Natalie Merchant :: My Favorite Artists/Bands

NatalieMerchant-2012-01Natalie Merchant :: My Favorite Artists/Bands

Natalie Merchant is one of those artists, and voices, that I cannot remember ever not knowing, and loving. The 10,000 Maniacs album, In My Tribe, was recommended to me by a friend in High School, and I fell hard for it at first listen. From that moment I’ve been loving Natalie’s voice, and songwriting skills. I’ve seen her, and the Maniacs, live many times, and four of her albums (solo, and with 10,000 Maniacs) are on my list of all-time favorite albums (In My Tribe, Our Time In Eden, Tigerlily and Ophelia).

Some of Natalie’s songs have been with me for so long, and have been through so many things with me, that they have become part of my life soundtrack, and personal history. There are some songs that are hard to listen to because of the memories they evoke, and there are songs that feel so close to who I am that they feel like anthems, and are what I play when I need to reconnect with myself, and feel free.

Some songs, too, have beautiful memories attached to them, recollections of falling in love, of long road trips with music playing, of starting over moments, and of my younger daughter as a baby. I sang songs off of Ophelia and Tigerlily to her as lullabies when she was a newborn.

Though albums with the Maniacs came out in the 80’s, and some of her solo work has been in the 2000’s, her voice and albums, both with the band, and without, remind me mostly of the 90’s, and the girl I was then. I have memories that come before that decade, and after (see the lullabies above), but it is the 90’s that the music immediately takes me back to, especially the album Our Time in Eden (10,000 Maniacs).

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Natalie Merchant joined 10,000 Maniacs in 1981 and left it to begin her solo career in 1993. She was born October 26, 1963, in Jamestown, New York, the third of four children of Anthony and Ann Merchant. Her paternal grandfather, who played the accordion, mandolin and guitar, emigrated to the United States from Sicily; his surname was “Mercante” before it was Anglicized.

When Merchant was a child, her mother listened to music (primarily Petula Clark but also the Beatles, Al Green, Aretha Franklin) and encouraged her children to study music, but she wouldn’t allow TV after Natalie was twelve.

She [her mother] had show tunes, she had the soundtrack from West Side Story and South Pacific. And then eventually… she’d always liked classical music and then she married a jazz musician, so that’s the kind of music I was into. I never really had friends who sat around and listened to the stereo and said ‘hey, listen to this one’, so I’d never even heard of who Bob Dylan was until I was 18.”

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Merchant was lead singer and primary lyricist for 10,000 Maniacs, joining in its infancy in 1981 while she was a student at Jamestown Community College. The group recorded their album Human Conflict Number Five and performed a corresponding Music video at The Hotel Franklin and at Group W Westinghouse studios (Jamestown, New York) in 1982. Merchant sang lead vocals, and later played the piano as well, for 10,000 Maniacs for seven studio albums.

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In 1993 she announced that she was leaving the group. Her last recording with the band, a cover of Patti Smith’s Because the Night at the 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged performance, reached # 11 in the singles chart, becoming the band’s greatest U.S. success.

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Merchant has said in interviews that after her split with 10,000 Maniacs she was so eager to begin writing her own material that she went home that very day and composed the song I May Know the Word, which was originally meant to appear on the soundtrack to the Tom Hanks movie Philadelphia. The song was eventually cut from the soundtrack, but it would go on to appear on Merchant’s debut solo album, Tigerlily, which was released on the Elektra label in 1995. Merchant chose to name the album Tigerlily as she felt it captured the feel of the album, which she described as both “fierce” and “delicate“.

Editor’s note: Fierce and delicate are two perfect descriptors for how I feel about Natalie’s music, and how her songs make me feel, as well.

The fifth song on the Tigerlily album, Carnival, was requested by the serial killer Aileen Wuornos to be played at her wake after her execution. It was also played over the end credits to Nick Broomfield’s documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, which was aired on the Crime channel.

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Seeking creative control, Merchant chose to fund Tigerlily herself, refusing the advance from the record company. She also wanted to work with a core-group of young musicians who she felt would be enthusiastic about the music. The group would consist of guitarist Jennifer Turner, bassist Barrie Maguire, and former-Wallflower and eventual boyfriend to Merchant, Peter Yanowitz, who played drums on the album and who continued to do so with Merchant until their abrupt split in 2000.

Tigerlily was a critical and commercial success, spawning her first top-ten hit in the single Carnival and achieving top-40 success with subsequent singles Wonder and Jealousy. The album would go on to sell over 5 million copies, and continues to be Merchant’s most successful album to date.

