Media Diet: Natalie Merchant

The soulful singer and activist talks books, magazines, music, and more

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Natalie Merchant's liberal activism has earned her praise from fellow lefties and a reputation for being a cause-obsessed crusader from the mainstream media. Yet, though she's made her share of high-profile stands on issues like commercial logging, animal rights, and abortion, her political beliefs are seldom the driving force of her art. Merchant the songwriter is more likely to find her inspiration in her personal life, memories, and observations. “I write songs about the things that are important to me,” she says. “I guess you find whatever you can in your own experience that will be meaningful to other people.”

Born and raised in Jamestown, New York, a former factory town a few hours south of Buffalo, Merchant, 36, began her musical career at 16, when she became lead singer for the band that later became known as 10,000 Maniacs. In 1995 she launched her solo career with the hit album Tigerlily, and earlier this year she released a critically acclaimed followup, Ophelia, and an accompanying short film. Merchant spoke with assistant editor Andy Steiner from her home in New York City.

Where do you get your news?
I read the New York Times for news, and The Nation or The Progressive for analysis. I also like Z Magazine. When I want to get a broader perspective on international events, I read books. A few years ago when I wanted to know more about what was happening in Haiti, I learned so much from one particular book I was able to have long conversations with Haitian cabdrivers in New York about events in their country.They were shocked that I knew anything more than what was in in the headlines.

Do you watch TV? What shows do you like?
When I'm at home, I don't watch television, though I do have a TV with a VCR hooked up to it. When I was growing up, my mother wouldn't allow us to watch television, and we didn't have a set at all from the time I was 7. So Gilligan's Island, The Partridge Family, The Mod Squad—that's where my references end. I'm like Rip Van Winkle when it comes to stuff like that.

I don't want to come off sounding all snooty about TV, though. If people want to watch TV that's fine, but I feel like TV holds a close second to cars for destroying our society. It's a failed experiment.

If you could require that each person you met listened to one piece of music, what would it be?
Probably “Freedom Highway” by the Staple Singers. If they didn't like that, then I wouldn't know what planet they were from.

So they'd have to be snapping their fingers and dancing around?
It's better to make things clear from the start. You know what it's like to experience music through another person's ears. I get tense when I'm in a car and someone asks me to pick out the music. I can't enjoy it because I'm worried about what the other person is thinking about my selection. Say I want to listen to my Nick Drake album—just put in Pink Moon, drive down the highway, and get into a Nick Drake frame of mind. But Nick is hard to digest for some people. So I take a deep breath, turn it up, and drive along thinking, “They hate it. They hate it.”

What are your favorite books?
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Anything by Willa Cather; I like her vision of America. And anything by Gabriel García Márquez, especially Love in the Time of Cholera or 100 Years of Solitude. I'm also obsessed with history. Right now I'm reading about the Salem witch trials. One of the most fascinating books is Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem by Elaine Breslaw.

What else are you reading right now?
Usually I read three or four books at once. There's always something historical, something factual, usually some fiction. Right now I'm reading The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I just finished Failure Is Impossible, a collection of Susan B. Anthony's letters and speeches; I bought it this summer when I was on the road with Lilith Fair and we played near Seneca Falls. I'm also working on the biography of St. Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West.

What media trends dishearten you?
The Internet is a wonderful thing, but we forget that those who participate have equal amounts of power to inform and disinform. It's like all the radio talk shows. Public discourse is overwhelming—especially when people don't know what they're talking about. It drives me crazy.

If you could make one law, what would it be?
Every person should have a fundamental human right to light and air at home and at work. As I travel around the country, I see a lot of new buildings where you can't open a window and breathe the air. When I get to a hotel, the first thing I do is try to open a window. Most of the time I can't.

For 38 years, my father worked for a company that made glass furnaces. It wasn't until he had worked there 31 years—and they were bought out by a European company—that he finally got an office with a window. Here he was, working in a company that made glass, but they didn't have windows. It was like he was working in a Kafka novel.

What do you want to learn next?
I'd like to get really good at conversational Italian. I used to say that if I could have any wish, it would be speaking every language in the world. Then I could go anywhere and talk to people and learn from them.

When were you most happy?
I'm pretty happy now. It's good to be at this moment.