Natalie Merchant talks to Stephanie Sy

The famed ’90s singer-songwriter is back in the music scene with a rerecording of her 1995 hit album, ‘Tigerlily’

Stephanie Sy: It's been 21 years since "Tigerlily." When you look back at that time, did you know it was going to be a huge hit and sell millions of copies?

Natalie Merchant: Course not, no.

Why do you think it was so resonant?

I think it was very honest. It was very heartfelt album, and it was pretty unadorned. And I think people responded to that … It was the first album that I produced myself. But at the time, it was kind of my brave step forward. You know, I'd been in a band for 12 years, and this was my first solo effort. But I didn't want to hand it off to a producer. I wanted it to do it myself.

So you actually had a lot of control over the tracks in the original "Tigerlily."

I funded the album myself. And then gave it to a record company when it was finished.

Which was pretty unheard of back thenDid they make any changes?

No. I'm sure they wished they could have. But they didn't.

So it was the album that you wanted to create.


So 21 years later, you've rerecorded a lot of these tracks. They're very different. What is new?

Well, the main reason that I wanted to rerecord these songs is, over the years, I've gravitated more toward performing with string instruments. And some of the songs had full orchestral arrangements, and many of them just had string quartet arrangements. And so the more I played them live, the more people would ask me, "Is there any way that I could find a recording of this?" 

So it was part of just performing these songs. But classical music, I read, was actually part of the music you heard growing up.

Yeah, it was. My mother. We were not a wealthy family. We were, you know, just working-class family. And she — single mother with four children — she was from a pretty poor background herself. But for some reason, she had this passion for classical music. And I remember, no matter how little money she had in her checking account, when there was a pledge drive on the local public radio station, which was on in our house all the time, she always pledged. 

Where did that album come from? Was there a certain driving inspiration behind it?

After being in a group for all that time, for 12 years, I just had this strong desire to speak for myself. 

I reread all the lyrics from "Tigerlily" in recent days. And none of them are overtly political. Are you at a time in your life now where your songs carry some of the themes of your activism? Is that something that's emerged recently? I know that you have your own record label now.

Well, on the last studio album, there was a song called "The End" that I wrote about the refugee crisis. And it's just gotten much worse in the last two years. But … I think my most political album was "Motherland," which had the misfortune of coming out a month after Sept. 11, 2001.

So it wasn't a time when people wanted to be taking a critical look at the United States. But I talked about race relations in that album. I talked about rampant consumerism and corporate misconduct and, you know, of course … I didn't sing, "This is a song about corporate misconduct." 

‘Everybody wants to get out of their hometown and see some of the world, and you know, I … stumbled into this as a way of life. I had no intention of being in a band. I had no intention of being a singer.’

Natalie Merchant

I have always wondered what "Carnival" was about.

It's about Manhattan. It's about walking through the streets of New York and just questioning if your environment is insane, which I find New York to be, if it's illogical. It's not logical. People say that New York is like the bumblebee … There's no reason why the bumblebee should be able to fly. 

I was just listening to that song this morning … "Have I been blind?" 

It's like, "I've walked these streets in a spectacle of wealth and poverty. In the diamond market the scarlet welcome carpet they just rolled out for me." I mean, people, there's so much wealth in this city, and there's so much poverty. And they co-exist right next to each other.

And you can see people sitting down to a $400 bottle of wine and look out the window and see an old woman eating out of the garbage can. I mean, it's just the disparity and the income gap is like this in the world. But in New York everybody's right up against each other living together.

And you have to do a lot of convincing of yourself, somehow justify your lifestyle to be able to live as excessively as you do in this city, if you're wealthy. And taking advantage of all of the material pleasures there are here and not give assistance to — it's basically stepping over bodies to get into Prada. 

And you talk about women, I think, in the '90s. There was really a sort of celebration, I think, of female singer-songwriters. Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, Joan Osborne, Victoria Williams — I could go on and on.

Tori Amos.

Yeah, Tori Amos. I had them all on my playlist. When you look at that genre today, is it in decline? Or do you think it is as strong as it was during the days of Lilith Fair?

I think there's still great singer-songwriters. Laura Marling is my favorite artist right now. And she's, you know, in her late 20s. Phenomenal songwriter, great singer, great musician, arranger. And you know, I think also the Internet has given so much independence to artists. And although they may not be superstars, I think so many people have been able to capture a really loyal following. 

You started out as a teenager with 10,000 Maniacs. How did that come about?

Well, we came from a small Rust Belt town, post-industrial town in western New York. And we had to make our own fun, basically, our own scene, because there was none. And I just went to a party one night, and there were a group of people playing instruments, and it just turned out to be the people who were in 10,000 Maniacs.

How did that become a launching pad for your solo career after that?

I didn't think of career at that time. I just thought of a way to get out of town and see the world.

You were trying to get out of town.

