be. It suggests that. It's about surrendering desire and craving and control and expectations. It's about opening to the void. It's about liberation. It's about transformation. It's about seeing the emptiness as in some way magnificent.
MERCHANTSo it's interesting that you followed that conversation about, you know, my upbringing and religion to this. I think that craving is still there for some sort of spiritual path but I talk about also in the song of giving up the whole idea of the notion of having a master or a teacher or any particular codified creed. It's that struggle that goes on inside of all of us. You know, trying to remove all the distractions that prevent us from daily, moment by moment, living in the realization that it's a miracle that we even exist.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Of course in that beautiful, beautiful song "Giving Up Everything" you had the symphonic influence as well. You wanted to experiment with that.
MERCHANTFor the last three-and-a-half years exclusively all the performing I've done has been as a guest soloist with orchestras. And in the last project I did, "Leave Your Sleep," I worked with many symphonic players. And it's opened up this new palate that is so rich, the textures, the timbers, the tones, all the emotional content that also comes with those instruments, it's just too much to resist. It's too tempting.
REHMAnd this is actually putting children's poetry to music.
MERCHANT"Leave Your Sleep" was, yeah.
REHMAnd that poetry, where did it come from?
MERCHANTIt came from so many years of research. And that was a -- you know, there's a really wonderful children's album in the -- in "Leave Your Sleep." But out of those 27 songs there are also many poems written about children. The Gerard Manley Hopkins poems bringing fault to a young child is -- when I read that I was -- I mean, one of my friends is a professor of English at Bard College. And when she -- I told her about this project. It's a thematic work about childhood. She said, you have to include this poem because it's about the loss of innocence and coming of age with such mystical, beautiful language.
REHMNatalie Merchant, singer, songwriter, musician. Her new album is called "Natalie Merchant." We'll take a short break here. When we come back, it's your turn, questions, comments. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Natalie Merchant is with me from Woodstock, New York. I am seeing her lovely face on Skype. I am hearing her beautiful voice, as are you. She has a brand new album. She begins her American tour tomorrow and you can learn more about when and where she'll be performing. You can go to our website, drshow.org and follow her link. We're going to open the phones now. 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Lisa in Indianapolis. Hi there. You're on the air.
LISAGreat. Just so thrilled to even hear Natalie's voice around again. I'm very thrilled and excited to listen to her new album. And I want to kind of go retro a little bit and find out what was the inspiration or kind of what the backstory is on one of my all-time favorite songs, which is "Life Is Sweet."
MERCHANTOh. I just felt that there was -- there was a need for a song that was encouraging to children of very cynical, dark, unrelenting parents. That maybe a voice that said, life is beautiful. And life is sweet and short and let's appreciate it. And I just felt like there was so many kids that I was seeing were receiving other messages. The opposite of that.
REHMNatalie, it sounds as though -- I know you've stepped away for a second. It sounds as though the breakup of your parents' marriage had a really profound effect on you.
MERCHANTI think it does on any child.
REHMI think that's true.
MERCHANTI think among my brothers and sisters, I was probably the most realistic and I wasn't the kind of child that wanted the parents to reunite. I knew that they weren't really suited for each other, but they -- I even at the age of 12, I could see that they had married too young. And that they had changed. I watched them change during my own life.
REHMAnd that perhaps that breakup still inhabits your music, your thinking, your creativity.
MERCHANTProbably. Yeah. Yeah, probably infuses me. Inhabits me. But yeah, I accepted it and I was very realistic about it. And I guess it just questioned -- challenged that whole notion that marriage was permanent.
REHMDo you continue to keep in touch with them? Are they still alive?
MERCHANTMy mother died. My father is still alive, and I spoke to him last week. Yeah.
REHMGood. Good. I'm sure that means a great deal to you. An email from Kevin in Orleans, Massachusetts says it really sounds as though you have found your voice. So direct and more beautiful than ever.
MERCHANTOh. That's very sweet.
REHMHow has your voice changed since you were performing at 17?
MERCHANTIt's much deeper now. Can I use the description 'richer?' I think it is richer and deeper. And I think my delivery was more like a British folk singer, because that was the music that I was immersed in during my teenage years. And it took a while for me to shake that and rediscover my own voice. I also love soul music, gospel music. And some of the inflections are a mixture of that folk tradition, that Anglo-American folk ballad tradition. And a lot of gospel and blues and R&B that I also love singing.
REHMAnd here's an email from Paul who says how wonderful to hear that unique and heartfelt voice again. With the release of this album and the years of music production from your past, what has changed in the poetry and lyric of your music? What are the deeper, internal things that age and experience have taught you in your music career?
MERCHANTWell, I feel like I'm addressing a lot of the same themes, but from a different point of view. I remember when I was in 10,000 Maniacs, I wrote a song called "Dustbowl," back in, I believe, it was 1989 or 1990. And it was about a single mother with three children. And it was actually a response to George Bush's thousand points of light speech. And I don't know if you remember him saying, at the end, there's a new wind blowing. And so I sang, (singing) there's a new wind blowing, they say, and it's gonna be a cold, cold one. So brace yourselves, my darlings, cause it won't bring anything much our way, but more dustbowl days.
