Natalie Merchant goes deep

Natalie Merchant, gay news, Washington Blade

When working on her new box set, Natalie Merchant says it was important to her to maintain a high quality throughout. (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff; courtesy Nonesuch Records)

Natalie Merchant

Summer Tour 2017

‘3 Decades of Song’

Thursday, July 6

8 p.m.

Wolf Trap

Filene Center

1551 Trap Rd.

Vienna, Va.


Natalie Merchant, a ‘90s radio mainstay and former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, is sort of “bookending,” as she puts it, her solo material with the release of a new box set.

Out July 14 (postponed from a planned June release), “The Natalie Merchant Collection” is a deluxe, 10-CD box set that features her eight solo albums, a new studio disc called “Butterfly” that features four new songs and six catalogue tracks re-recorded with a string quartet, as well as a full disc of rarities and outtakes.

Merchant brings her summer tour to Wolf Trap on Thursday, July 6. She spoke to the Blade by phone last week from her home in upstate New York.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Why did you feel now was the right time for such a lavish box set?

NATALIE MERCHANT: It was a combination of factors. I feel that we’re definitely in the twilight moments of recorded music in the physical realm. As much as people talk about the resurgence of an interest in vinyl, I think that’s a small cult. So I felt like if I didn’t do it soon, there might not be an audience for it. I’ve also been steadily making records since the late ‘90s that have been a bit under the radar and I thought this would be an opportunity to combine all the work in one place for people who might have been familiar with what I was doing 20 years ago to see what I’m doing today.

BLADE: Was it hard to find a deal for it?

MERCHANT: Actually the suggestion came from Nonesuch a couple years ago because Nonesuch is owned by the same parent company as (her former label home) Elektra, so this idea of consolidating the whole catalogue under one roof was suggested and I thought that was a great idea. Elektra kind of folded for several years and I did feel like a lot of the records had gone out of print. Even my independent release, “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” copies of it sell for like $50 online, which seemed silly to me because it’s really not worth that (laughs). It just felt like there were so many different factors. And also, when I did “Paradise is Here,” (a 2015 re-recording of breakthrough album “Tigerlily”), I went through all my archives, all the music, all the video, all the photography, so I had all these assets and I’d recently sort of curated them all, so this gave me an opportunity to put the book together. I just got it in the mail today.

BLADE: Oh wow, how does it feel to have it in your hands?

MERCHANT: It’s heavy! It feels very substantial. That’s my first impression. And my second impression is that it’s really so different from looking at a group of virtual files on a computer screen to have this whole thing in your hand and this 100-page book. It feels like a substantial amount of work that I think can get really distorted when you’re looking at it digitally. … It feels great.

BLADE: Did you have all this stuff yourself or did you have to round it up from various sources?

MERCHANT: It was interesting. One thing people might notice when they get the box set, is that it’s a different cover for (second solo album) “Ophelia” because the original photo was lost. Even Warner Bros. didn’t have it in their archives. I event went back to the original photographer, I went back to the original art director. I was the only person who had a lot of these assets. Also, I don’t want to sound morbid, but some day I’ll be dead and I wanted to make sure the material was presented in a way that I wanted it to be presented. I found it kind of shocking that they’d lost my art work but luckily I’m a bit of a pack rat, so I had many of the things that were necessary for this package in my basement including all the rarities which were in my own files at home.

BLADE: Do you feel a little more freedom to go deeper with your set list on your summer tour since you’re essentially touring this box set?

MERCHANT: If you include the 10,000 Maniacs songs, I’ve probably written about 250 songs. So yeah, it’s difficult to put together a set list of 26 or even 30 songs that are going to make everyone happy. But I think it’s going to be a really interesting set. I’m carrying a string quartet, piano, guitar, bass and drummer. It’s a big band and I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the arrangement of the material they know and to also hear some things they may not be familiar with.

BLADE: You sang at an anti-Trump rally earlier this year and have always been politically active. Why was that event important to you?

MERCHANT: It’s very disturbing what’s happening in our country right now. I believe that rally was on the even of the inauguration and I was in New York near Trump Tower. It was announced, I think, just two or three days before and we had 30,000 people there. That was encouraging and the next day was the women’s march and that was further confirmation that those of us who really sensed that the election of this man was extremely dangerous, you know, to have that many people show up in Washington the day after and protest was really encouraging. I’m hoping that we win back the House in 2018 at the very least. That would be a step forward. I don’t know about impeachment. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or how much things would improve if we have President Pence. So it’s frightening, really frightening, especially when he stepped away from the Paris accord. We don’t have time to mess around at this point. We have to transition from being a fossil fuel-based, energy-consuming country or we will not survive. It’s just really horrifying to think that we now have a president, whether he thinks global climate change exists or not, who would do that. That, to me, is the most important issue. But there’s women’s issues, there’s the health care issue, it’s overwhelming that there’s so many different fronts now and that we have to be fighting on. But I think without stabilizing the environment, or at least severely reducing the negative impact we’re having on the environment, we’re all fucked.

BLADE: Tell me more about the “Butterfly” disc. Of all the new material you might have recorded, why did you go with  the string quartet approach?