Everybody wants to get out of their hometown and see some of the world, and you know, I … stumbled into this as a way of life. I had no intention of being in a band. I had no intention of being a singer. This kind of happened to me by accident. And then every step of the way, the question would be, "Well, do I go back to college or do stay in the van?"

Natalie Merchant with Stephanie Sy
‘I became human, fully, when I became a mother, and I felt connected to other people in ways that I never had – living and past.’

Natalie Merchant

Is everything you write autobiographical?

No, no. I'm sure you can't distance yourself from your own filter and perspective. But I use first person pronouns all the time to — I think if you take on the character and you step into their circumstances, it's easier to convey that to other people than saying, "There was a woman, and she blah, blah, blah." And you say, "I'm the woman," you know, then people pay attention. They're like, "Oh, you're the woman. Tell me your story."

Yeah. There is a terrific song — speaking of motherhood — on one of your recent albums called "Ladybird." This song resonated so much with me as a mother, because I think it really speaks to how bittersweet that period is for a lot of women. What did that song mean to you?

Well, I think this is common among a lot of my friends who are artists … and mothers is that we love our children, and we try to put as much creativity into raising them as we possibly can. But there's a part of you that gets lost. And you know, the more wise parts of us say, "Well, this is 18 years, and it'll be over, and [in] the grand scheme of things, it's going by really fast." But the moment-to-moment endurance test of motherhood sometimes makes you question, you know, will I ever find myself again? 

Did you access creative parts of you once you became a mother? I mean, you talk about how your daughter inspired … certain types of musical arrangements. But did you find that you could access something that wasn't there before, emotionally?

Oh, yeah. I became human, fully, when I became a mother. And I felt connected to other people in ways that I never had, living and past.

‘I’ve been involved in doing benefits from Day One, so 35 years of doing benefits. But I feel in the last six or seven years, I don’t wait for people to call me. I sort of assess where there’s a need, and then I get really involved.’

Natalie Merchant

You are also really involved in community activism. I know that you've been really involved in the New York state anti-fracking movement. How did you get involved in that?

I was asked to come to Binghamton to perform a benefit for an Ithaca-based organization. Because the counties around Ithaca, about 80 percent of four of those counties had been quietly leased over, like, a 20-year period to the gas industry. And people woke up realizing that if fracking is allowed in New York state, we might be looking at anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 fracking wells.

And we were also waking up to the nightmare in Pennsylvania of water contamination. So I went to Binghamton. I'd been reading about fracking. Didn't quite understand it. Didn't understand the potential impacts on public health at the time.

And my eyes were opened. I met this family from Pennsylvania who had a jug of contaminated water from their well. And you know, between the methane migration and the introduction of the chemicals in the fracking process —

Did those communities feel at all torn because they also know that, perhaps, it means jobs in a place like Binghamton, which has lost a lot of jobs?

I think there wasn't full disclosure about the risk. And also a lot of the people who leased early didn't really get adequate compensation. And as time was moving on and the moratorium — you know, because [New York Gov. David] Paterson instated a moratorium so we could do a health impact study — and as more time went on, I think, people … and more communities were getting more and more divided. Because the people who had leased their land were waiting for their royalties. They were "Let's drill, let's get going." And the other people were saying, "Well, let's step back and look at the potential hazards here."

Another issue that you've taken on locally is domestic violence. And in that case, you sort of married music with your activism. Can you talk a little bit about that?

These are emotional issues. In preparation for that concert that I did in the Hudson Valley, I had been to a Billion Rising event. I walked into the event, and there were cardboard cutouts, full size, of women. And there were 17 of them. And these were 17 women who were homicide victims of domestic violence. In my county.

This was just in your immediate vicinity.

In my little rural county. My little bucolic, rural community. And I was shocked. And so I made contact with the women who ran the domestic violence [shelter]. And there was only one shelter with 17 beds for a county with, you know, tens of thousands of residents. And then I met across the river, in Dutchess County, people who ran the shelter there. And there weren't that many more beds there. And so then the special prosecutors from the DA's offices. And we all got together and then victims of domestic violence and survivors of families where there had actually been homicides. And we were meeting on a regular basis over the course of a month, and we wrote the script and gathered all the statistics. Because they'd never really been quantified before on a regional level.

Are those the moments where you are grateful that you are Natalie Merchant? You know, that people know who you are, that your celebrity can be used to highlight some of these issues?

Oh, yeah.

Is that almost the point these days?

I've been involved in doing benefits from Day One, so 35 years of doing benefits. But I feel in the last six or seven years, I don't wait for people to call me. I sort of assess where there's a need, and then I get really involved

I mean, your albums have sold millions and millions of copies. So I assume you've done quite well.

That's why I feel the responsibility. Those who are given much is expected of them. I always took that to heart. Maybe it's the Catholic upbringing or whatever, but I feel like I have to give back.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Art, Fracking, Music

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