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Three years passed before Merchant would release her second solo effort, Ophelia. While Tigerlily contained a lot of sparse instrumentation, the music on Ophelia had lusher arrangements. The reprise at the close of the CD featured a symphonic arrangement composed and conducted by British composer Gavin Bryars with whom she would collaborate nine years later to put Shakespeare’s sonnets to music. Merchant treated the recording of Ophelia as a series of workshops, where she would invite various musicians she had met over the years into her home studio to collaborate and record. In the end, 30 different musicians featured on the album, among them Brand New Heavies frontwoman N’Dea Davenport (with whom she duets on the song Break Your Heart), famed trumpet player Chris Botti, and the husband and wife duo, Don and Karen Peris, from the band The Innocence Mission.

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While Ophelia is not a concept record in the traditional sense, the album-cycle saw Merchant flexing her creative muscles in surprising ways. The name of the album and the title track are a literary reference to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who in the play Hamlet becomes mad and eventually commits suicide when Hamlet remains non-committal and lost in himself. Merchant’s Ophelia describes a series of women throughout time—women who dared question the patriarchal status quo and who were often castigated for doing so—and is a cry for women’s rights and for more understanding of female archetypes beyond the scope of the “mother” and the “whore“, both of which severely limit women and attempt to turn them into little more than chattel.

The portrayal of the women in the song is a tribute to the non-traditional “too smart for her own good” type of woman who is often misunderstood by society. As a lyric to the title song cries: “Your common sense, your best defense, was wasted and in vain!” A reflection of women driven mad by social limitations, Natalie’s tribute described Ophelia as being at once a “novice carmelite,” a “suffragette,” a “circus queen,” a “demigoddess” and a “mafia courtesan.”

The album sleeve saw Merchant pictured in colorful and ornate costumes as each of these different characters. As a companion to the album, she also released a film where she portrays each of these different characters, with voice-overs used for the “novice carmelite,” the “sweetheart” and the “courtesan” as they are Spanish, German and Italian, respectively.

ophelia5The first single off the album was a happy and uncharacteristically simple song called Kind and Generous, which received massive airplay on VH1 and which solidified Merchant’s role as a bona fide solo artist. That summer, Sarah McLachlan invited Merchant to co-headline the year’s biggest music festival with her, Lilith Fair. The exposure from the tour helped the album reach Platinum status in just under a year, with subsequent singles Break Your Heart and Life Is Sweet receiving moderate airplay on adult contemporary radio stations.

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In 2000, Merchant embarked on a folk tour in the United States with many shows being supported by alt-country band Wilco.

Merchant’s next studio album on the Elektra label was Motherland, released in 2001. Motherland saw Merchant at her most experimental musically. Motherland achieved Gold on the Billboard charts after debuting at No. 30 on the Billboard 200 and # 13 on the Top Internet Albums of 2001, respectively.

Merchant embarked on a year and a half world tour to promote Motherland. The first leg of the tour started in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 17, 2001, trekking all over the United States, and then heading to Europe with some special acoustic shows in Europe.

Merchant also participated in the Rock am Ring Festival and Rock im Park in 2002. In the summer of 2002, she was paired with Chris Isaak and both played at stadiums and arenas.

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Natalie has had three albums since, The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003), Leave Your Sleep (2010) and Natalie Merchant/self-titled (2014)

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Following are my Top Ten favorite Natalie Merchant. Will you share yours with me?

1. Verdi Cries
from the album, In My Tribe 

“Holidays must end as you know,
all is memory,
taken home with me,
the opera,
the stolen tea,
the sand drawing,
the verging sea,
all years ago.”

2. Jezebel
from the album, Our Time in Eden

“I’ve sat in the dark explaining to myself,
that I’m straining too hard for feelings I ought to find easily,
called myself Jezebel.”

3. Cowboy Romance
from the album, Tigerlily

“He’s a scoundrel and
she’s no pearl;
together they are two lovers cruel.”

4. The Painted Desert 
from the album, In My Tribe

“the stars were so many there,
they seemed to overlap.”

5. My Skin 
from the album, Ophelia

“hey say that promises sweeten the blow,
but I don’t need them,
no, I don’t need them.”

6. Few & Far Between
from the album, Our Time in Eden

“‘Til you drop that heavy baggage you’re dragging behind,
there won’t be room for us to both go this ride.”

7. Carnival
from the album, Tigerlily

“I’ve walked these streets,
a virtual stage,
It seemed to me.
Make up on their faces,
actors took their places,
next to me.”

8. Don’t Talk
from the album, In My Tribe

“I know that if you think of it,
both long enough and hard,
the drink you drown your troubles in,
is the trouble you’re in now.”

9. These Are Days 
from the album, Our Time in Eden

“These are the days you might fill with laughter until’ you break,
these days you might feel a shaft of light make it’s way across your face,
when you do you’ll know how it was meant to be.”

10. Life is Sweet
from the album, Ophelia

“They told you life is hard,
it’s misery from the start,
it’s dull and slow and painful.

I tell you life is sweet,
in spite of the misery,
there’s so much more,
be grateful.”

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