MERCHANT: Since 2008 I’ve been doing orchestral shows and quartet shows almost exclusively so when it came time to make this record, I think there are about 40 songs now that I have string arrangements for. I had the entire “Paradise is There” album, celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Tigerlily,” so I’d used several of the arrangements on that record, so this was an opportunity to do that with some of those other songs in the new arrangements that had never been recorded.

BLADE: Sometimes long-time fans balk at these kinds of sets and say, “Oh, she’s making us buy all this stuff we already have just to get the new material.” Was that a concern?

MERCHANT: I think the fan that has every single thing I’ve ever released is rare. I think most people will be kind of grateful, at least I am when there’s an artist I’m interested in, I may not have everything they’ve ever released. I buy a lot of box sets because I’ve missed some of the pieces and I guess I’m kind of the personality who’s a completist. I like to have complete sets. And people will be able to digitally access the two new (discs) if they want. There’s also  talk of a vinyl version (of the new material) coming out in the fall, so that’s another opportunity, but I don’t know. We’ll have to see. I also insisted it be very reasonably priced. I wanted it to be $50 or less.

BLADE: That’s certainly fair for a 10-disc set. 

MERCHANT: And I think Amazon will be selling it for $40-something.

BLADE: Did you have any creative battles at Elektra or did they pretty much let you do your thing?

MERCHANT: Well, two interesting things happened. When I went solo, Bob Krasnow, who’d been the chairman of the company the entire time I’d been on Elektra, I can’t remember under what circumstances he departed, but he was gone and Sylvia Rhone came in and I think Sylvia was eager to prove herself and she really liked the song, “Carnival.” She’d been responsible for breaking a lot of African-American bands and artists but not a white artist and and I think that was her challenge and she loved that song so that was a stroke of luck. And I heard that Jon Landeau, who’d been executive managing Bruce Springsteen since the beginning of his career, Bruce was taking a hiatus so Jon started managing me, so I had this encouraging situation at the company and had great management, so I felt protected and respected. I didn’t feel it was an antagonistic relationship with Elektra at that point. I think I’d proven myself with three platinum records with 10,000 Maniacs.

BLADE: Did you choose the singles or the label on your first few albums? 

MERCHANT: I think it was pretty obvious what the singles were on the first record. I don’t remember there being any discussion of that. I think with (third album) “Motherland” (2001), I wasn’t happy with a couple of the choices, but the first couple albums, it was fine. At that point, I was 30 years old, I’d been with the label since I was 19 and to be honest with you, I’d outlives just about everybody who worked at the label except the woman who ran the publicity department. I think we were the last two standing by the time it folded (laughs). … As people started doing more and more file sharing, the art department disappeared, the video department, it felt like departments were disappearing weekly until eventually the label just folded.

BLADE: Will you keep making records or is this set a sort of a bookend for you?

MERCHANT: It’s a little bit of a bookend because I’ll never be able to make records the way I did before. That leisurely two months in the studio, that’s just unheard of. “Leave Your Sleep” (2010) was the final project that I did on that scale and it took a full year to make that record. I employed, I think, 135 different musicians and it was folly in a way, but it was a beautiful folly. I still haven’t recouped and that was seven years ago (laughs). I felt like Orson Welles making “Citizen Kane” or David Lean making “Bridge on the River Kwai.” It felt like I had to make it even though it made absolutely no sense financially. But I learned so much from it and it still sold a quarter of a million copies which is still kind of unheard of in today’s market.

BLADE: You wouldn’t be happy doing something on a smaller scale? I saw Sheryl Crow last night and she has this great new album out that she made in her home studio while her kids were at school and it’s this really fun little album. You wouldn’t want to do something like that?

MERCHANT: I have two projects I’d like to do. One is to make an online database of folk music for children, performed by children. The other is a children’s theater company. I feel compulsive about creativity and there are so many different aspects to it. I’d love to do costume design, I would love to hire a choreographer and do some dance, or maybe research folk tales from other lands and other music. There are so many other things I want to do with music that don’t involve going into a studio, recording a pop record and going on tour. It used to be that years ago you’d get to a certain point in your career and then you’d start producing other artists. I think I would have done that more if the industry hadn’t collapsed.

BLADE: Did you have a lot of stuff to pull from for the rarities disc? Did you ever toy with the idea of doing a two- or three-disc set of all rarities?

MERCHANT: Well, for the rarities I wanted to put out music of high quality. I didn’t want it to just be all home demos and bad outtakes. It really is a combination of little-known tracks, like the collaboration I did with David Byrne for “Here Lies Love” or the track I did with the Chieftains, which I really loved going to Ireland and recording with them, that were really special moments in my career. And there was other unknown stuff that I’d been holding on to like “The Village Green” and “Too Long at the Fair” that were all recorded by great musicians in world-class studios under different circumstances. I did a session back in 2008 when I was looking for a label to put out “Leave Your Sleep” and I recorded a group of demos and we recorded some covers that were lovely covers, they just never belonged on a record. I wanted to put out only rare tracks that were of great quality.

Natalie Merchant says her self-described ‘pack rat’ tendencies came in handy when putting together her lavish new, 10-disc box set. (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff; courtesy Nonesuch Records)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *