Natalie Merchant Collects Herself!

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A new ten-disc collection gathers Natalie Merchant’s eight solo albums plus exciting bonus material!

By Brian Wise.

“I started when I was 17 but it’s hard for me to believe,” she adds.

It is hard to believe that it is not only more than two decades after the start of Natalie Merchant’s solo career but also three and a half decades since her first recordings with 10,000 Maniacs, her former group (that is still performing without her).

“Always remember I started young,” laughs Merchant when I catch up by phone to talk about her new ten-disc collection of her solo recordings to date.

“I started when I was 17 but it’s hard for me to believe,” she adds.

In conversation Merchant is forthcoming about her career and her politics and is exceptionally tolerant given the phone tag we have been playing.

“I thought this was doomed to never happen,” she remarked as we finally connected after my internet service provider (not mentioning any names starting with a T) almost convinced me that it would have been quicker to use two tin cans and a piece of string. A lot of other musicians who have given up but Merchant rang half a dozen times and even rescheduled. It is good that she persevered. There is a lot to talk about.

Merchant’s new anthology, released on July 14, includes all eight of her solo studio albums from the past plus two other discs: Butterfly, which features four new songs and six reinterpreted selections from the back catalogue all arranged for string quartet; and a 15-track Rarities disc containing previously unreleased tracks including collaborations with Billy Bragg, David Byrne, the Chieftains, Cowboy Junkies and Amy Helm. The deluxe package also comes with a 100-page lyric book and a pictorial history. It is, as you would expect, a beautifully presented package.

Merchant has been performing a few selected concerts in support of the new release on her 3 Decades of Song tour which concludes this coming weekend in Portland, Oregon. But the tour is s she explains, due to family commitments a full-blown tour, as well as a visit back to Australia, is still away off.

In the meantime, Merchant also appears with the Kronos Quartet on the album Folk Songs and her music will also be heard on the soundtrack of the forthcoming film Wonder, based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio and directed by Stephen Chbosky. In the film, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play the parents of a young boy (portrayed by Jacob Tremblay) struggling to overcome a facial difference. Palacio has credited Merchant’s song “Wonder” (from Tigerlily) as the inspiration for her book.

Natalie Merchant spoke to me from her home in the Hudson Valley in New York.

It’s an enormous project.

Yes it is. It took many years to accumulate all the material but it’s taken many months to put the package together and we actually went out and recorded a new album to enhance the whole thing. But also I just felt like there was all this material, arrangements of older songs and string arrangements and then these new songs that had not found their way onto other albums. And it seemed the appropriate place to put them. So I’m excited about it.

Where did the idea for a ten-disc box set come from? It seems like a bit of a daunting task putting it all together. I know the albums are already all there – seven of them – but where did the idea spring from?

Well, I was on Electra for 18 years and they haven’t been so diligent about keeping my catalogue alive. So that was one of the reasons because then I went to Nonesuch and they’re owned by the same parent company and I thought it would be sort of great to migrate the Electra material over so I just have one entity that’s in charge of everything.

But also I was touring in Europe a couple years ago and I wandered into a record shop and I saw a copy of Ophelia and it was about the worst package you could imagine. The artwork didn’t fit. The artwork was originally on what they call a digipack with no plastic and so it had a slightly different configuration than a CD booklet and in Europe when they put it in a jewel case and they just took a computer image and just sort of squeezed it. So my image was all distorted. It was printed on this glossy horrible paper and it was just a horrible presentation and that’s what I took to Nonesuch and I said, “Could you please help me to take back control over you know the way that this material is being presented.”

And then also [there was the fact of]just having that new material and just wanting to put it out but not wanting to put it out as a standalone new album because I had been preforming this music orchestrally from my catalogue, older songs for year and people told me, ‘Oh it’s so beautiful. I would love to have a recording.’ But [there was the]feeling of not willing to make a whole album like that.

I suppose the advantage of releasing them all together is that you don’t have to agonise about what you might have to leave off. In this case you might’ve had to agonize about what to put on.

Well, back in 2005 we did an album called Retrospective, which was sort of miniature version of this. It was just two discs and one was the more obscure stuff: benefit records and soundtracks and collaborations with people like Billy Bragg and Lady Smith Black Mambazo were on that one. It was that and then it was kind of the hits.

