Natalie Merchant Plays With Words

article image

Pop 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.

“The individual recording sessions for this one, for Leave Your Sleep, were actually done pretty quickly. There was a lot of preproduction involved. I probably spent a year writing, a year demoing, and then about six months organizing all the sessions–and then a year recording and about five months to mix and master. And then the research for the book was ongoing. I had three research assistants just finding information about the poets, because some of them were so obscure. I had a copyright researcher, and I had two lawyers doing clearances and a picture researcher. That was my team. (laughs)

“So it was like there were hidden aspects to this. Calling Wynton Marsalis and saying ‘Wynton, could you do me a favor and write an arrangement for “Janitor’s Boy” and meet me in the studio on this particular day’–that was sort of the easy part. (laughs) The magic would happen in the studio once we had everything set up. But there was a lot of sweat and blood and tears leading up to the magic.”

When did you first conceive of this album?

“The day after my daughter was born. I think [new mothers] are pretty evenly divided: The women who go into a postpartum depression and the ones who go into a crazy euphoria. And I went into a crazy euphoric state.

“I knew that I was going to be responsible for introducing her to the world, and language, and music, and spirituality, and nature–everything. The doors of the world were going to open to her through me. And I didn’t realize it so much until I was holding her in my arms. I had all this energy, and yet I had to nurse my baby five, six hours a day. I was trapped in a chair with all this energy, but I noticed there was a book of poems that I had bought for her–an anthology of poetry was sitting on the shelf near the chair where I was nursing her. So I just started looking through the book and marking pages that I found interesting. I thought I would begin with lullabies, and that’s the album I would make for her. I also realized I wanted to sing lullabies to her but I just didn’t know any. So I thought, ‘I’ll just write my own.’ But I felt kind of hobbled, because I couldn’t really use my hands. (laughs) So I started singing these poems into these melodies, into a recording device. That’s how I started the record, and it kind of grew from that. That was almost seven years ago.”

And eventually it grew beyond lullabies, right?

“Pretty quickly. Because as soon as she was old enough to comprehend basic language, I started teaching her Mother Goose rhymes and teaching her how to use language as a toy–that it could be this delightful plaything of hers. I loved the rhythms, and the rhymes were really great for her memory, and introducing her to new vocabularies. And so I was kind of immersed in that world, which I found very enjoyable. It was kind of dark times in our country, and I was feeling powerless and frustrated, and I also realized that I’d spent my whole life waiting to have a child–I’d waited 40 years to have this child, and I knew that time would be very fleeting, because I’d lived long enough to know what five or six years would feel like, so I just wanted to really be there. But it felt creative, too–I wanted to be totally present in her life but creative at the same time, and that resulted in me making art out of the experience of motherhood and her childhood.”

The common thread in these poems is that they’re by or for or about children. Yet the album, to my ears, doesn’t sound like many children’s albums and doesn’t seem to be playing down to the audience. Do you consider it a children’s album?

“Like I said, I think it was inspired by my experience of having a child, and children certainly enjoy it. And actually, the president of Nonesuch said the greatest thing–he said the Beatles made the best children’s records of all time, but they never made a children’s record. My daughter loves the Kinks; ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is her favorite song. I haven’t really segregated music in my collection and said, well, this is music that she will enjoy and it’s appropriate for her because it was written for children. She just responds to music. She loves African highlife guitar, she loves salsa music, she loves Celtic folk music. And that’s something that most of the parents that I know do for their children–they just play music they enjoy, and the kids are exposed to everything. There are plenty of other forms of media that are specific to certain age groups, and you don’t expose kids to R-rated film, obviously, and there’s literature that’s too complex, you can’t introduce them to it. But I play symphonic music for my child and she doesn’t find that too complicated, and she doesn’t find it dull or boring. I was just trying to speak to her in the musical language that she already seems to understand.

“It is a systematic concept record, I guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s so highbrow that children can’t enjoy it. I mean, there’s a lot of nonsense poetry involved in it, but there are a lot of great big-band and bluegrass and Cajun songs that have silly lyrics–but they were never written for children. The Edward Lear poem or the William Brighty Rands–the nonsense material, especially the British Victorian nonsense–was actually for the most part not created for children. It was created for the amusement of other adults, as a lot of the nursery rhymes were actually political satire, or they were amusements of the gentry. They eventually became part of what we consider the Mother Goose canon, but they weren’t always specifically written for children.

“That’s why I named the album Leave Your Sleep–it’s taken from a Mother Goose rhyme. Because it points to the genesis of the record, but there’s something deeper in our culture, a deeper place that those rhymes inhabit historically and in their origins, and also historically in where they live in our culture. I think Leave Your Sleep is a really simple phrase, but it can be interpreted in so many ways. It seems to point to an awakening of some sort, whether that was my awakening to this poetry or my invitation to other people to become awake to it. Or to just take these poems that are more obscure and wake them back up–you know, give them a second chance at different lives, bring them to light in a way.”

