Natalie Merchant first attracted attention as the dusky vocals fronting 10,000 Maniacs, whose chime-y folk-rock concealed serious subject matter like child abuse and severe depression on '80s college-radio favorites "What's the Matter Here" and "Like the Weather." Merchant left the Maniacs following 1992's Our Time in Eden, and was perhaps the fairest of them all during the Lilith Era (sorry, Sarah) after 1995 solo debut Tigerlily eventually sold more than five million copies thanks to ubiquitous singles "Carnival," "Wonder" and "Jealousy."
Merchant's new album and the first in seven years, Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch), sprang from the poems she read to young daughter Lucia, and blossomed into a six-year undertaking. Merchant adapted the words of Ogden Nash, E.E. Cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear and others — more than 50 poems in all — into songs spread across a wide variety of styles including reggae, gypsy, Celtic, chamber music, Cajun and bluegrass.
In the end, Merchant and co-producer Andres Levin brought in more than 100 different musicians to contribute to the fascinating (and quite good) album, released in April in single and double-disc versions. Chatter caught up with her last week while she was admiring the blackberry bushes of California wine country.
Chatter: How did you go about matching the poems to the various styles of music that are on the record?
Natalie Merchant: I didn't really have a specific formula. I tended to think of myself as an illustrator of the poems, but I sometimes wanted to evoke the period the poem was written, or the places that are mentioned in the poem. A lot of the poems that I was drawn to had strong central characters, like "Equestrienne" and "The Dancing Bear."
C: Having grown up fairly close to the bayou, I especially enjoyed "Adventures of Isabel." What's the story behind that one?
NM: There's so many different stories I could tell you about Ogden Nash. He wrote that for his daughter. It was first published in 1931. When I read the poem, I could have put Isabel anywhere. Ogden Nash doesn't have any history with Louisiana. I doubt he ever went there. I made the decision that her character to me seemed really plucky, and I wanted her to be in a torn dress hanging from a tree in the swamp (laughs). That's just where I wanted to put her. She seemed really brave and strong, a fearless girl.
C: Have you given any thought to what you might do with the songs that didn't make one of the two versions of the album?
NM: I really don't know what's going to happen to the rest of the stuff. I haven't given that any thought; I just set them aside. Someday I would like to make a theater piece — I've written a script that uses all the characters. It's a really sweet narrative. The Children's Theatre of Chicago is interested. Maybe that would be a chance to introduce some of these other characters.
C: You say you never considered yourself a poet in the introduction to the liner notes. What to you is the difference between poetry and song lyrics?
NM: Well, poetry has to stand alone. Lyricism is kind of like lazy poetry. You can rely on the music to do a lot of the work.
School is back in session next week, and the Houston Press music department is looking for an intern for the fall semester. Duties include reviewing concerts, interviewing musicians and others in the local music scene, photography, general reporting and assisting with club listings. You must be a student currently enrolled at a Houston-area college or university and registered for a journalism or photography course that grants credit for the internship. Please send resumes and no more than three writing samples to firstname.lastname@example.org. No phone calls, please.
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1. Various Artists, To Scratch Your Heart:
Early Recordings from Istanbul (CD/LP)
2. Little Joe Washington, Houston Guitar Blues (LP)
3. Various Artists, Local Customs:
Lone Star Lowlands (CD/LP)
4. Doug Sahm, He's About a Groover:
An Essential Collection (CD)
5. Chico Trujillo, Chico de Oro (CD)
6. Trombone Shorty, Backatown (CD)
7. Various Artists, Epitaph for a Legend:
International Artists (CD)
8. Mike Stinson, The Jukebox in Your Heart (CD)
9. Texas Tornados, ¡Está Bueno! (CD)
10. Seu Jorge and Almaz, Seu Jorge and Alma (CD/LP)
Chicken Skin Music
KTRU (91.7 FM), www.ktru.org
Thursdays, 8-10 p.m.
Selections from David John's August 12 playlist
1. John Hartford, "Turn Your Radio On"
2. Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, "Stand By Your Man"
3. Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra, "Garden at Dusk"
4. Charlie Musselwhite, "Where Highway 61 Runs"
5. Johnny Winter, "Johnny B. Goode"
6. Terri Hendrix, "Hole in My Pocket"
7. Angel Band, "Fly Away Home"
8. Blaze Foley, "Election Day"
9. The Monks, "Love Came Tumblin' Down"
10. Spirit, "Fresh Garbage"
(lists compiled by Chris Gray)
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