“I have watched my record sales dwindle like all other artists and I just feel like a lot of material that I’ve put out in say the last 15 years hasn’t really received the same attention from the fans that were interested in the earlier material and I don’t blame them.”

This was a chance to present the whole catalogue and also as people have found it more and more difficult to actually browse for records or find records physically – and everyone’s getting used to not really owning products and not buying products – I have watched my record sales dwindle like all other artists and I just feel like a lot of material that I’ve put out in say the last 15 years hasn’t really received the same attention from the fans that were interested in the earlier material and I don’t blame them.

Part of it’s the systematic destruction of the music industry and part of it’s that the last fifteen years I’ve been more focused on my family and my community. I put the records out and I don’t really promote them as much and I don’t tour very much.

So, this was an opportunity for me to say, ‘Hey this is what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years. If you liked what I did before that and haven’t paid attention here it is in one place.’

…….when people talk about the resurgence of vinyl and I say, ‘Yeah for about one percent of the population.’ 

It seems about the only place in the world where you can find just about everything that you want to is in Japan these days, which seems to have still those enormous record stores and people collecting things; whereas, elsewhere the record stores seem to be a disappearing commodity.

You know, it’s just really a rarity…….when people talk about the resurgence of vinyl and I say, ‘Yeah for about one percent of the population.’ But I understand. I recently moved my record collection from one place to another and it was a daunting task and I understand why people just don’t want it anymore. Put everything on a hard drive or some kind of device and they can listen to a thousand songs and they don’t have to search the basement and the attic and the garage to find that LP that they have been looking for look for. So they end up just listening to the song on iTunes because they can’t find it. So I understand.

I think this is different though. It is the presentation of an entire career and I think if someone is inclined to be a fan of me and the music the package is really beautiful. It’s a hundred-page book.

I digitised my entire archive over the last couple years and contacted photographers that I hadn’t talked to in decades and I was able to have access to all this unpublished visual material….so lots of photographs. I think it will be … and Nonesuch have done such a beautiful job with packaging. I think this is the favourite package I’ve ever put together and this is going to be even more lush.

People realise if you want to entice someone to actually buy a physical copy of anything you really have to make it a keepsake.

I learned the term from Matthew at the record company in England. I never knew this but there are people who’re called completest and they need to have everything in a set and that’s who I am. I really loved having everything in a complete set. So it appeals to that part of my own nature.

I’m just wondering how many times I’m going to re buy albums I already have when they’re being re-released. For example, I just bought the Sergeant Pepper box set the other day.

I love condensing things too….and I was never a hundred percent satisfied with some of the earlier record covers and this is also an opportunity too. I redesigned the packages. So it’s not just that we took the old artwork and crammed it into a box. It’s completely re-imagined. You know, we couldn’t even find the original image for Ophelia. It was in no archive. Couldn’t find it. Finally, I remembered that – which I found a little shocking – it sold a couple million copies. So I thought would it be valuable enough that we’d hold on to the photograph but it was gone so we actually had to substitute it with a photograph from that session.

What about the re-mastering of the sound. Did you have to do much remastering because I would imagine the early albums the sound would have been quite different in terms of when you listen back to them?

No, we didn’t remaster the albums. I think the only thing we remastered were the B-sides, because they were all coming from various places and projects. So we re-mastered them so they would sound like they belonged together.

Are there any of those albums in particular that you have a great fondness for? I know Tigerlily was one that you must obviously have a great affection for. Are there any that like that that kind of stand out like your favourite children?  

I’m a pretty harsh critic of my own work and nothing really ends up on an album until it’s been thoroughly vetted so I’m pretty proud of everything that I’ve done, tell you the truth.

But Leave Your Sleep [makes me]probably the most proud. It was a project that I worked on for seven years and it involved over a 130 musicians. It was a phenomenal education for me and how to adapt other people’s words to music but also how to work with musicians from every corner of the world in every possible configuration and situation. And then all the research that went into the lives of the poets. It sold 200,000 copies. In today’s market that’s a lot of people. 

But I really felt that it deserved [more]. I don’t know. I wanted people, especially people who had children, to know that it existed. And it was partially released in a children’s book by Barbara McClintock which came out in 2012.

So, its been used a lot in schools and I really thought that it would be a piece of educational material for teachers and the feedback that I’ve gotten from teachers that do use it is really strong but I’m hoping that will get more attention through the box set. 

Well, that’s the double album set isn’t it? So that’s really nice to include it there and give it a little bit more profile than it might have had in the past.  

