Making Her Way
Natalie Merchant has experienced enough for several lives: teen rock star, fiercely independent solo artist, mother, wildly successful environmental campaigner. She’s been around the world and back, and she’s done it in her own inimitable style.
Natalie Merchant is a world-famous singer and songwriter, known for her work with alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs and as a solo artist.
Born and raised in western New York state, Merchant left high school at age 16 to study at Jamestown Community College. She joined the 10,000 Maniacs in 1981, aged just 17. With Merchant as its lead singer and primary lyricist, the band recorded five albums, three of which reached the Billboard top 40. A favorite on college campuses, they scored their biggest hit in 1993 with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” recorded live on MTV after Merchant had already announced her departure from the group.
Merchant released a series of hit solo singles in the succeeding years, including “Carnival” and “Wonder” from her acclaimed debut album Tigerlily (1995) and “Kind and Generous” from its popular follow-up Ophelia (1998). Her seventh and most recent album, Paradise Is There, came out in 2015.
Merchant is also known for her political activism, organizing concerts around issues of racism, domestic violence, and fracking.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of great creative people. And on this episode, “Making Her Way.” Till now, Natalie Merchant has experienced enough for several lifetimes: teen rock star, fiercely independent solo artist, mother, and successful environmental campaigner. And she’s done it all in her own inimitable style.
Natalie Merchant: I can remember being at CBGBs and changing my clothes in the bathroom. There was a woman there who worked for a record company and she came up to me and she said, you are so uncool, that you’re really cool. Just remember.
That’s Natalie Merchant ahead on Articulate.
Merchant: Shall we begin?
As Natalie Merchant’s daughter, Lucia starts college, her mother is pondering her own early adult life. For at 17, she was already embarking on a career in music.
Merchant: I was a little firebrand, you know, I had my mission and my messages and I needed to get them out. We bought this old school bus and there was a seat for me. And then next thing I knew we were driving up and down the East Coast, sleeping on people’s floors. Sleeping in a tent when we had to. Making absolutely no money whatsoever, but having the time of my life.
It was a bold beginning to a decades-long musical journey that has produced over a dozen albums and multiple Top 10 Billboard hits. But Merchant has never been driven by these transient signals of success. Hers has been a quest for truth and connection. Music was just her roadmap.
Merchant: I think I have a very honest voice. Anything I sing is straight from the heart, but technically I don’t think I have a very good voice. ‘Cause to me it’s more about emotional, you know, immediacy.
Born in rural New York state, the third of four children, Merchant grew up during the economic slump of the 1970s. She did have a sense throughout her adolescence that her community was in decline. But at home music was a consistent presence. Her paternal Sicilian grandfather played accordion, mandolin and guitar. Her maternal grandfather was a piano tuner and singer. Growing up, Merchant took piano lessons and her mother encouraged her to listen to everything. Classical, show tunes, rock. After her parents divorced, she lived with her mother who continued to encourage her love of music, though the young Natalie never foresaw that being her life. After working for a summer program for disabled children as a teenager, she thought she would go into special education. But when she and a group of local musicians whom she met at a party decided to go on tour, Merchant saw it as a way to escape her hometown. Named after the 1964 horror movie, Two Thousand Maniacs, the group became 10,000 Maniacs. Natalie Merchant was their lead singer.
Merchant: Such a horrible name. The name was such a curse.
AJC: Probably at the time it was good.
Merchant: I remember playing in Berlin and, it must have been 1983, I think the first time we went to Germany, maybe ’84 and all these punks had come. And they were throwing lit cigarettes and beer cans at me going, “Where are the 10,000 Maniacs?!” They were so angry because they thought we were a punk band based on our name. And people say, “Oh, you had a pretty adventuresome streak to be able at 17 to just do that.” And I think it had built up over years of living in a small isolated town and knowing that the world was out there and I wanted to be a part of it. And then I got an opportunity.
Merchant embraced this opportunity with the fearlessness and drive of a teenager discovering herself. Touring helped her learn how to perform on stage and build an identity as a musician.
Merchant: I don’t think I sang with my face to the audience until I’d been in the band for three years. I basically sang with my back to the audience. It was too much to know that people were looking at me. Or if I did turn around I had my eyes shut. So, I was extremely introverted and shy. I can remember being at CBGBs and changing my clothes in the bathroom, and this girl coming up to me with like safety pins in her nose and going…I was putting on my 1930s cotton frock and my Oxford, you know, flats. And she said, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” And I just went…And then what was interesting was there was a woman there who worked for a record company and she came up to me and she said, “You are so uncool, that you’re really cool. Just remember that.
These early years also helped Natalie Merchant develop the sensitivity and moral clarity that would define much of her writing. Her lyrics, not your usual tales of love, lust and loss, tackling grittier topics such as colonialism and unplanned pregnancy, led Spin magazine to name her “the singer who killed the pop star” in 1989.
Merchant: I think that’s why we became a college favorite. I think if we had written kind of vapid, romantic songs…I think the fact that there was this social consciousness in there, in the lyrics, I think it helped to set us apart.