There’s been endless debate over whether song lyrics are poetry–whether Bob Dylan is a poet, for instance. By setting poems to songs you’re sort of inverting the equation, making these poets into pop lyricists. Are the two skills at least somewhat complementary if not interchangeable?

“Well, I’ve talked to some literary critics who feel that part of the reason poetry has fallen so far out of fashion is that it was originally meant to be recited and sung, and it’s because of this separation from its musicality that it inhabits this ivory tower, and that it’s inaccessible to so many people. But as a writer of verse, which is what I am–whether you want to call me a lyricist or a poet, that’s up to your bias–my words are meant to be heard. And I feel that way about all these poems. These poems didn’t come to life for me until I read them aloud. And then they came further to life when I gave them pitch, and lengthened or shortened the syllables and gave them notes. And the notes helped me illustrate them–illustrate the emotional content or the subject matter, whatever it was it just made it a more full experience for me.

“So I don’t know. Actually, I just received an invitation from Poetry magazine to contribute. It’s the most prestigious poetry journal in America, so I was thrilled. But then the second paragraph said ‘as a contributor to our special column that we call “The View from Here,”‘ which is basically an outsider’s view of poetry. And I’m actually sitting here today composing a letter to the editor saying, ‘But I’m a published writer of verse for 30 years, and why is it that I’m not considered a poet? Because somewhere in the world there’s music that accompanies what I do?'”

How big a pool of poems did you start with?

“Well, I had to narrow the field to just the criteria that you described–poems about, by, or for children–because there were just thousands and thousands of poems. I read hundreds, and I ended up writing music to probably 50. We recorded 35, and 26 ended up on the record.”

In assembling the material, did you uncover poets and poems you didn’t previously know about?

“I’d say 80 percent of the stuff that ended up on the record I’d never heard of before.”

What were some of the most notable surprises?

“Well, the Nathalia Crane poem ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ is my favorite–that and ‘If No One Ever Marries Me,’ because they’re extremely obscure poets, that they were young women–Nathalia Crane was 10 when she wrote ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ and Laurence Alma-Tadema was 18 [when she wrote ‘If No One Ever Marries Me’]. Both those poems were from their very first publications. The search for photographs of them, and information about them, was very interesting. I actually located Natalia Crane’s widower, living in California, and he put me in touch with a woman who’s writing a biography about her. That’s how I got all the information about her. She was from Brooklyn, so we went to the Brooklyn Public Library and the Smithsonian Institution and got an incredible treasure trove of photographs because she was a national celebrity from the time she was 10 to about 16, for just being a precocious young poet.

“I made a joke onstage in London recently, that for a 10-year-old girl to get that kind of notoriety she’d have to murder her whole family and eat them. (laughs) Just to write a book about your obsessive crush on the son of the superintendent of your building–that was enough to make you an international star in 1927.”

There’s a lot of Victorian-era poetry on the album. Why were you drawn to the Victorians?

“British Victorians experienced a sort of golden era of children’s literature, and that’s a reason I was really drawn to it. It is more sophisticated–even the nonsense is more sophisticated. It seems to be more about the structure of the language and the playfulness of the sound of the language, and even the meaning of the words, especially in Edward Lear’s case. The stories about the poets were really fascinating, and the meter and the rhyme schemes just really appealed to me when I sat down to write music. They adapted really well to music. Edward Lear actually did compose music–it’s one of the things he did with his talent. He was a painter; he actually taught Queen Victoria to watercolor as a painting instructor.

“He was one of 21 children and the family was broken up when his father, who was a stockbroker, experienced a reversal of fortunes and was sent to debtor’s prison. So he ended up being educated by his sister and rising in British society to the point where he was held in high esteem by the queen. And he lived with the 13th Earl of Derby because he was this very talented painter. He was hired to paint the Earl of Derby’s private menagerie of over a thousand animals that he had on his estate.

“I wanted to go visit the estate where he lived, because the Earl of Derby was also the first to publish Edward’s poetry. So I thought it would be really interesting to go there and see the house. He started as a servant in the home, and then he ended up being a favorite in the drawing room of the mansion. And it is a mansion–it’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen in my life, and they have a safari park there, hundreds of acres of safari park with baboons and rhinoceros and elephants and cheetahs. (laughs) The stories are just fascinating. The descendant of the Earl of Derby still runs the property, and they have a convention center there and a spa.”

Are there some poets whose work you wanted to include that just didn’t lend itself to the musical form?