Mmm. It’s a shame that people won’t see the incredible package that went with it. I did so much research, not just find the photographs of the poets but to secure the rights. I spent $75,000 on legal fees for that project with different estates and finding these obscure photographs and historical societies all over the United States. Anyway, it was a great project. 

You mentioned the new songs. There’s are some new songs on Butterfly, the ninth disc and they’re along with those some reinterpretations which are different than the one’s you did on Paradise Is There aren’t they?  

Paradise is There was just a 20th anniversary celebration of Tigerlily. As I said before, for the past seven or eight years I’ve been largely performing with orchestras and string ensembles and so I built up this big repertoire of my string arrangements of my songs. I think eight of those songs ended up having strings, eight of the eleven.

Then there’s this new song ‘Butterfly’, which I wrote several years ago and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and it has an orchestral arrangement. I was holding out for an orchestral album, which is something that probably isn’t on the cards so I did an adaptation for just a quintet. There’s a new song and ‘Baby Mine’, which was actually written for Leave Your Sleep but because it had original lyrics that I had written it didn’t fit in with all the rest of the adaptations. And then ‘Andalucia’ and I could do another disc of the remaining orchestral arrangements that I have but I think that this is a good blend. 

I actually commissioned the arrangements for ‘Ophelia’ and ‘My Skin’ for this project because I was looking at songs that are favourites. I think ‘My Skin’ is the third most downloaded song of mine and it was an obscure track on Ophelia. It was never, of course, put out as a single but it over and over and over it comes up as one of my most popular songs. So I wanted to acknowledge that so I asked one of my string players, Megan Gould, to write an arrangement for that. 

The other disc that’s there for, as you mentioned completest and for people such as myself, it’s really something to get that Rarities disc with some fascinating material on there. There are some really interesting collaborations and also some really interesting song choices as well.  

I’m glad you can recognise that. A lot of thought went into that and a lot of work went into that because I just find so many times I buy what are supposed to be complete collections with bonus material that’s supposed to be so special and precious and it’s actually crap. So I didn’t want to sell people that … entice them with an extra disc of material and then not have it be worthy.

I actually went in the studio back in 2008 and was thinking of making a record and perhaps my daughter was at that point three or four years old. So, I was just starting to put myself back in the water and we did a week in the studio and we made demos of some of the new material and I was looking for a new label. That’s when I signed with Nonesuch. I was writing the material but also I was doing some covers just to experiment with a new band and everything and that’s where a lot of this material came from. Like ‘[The Village Green] Preservation [Society].’

I love that song.

And ‘Been Too Long At the Fair’ and ‘Sonnet 73’ and really we worked really hard on it and spent a lot of money on it and then did nothing with it since 2008. So it was great. This was a great opportunity for me. I thought they were really good recordings. But they didn’t really fit on an album until now.

One of the songs that leaps out and is as relevant now as when it was written, it must be 40 years ago now, maybe a bit more, is ‘Political Science’ – the Randy Newman song.

‘Political Science’. Yeah. Yeah. Unfortunately, more valid now than ever.

Of course, it does mention Australia in it so we have to think fondly of it but it certainly seems a little more relevant this year than it did last year doesn’t it?

Yes. Unfortunately. We’ve gone backwards.

Did you include that deliberately when did you put the whole thing together? I would imagine it’s been sort of in the planning stages for a long time, so I wonder if that was a more recent inclusion.

No. It was a recent inclusion but the whole project was pretty recent. I mean I’ve only been working on it for the last eight months. So yes.

You’re fairly well known for your activism. How are you handling what is happening there now? Or shouldn’t we talk about it?

My phone batteries going to go dead if we do. Well, I’ll tell you I’ve worked quite a bit in advocacy for children and advocacy for women – especially women who’ve suffered from domestic violence. I’ve spent years working on environmental issues and it’s infuriating, heartbreaking, maddening, and it’s like its inducing a type of paralysis because he’s [Donald Trump] dismantling so many of the agencies that protect the rights of the vulnerable people in this country and stripping away funding.

So yeah, I’ve been protesting. I’m searching for a really constructive way to resist and to fight back because its like we’re being assaulted from every direction. I worked so hard to get the ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York and he’s from the state and one of the first statements he made, as he was dismantling the EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency), was that fracking should be allowed in New York and he thought it was quote ‘stupid’ that we banned it. And I’m worried. I really worry. I mean we have a democratic Governor now but if we had a Republican Governor could they roll back the ban?