One later song, “Beloved Wife”, a first person account of a man losing his longtime partner, grew from her firsthand experience of death in her late teens.
Merchant: My grandparents had been married over 50 years. And my grandmother went into a coma after a stroke. And my grandfather watched her die for months. He was at her bedside the whole time. And then she died and he died three days later. And he was healthy as an ox. I was with him. We went to the funeral home to see her body and he had a heart attack looking at her. So he ended up in the hospital. I don’t think he was even able to go to her funeral. And then he died. And I remember saying goodnight to him. And I said, “I’ll see you in the morning grandpa.” And he said, “No, you won’t.” My grandparents’ deaths were my first deaths. I was still 19 when that happened. And the thing that I realized is that when you have a really pure love for someone and, it’s very pure grief. It’s like searing white light or something. You feel hollowed out inside and you feel like life without them is really inconceivable at that moment you’re grieving.
Natalie Merchant’s life on and off stage taught her to channel her experiences into songs, and showed her the reach music could have. But just as the teenage Natalie had been eager to leave rural New York, Merchant would eventually grow restless with life in the band. In 1993, she left to chart her own course.
Merchant: I met the band 10,000 Maniacs, the people in the band, when I was 16. And by the time I was 30, I left. That’s a lot of growing up. I was like the de facto editor in the band because I wrote the lyrics. So everyone would bring their chord progressions then I would write melodies and words to them. And if I wasn’t really moved by something, or it didn’t…I couldn’t find a pathway through that song, it didn’t end up on the record. And so then there was…I didn’t like having that position in the band.
AJC: Did it cause resentments?
Merchant: I’m sure it did.
AJC: Were you aware of them?
Merchant: I’m sure I was. But there wasn’t much I could do about it. I think they probably would have been happy if I would just write some boy/girl love song. Something other than, you know, writing about nuclear disarmament and illiteracy and child abuse and toxic water supplies and all the things that I wrote about, you know.
So she started from scratch. Over the next two years, Merchant wrote and recorded the songs that would become her debut self-funded solo album, Tigerlily. It was a big hit, selling over 5 million copies, despite a somewhat chaotic gestation.
Merchant: I had no clue what I was doing. I had John Landau, this legendary record producer and manager and journalist, you know, just like a figure to contend with. And he would go to the record company and say, “Everything is totally under control.” And then he’d come to the studio and he’d say, “This is madness! What’s going on?” It’s like, “Do you really know what you’re doing?” I was like, “No, but tell them I know what I’m doing.”
One of the longest lasting legacies of Tigerlily has been the song “Wonder”. Merchant wrote it about an imagined child with physical challenges who perseveres because of the love and support around her. But it quickly resonated with countless families as they saw their own struggles in Merchant’s song.
Merchant: We started to hear from parents and children who had special needs. And it fast became an anthem for them. Yeah, kids would come to the concerts in wheelchairs. And I remember singing at the Perkins School for the Blind and I actually did “Wonder” with the kids in the choir. And one of the mothers came up to me and said that her son was in the choir. That when he was a baby, she would hold him, you know, and sing “Wonder” to him every night.
Merchant didn’t anticipate the energetic response to “Wonder” but she embraced it. Not only did the song take on a life of it’s own, spawn a movement and inspire a best-selling book by RJ Palacio that would later become a hit movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, it also had a lasting impact on Natalie Merchant’s own life after she met Kate and Kelly Daley, twins born with a rare skin disorder who were big fans of her music.
Merchant: I wonder if many musicians get the chance to meet somebody who their music really impacted, and then become almost family with them. And that’s basically what Kate and Kelly were. I was like their big sister. And not just for a minute, for 11 years. I would give them these little opportunities to take a break from their horrendous medical regime that they had. Sometimes it’d be 12 hours of medical care in a day. I’d be on “Saturday Night Live” and I would get them tickets. They would come over to the house and I’d record demos with them of the…they were both poets and we would turn their poems into music. So, unusual friendship.
Nancy Daley: They were transported by music and especially your music. And then fast forward, when they died, we had taken all their bandages off and for their whole life they were bandaged, from the minute they came into the world and they never had time without bandages. And we took all their bandages off, we washed them and we put the clothes that they had picked. And we played “Wonder” when they left the house.
Three albums followed Tigerlily but then a lengthy sabbatical during which Merchant dedicated herself to parenting her daughter Lucia.
Merchant: And I’d had a really long career at that point. I’d had a 22 year career and sold millions of records and toured the world and blah, blah, blah. And the one thing that I really wanted was to stay in one place and be part of a community. Be someone that people could rely on. And I didn’t want someone else raising her. Not go to the parent teacher conferences and not volunteer for the bake sales.
As Merchant’s day to day life changed so did her approach to music. The urgency of youth gave way to a more gradual, but no less ambitious effort unlike anything she’d done before. A years long collaboration called Leave Your Sleep.