MERCHANTIt was about poverty, hand to mouth subsistence living of a working family. But I was -- I had no clue of what I was really singing about. There's a verse about a woman who's -- the mother's staying up all night with a feverish child. And I've had to do that myself, now that I'm a mother. So, although I don't live hand to mouth, I do know what it's like to have to care for a child who's sick. So now, when I sing those songs, and some of the newer songs, I think my level of understanding of life is deeper because of age and experience. That was a long answer. Sorry.
REHMIt was a great answer. It was just a great answer. I do want to take another call, but I'm having a little bit of a problem with my board here, so instead, I'm going to -- let's see, from Heather on Facebook who says, this is a great interview so far. Please tell us about the process of ordering songs on this album. What guided your decisions?
MERCHANTLet me put on my glasses and see what the order is, because the CD packages are so bleeding small. I take sequencing very seriously. I think that is a really important aspect of record making. And I am part of the album protectionist society. I do believe that albums should be listened to from beginning till end, the first time. And, because I have a little emotional itinerary here for you. "Giving Up Everything" is the center of the album. "Ladybird," the introduction, and "The End" is the end. The song, "The End."
MERCHANTI guess all I could say is what I've already said, that I take sequencing very seriously, and that the power of a song can be diminished if it's bookended by the wrong songs. And tempo's important, mood, even the key. Sometimes transferring the ear from one song to another...
MERCHANT...that shift in key can really be devastating to the song that follows.
MERCHANTYeah, I take it very seriously.
REHMWell said. Let's go to Christa in Houston, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
CHRISTAHi Natalie. I just have to say I've been a long, long fan. And your song, "Life Is Sweet" really helped me through a really hard time in my life when my mother passed away. (unintelligible) a place in my heart. But my question for you today is kind of, probably predictable being from Houston. I want to know more about the song, "Texas." Can you...
MERCHANTUm, what can I say about "Texas?" I mean, I think it was the New York Times, John Pareles at the New York Times who actually detected that it is a song about George Bush. Those were eight long years. I had a lot of time to think about what sort of motivation there is involved in that kind of power. You know, craving that kind of power. To be part of that dynasty. And I think people will read it differently if they know who the song is about, but I also felt like it's a character type.
MERCHANTThese characteristics aren't particular to one individual. So -- so, that's what I would say about that one. We talked about it before, just greed, lust for power. Indifference to the consequences of that lust for power.
REHMTell us about "Maggie Said." Who is Maggie?
MERCHANTMaggie's a conglomeration of people, but she's a woman who's toward the end of her life. And she's world weary, and she's bitter and she's cynical. And she's speaking to a younger woman and trying to impart a little bit of her life's philosophy, but at the same time cautioning her to not live the way -- not live the life that she did. And she says, holding back. What did I get from that? I got nothing. So, telling her, I can see you're turning hard now, girl. Don't lose your tenderness. And don't lose the halo around your head. You know, don't lose your goodness and your innocence.
MERCHANTAnd that's what it's about.
REHMAnd you've let your hair go gray.
MERCHANTThat's a shift in topic.
MERCHANTI guess not really, is it?
MERCHANTI see you've let yours go gray, too.
REHMOh, absolutely. Mine has been that way for quite a while. But you're a young woman. You're 50 years old. What does 50 mean?
MERCHANTI love you, Diane. 50 is young.
REHM50 years young.
MERCHANTAnd I want to be you when I get older.
REHMOh my gosh.
MERCHANTYeah, whenever I see women who have that inner beauty about them, that strength and inner beauty, I always would say, someday I'm going to embrace age. And I'm going to accept that mantle of being the older woman, instead of trying to desperately cling to my youth. It seems futile and pointless, really. We need mothers, we need grandmothers, we need great grandmothers.
REHMWell, you know, my mother and father both died when I was 19, so I am determined that my children will see me grow old, so nothing to the face, nothing to the hair. Continue to work, just live life and continue on.
MERCHANTWe seem a country and a culture obsessed with youth. And it's not natural and it's not healthy. And it's not something attainable, really. Recently, wasn't there news that there's blood transfusions from younger mice into older mice were able to reverse the aging -- or at least stall the aging process.
MERCHANTThat's -- that's science fiction. And it's horror at the same time. We can't all live forever. And we can't all stay vibrant and sexually active till we die. And there's so many other things that are important than the flexibility of your joints or the amount of wrinkles in your skin, or, you know, your fat content. You know, this obsession we have, as a country, with women remaining young is, I think it's making us a bit nuts.
REHMSo your hair color is one statement.
MERCHANTIt's defiant in that -- I mean, you can count on one hand, probably, the amount of female musicians, popular female musicians, who have gray hair. Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris -- wait, that's two. Me, that's three.
REHMAnd you, that's three.
MERCHANTThere must be somebody else.
REHMWell, I'm glad you are who and what you are. You've created a beautiful, beautiful album. I congratulate you on it and wish you all the best. Thank you for joining us, Natalie Merchant.
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