Natalie Merchant Plays With Words


Natalie Merchant portraitPop singers have often thought of themselves as poets of sorts, and Natalie Merchant is no exception: She considers herself a “writer of verse” whose words often happen to be accompanied by music. Merchant’s new album Leave Your Sleep will probably help burnish her poetry credentials—but ironically, the words on this album, for a change, are not her own: The album is a collection of 26 historical poems set to a wide range of music styles, from reggae and the blues to folk and Chinese traditional music. (Read a review in the May-June Utne Reader.) Although the poems are in her own description by, for, or about children, Leave Your Sleep doesn’t present itself as a children’s album but rather one that can be enjoyed by all ages.

I spoke with Merchant in early March as she was putting the finishing touches on the album’s elaborate packaging, which includes an 80-page booklet. Our free-ranging conversation touched on her motherhood (she had a daughter in 2003), the magic of music, and why she may run off to live in a convent for her next album.

Your last studio album, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, was a fairly low-key folk album put out on your own label.

“Yeah, we made that in two days.”

Now you’re doing a massive project involving more than a hundred musicians and a wide range of musical styles. How did you shift from this very DIY ethic to this big production?

“Well, it took six years. The thing that was great about The House Carpenter’s Daughter, the way we were able to record with such spontaneity, is that we toured for the whole summer. But the research for that record took about six months, because I wanted to do folk music that I wasn’t familiar with yet. So I did a lot of research at the public library at Lincoln Center and took a lot of the material from books. So I had a small introduction to that process.

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