Merchant: Huge just sprawling project that involved 135 musicians and two years of recording, seven years of research and writing, all started the day that I brought my baby home from the hospital. And I was just holding her. And I had an anthology, a really thin anthology of children’s poetry. And I pulled it off the shelf and it was, I opened it to a Christina Rossetti poem, “Crying, my little one”. And I just started reading the poem and humming the melody. And I basically wrote a lullaby to my newborn baby, which became the impetus of this massive project that was a double album and an 80 page book and tracking down biographies of really obscure poets and photographs from different historical societies around the UK and the United States. But from that point of her being newborn to her actually learning to read herself at seven and writing her own poems, I worked on this project. And it basically was my gift to her.
The project was also a gift to others. Like “Wonder”, Leave Your Sleep became more than music. It grew into a picture book with images by children’s author and illustrator Barbara McClintock, and became part of the curriculum for New York City Public Schools to teach students about poetry and music. Stepping away from touring also allowed Merchant to reconnect with the rural life she’d fled as a teenager. Providing a sense of place after years of nomadic adventures. The same determination that drove her to escape her childhood home now motivated her to improve her new one.
Merchant: Because I wasn’t moving I became much more aware of what was going on in my community. And I’d always been an activist on some level, but then I really devoted myself to activism and community organizing and volunteering. When I found out that there could be as many as 40,000 fracking wells going in and a network of pipeline and the destruction, basically of rural life in central…mostly central where the Marcellus Shale was the most plentiful. And I went to Binghamton and I did a concert there. And I met these people from Dimock, Pennsylvania, which has suffered horrible water contamination. And they had a milk jug, a gallon milk jug full of brown water that they said, “This is what comes out of our well now. And it’s full of neurotoxins. It’s full of carcinogens. It’s just, you have to stop this. Don’t let this happen in New York.” So I said, what if we get scientists and artists and activists together and we create an event. And we focus it as an appeal to the governor. And a lot of people were saying, well, we need a ban. And I thought, a ban, that’ll never happen. You know, let’s just extend the moratorium at the very least. Let’s just keep the wolves out. And then we did it. We did a concert. We did a rally and we filmed it. And we traveled around the state and we were able to generate a lot of renewed energy in the anti-fracking community because they had been fighting for four years at that point. They were exhausted. And we got the ban, you know, Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York state. And I think that with music—you can bombard people with information, but I think music, you know, and that all goes into the head….there’s something about music that kind of opens up that channel to the heart.
For Merchant music isn’t an end unto itself, it’s a tool to connect people to a cause, an experience and one another. It’s also a source for personal strength. As she’s grown older and moved from young rock star to parent, mentor, and community leader, Merchant has carried music with her to smooth over the inevitable rough transitions of her own life.
Merchant: I’ve helped a lot of people die. And I’ve sat with them and, you know, hands on them singing, and it can be very beautiful. Death can be a beautiful moment of release. But I find that if you put your hand on the chest and maybe on the forehead and you just sing to them, it’s just incredibly…When my father was dying, the nurse came in and said, “The entire ICU has just gone silent.” And she said “It’s never like this, keep it up.” She said that like all the moaning and the yelling and that she usually hears at night, it all stopped.
AJC: Because they’d heard you sing?
Merchant: Yeah. I sang to my father for, I think four solid hours.
AJC: What did you sing for him?
Merchant: A lot of hymns. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” a lot of shaker music. But there’s a song “Watch Ye” that is a shaker hymn. And it’s “Watch ye watch ye and be ready to meet me for I shall come at noon day. Fear me not for with my hand I shall lead you on through this land of…I will lead your little boat through this land of sorrow or something like that.” Watch ye watch ye, and be ready to meet me, for lo I shall come at noon day.
Now Natalie Merchant is in the midst of another transition.
Merchant: I was terrified of having a child, especially a girl, because I thought she’d hate me. And that isn’t what happened with us. We are the best of friends. And she’s going off to college and I’m not worried because I know that we’ll be close forever. She did my tarot reading yesterday.
AJC: Do tell.
Merchant: She’s a good little witch. It was pretty extraordinary. I said, “What about the coming year?” And the first card was the chariot, which is all about direction and control and, you know, speeding forward, forward movement. So that’s your past. The present card was the tower. So that’s a catastrophic event. Life-changing so I was like, okay, between the fact that COVID and you’re leaving for college, my entire life has been disrupted and changed. That’s good for present. And then the third card is future. And it was the hermit. Hermit means introspection and seclusion. Stepping away. Going towards spiritual pursuits and wisdom.
Pursuing wisdom isn’t much of a change for Natalie Merchant. Over the decades through her songs and the connections they’ve created, she’s always sought to grow, to give, and to learn. And she has discovered that there’s another kind of wisdom to be found away from music. In the peace of silence.
Merchant: Well sometimes I feel like I lack the training to be able to talk to people about the things that they’ve experienced in their lives, that the music brings up or expresses for them. And sometimes I feel it’s…I’m not equipped to respond to them when they talk to me about it. I just listen and sometimes I just start crying and sometimes we end up in each other’s arms. And you know, that’s all I can do.
Natalie Merchant now begins a new chapter. One she’ll no doubt take on with the same energy, intention, and sure-footedness that’s characterized her life so far. It will likely be yet another unchartered, unpredictable journey of exploration. And with love, with patience and with faith, she’ll make her way.