It’s just we lived through two administrations … well, three of the Bush dynasty, and didn’t think it could ever be worse but this is far worse.

Do you think it’s a nightmare or we’ve been flipped into a parallel universe and we’re going to wake up one day and it never actually happened? It is hard to believe: from an outsiders point of view it seems hard to believe. I can only imagine what it must be like there.

“……when he was elected the analogy that I was using was that we’d all been kidnapped and thrown in the back of a van and we’re all tied up and blindfolded and this crazy person was behind that wheel and we had no control.”

Tragedy. It’s like tragedy on a mythic scale. We’re at a point where we’re at a crossroads right now. We’re just going to cause the destruction of our own species and we have a mad man … when he was elected the analogy that I was using was that we’d all been kidnapped and thrown in the back of a van and we’re all tied up and blindfolded and this crazy person was behind that wheel and we had no control. That’s what it felt like at first and then people started taking to the streets and politicians and judges started resisting his you know his proclamations and it’s exhausting. It’s going to require constant vigilance. It’s not as if he was removed from office that its immediately going to get better because Michael Pence is just frighteningly conservative.

I’ve just come back from a month in America. I found it fascinating but I did find myself glued to CNN and MSNBC for almost the entire trip.

Yes, it’s like watching the biggest train wreck in history. And I’m so frustrated with the tens of millions of people that didn’t even bother to vote.

Well, funny you should say that because I kept telling people that the one advantage we have in our system is that we have compulsory voting. Which I think has a lot going for it.

And we have compulsory education but obviously it’s failing.

Well, you do have a Woody Guthrie song on the rarities collection and I’m sure Woody would have had a lot to say on the whole situation wouldn’t he? I suppose thinking about people like that can be an inspiration to you when you’re thinking about politics.

Definitely. At least someone was telling the truth………..I’m in a Trump state of shock when I try to talk about Trump.

Well, what about the Buddy Holly song ‘Learning the Game’. That’s an interesting choice because not a lot of people cover his songs these days, do they?

Well, that was for a project to honour Buddy about four years ago. Peter Asher was the producer and Peter had produced the first couple 10,000 Maniacs records on Electra and we stayed in touch since then. So he asked me to participate in that. I’ve always loved that song and especially I have to give Sandy Denny credit for the arrangement because she recorded it as a mournful ballad and I’ve always loved her version of it.

Her voice just makes my heart ache and I remember being 17 or 18 years old and discovering Fairport and Sandy Denny. She was 12 years older than me. Joe really helped educate me about the British folk revival and I listened to it obsessively and her voice, so much emotion in her voice.

We worked with Joe Boyd back in ‘85. While he was working with us he was also compiling the Nick Drake box set and the Sandy Denny box set. And I got to get involved in picking songs that ended up on the Sandy Denny box set.  It was an amazing privilege.

He would have had some pretty interesting stories to tell, wouldn’t he? Joe?

Oh yes. He was a fountain of interesting stories. He was an amazing guy. Is still. I feel really lucky to have had teachers like Peter Asher and Joe Boyd. When I play London, Joe still comes to my shows and we have dinner and he’s a mentor for sure. Not just with his early producing but with Hannibal Records. I was always on his mailing list over the years. He released really interesting Balkan music and African music and I remember when we were working with him he was also producing….. which was a South African musical. He was bringing it to London. A fascinating man.

Now you’re about to go out of tour, aren’t you?

Just for a month.

We’re not likely to see you over here at any stage I presume.

Not that I know of but I get asked perennially to come to Australia. I’ve only been there once. It’s so far away. And you know the difficulty for me is that my primary focus for me is being the best parent I possibly can and to go to Australia I’d have to leave my daughter and pretty soon she’ll be of an age where that’s not a problem. She’s 14 now and I’ll probably come to Australia when she’s a bit older. I’d love to come and New Zealand too. I’ve only been there once.

Congratulations on this retrospective. They say it marks 30 years but it’s 20 years or so of your solo recordings or more and then more. It’s amazing to look back and think that that career started way almost 35 years ago. Maybe, more than 35 years ago really.

Yes, but always remember I started young. Started when I was 17 but yeah it’s hard for me to believe it’s been going on that long.

Thank you so much for your time.

And thank you so much.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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