“Yes. I thought Lewis Carroll should be part of it, and we did record ‘How doth the little crocodile/Improve his shining tail/And pour the waters of the Nile/On every golden scale!/How cheerfully he seems to grin/How neatly spreads his claws/And welcomes little fishes in/With gently smiling jaws!’ or something like that. But we didn’t end up doing that. And another, Walter de la Mare, turned out to be one of my favorite discoveries. I wrote three or four of his, but they ended up not going on. And William Roscoe, who was an abolitionist and a member of Parliament in the early 18th century, and he only really published one poem, called ‘The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.’ He wrote it for his son, and it was serialized in a journal of some sort. In spite of being a member of Parliament and a famous abolitionist, it basically was the thing he’s remembered for. I’m really sorry that piece didn’t end up on the record.

“There were many. So there could be another volume someday.”

How did you decide on a musical sound and create an arrangement for each poem?

“I just listened to the internal rhythms and rhymes of the poems, and depending on the characters–it seems like I was drawn to poems that had strong central characters. It wasn’t a conscious decision but it seems to be something that unifies all the poems, whether it’s ‘The Peppery Man’ or ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ or ‘The Sleepy Giant’ ‘The King of China’s Daughter,’ ‘maggie and milly and molly and may,’ ‘The Dancing Bear’–they’re really archetypes of childhood literature, too, whether it’s the circus equestrienne or the dancing bear, and witches and giants and that sort of thing. So I would just decide how I wanted to represent this character musically, and then rhythmically I would just find the rhythm within the structure of the language of the poem. It was really fun. And some of the songs–like ‘The Peppery Man’ I actually wrote that in three different styles of music, and just decided that the blues seemed more appropriate. That was the place I wanted to put ‘The Peppery Man’–I wanted to put him down South.

“And ‘[Adventures of] Isabel,’ the Ogden Nash poem, that was written in a couple different styles, and then I just decided that I was going to make Isabel a girl from the bayou. I imagine her in a torn cotton dress singing, just swinging from a vine in the swamp barefoot. That’s my version of Isabel. Ogden Nash actually wrote it about his daughter, and I found a great photo essay of him and his family at home … and that’s not his daughter at all. She was very proper, lived in a house with servants and wore white gloves and patent leather shoes and bows in her hair. But there must have been something about her–her character must have been strong. My version of Isabel wasn’t anywhere near his version.”

It sounds like it’s been quite a large project. Now that it’s complete, is the album like you initially envisioned it, or has it gone through massive transformations as it has evolved?

“Well, when I gave up the idea of it being an album of lullabies, ten lullabies, I started to embrace it as a larger project. And I knew from about year two of working on it that it was going to be the most ambitious thing I’d ever made. And definitely when were the planning the recording sessions it really became apparent it was monstrously big. (laughs) I made a wall chart of all the songs, and I remember Steven Barber, one of the string arrangers I worked with, walked in. He’s from Texas, and he just looked at it and he said, ‘The Germans don’t even have a word for this! The or-gan-i-zation of it!’ It was true. We had people from so many different places. And every one of those 120 musicians that worked on the record had to be contracted, transported, fed, given demos, given charts, supplied with directions to the studio. There was this whole list of tasks that had to be achieved to make sure they made it into the room at the right moment, in the right frame of mind. It was massive.”

It’s clear that your becoming a mother was a very direct influence on this album. Does having a child change the way you think about your art in general?

“I think having a child changes just about everything about the way that you see yourself and the world. Since most artists are just projecting some internal vision or reflecting their impressions of what they see, yeah, I’m sure it’s affected everything. I think there’s more playfulness in what I’m doing now, and more depth at the same time, because of the experience. And I think I’ve become more certain of who I am, so that gives me more confidence.

“I think the long-term effect of making this record on my work is going to be that anything is possible. I’m not going to discount anything, any idea. I wrote an arrangement for traditional Chinese instruments for this record–I mean, everything that we did. I sang a duet with an 87-year-old man, recorded with Wynton Marsalis, and I wrote string arrangements with Sean O’Loughlin that were performed by members of the New York Philharmonic. I just feel there were so many things we set out to do that at first I thought, well, what do I know about the range of a pipa, or an erhu? And who do I think I am to write a string part for some of the best cellists in the world? And we just did it. Or what business do I have adapting Gerard Manley Hopkins to music? I just felt like this poetry is speaking to me, and because of the way it’s affecting me, it’s given me license to do what I’m doing.

“I felt at points like I needed to ask permission from someone, and I didn’t know who that person was, because so many of the poets have been gone for so long. But the interesting thing was meeting some of the poets and their heirs and their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, and how delighted they are by the project.”

After this project, what’s next for you?

“Well, I did sign a two-year deal with Nonesuch, and I have many songs written that just haven’t been recorded because I’ve been focused on the poetry project, so I’m excited about that. I’ve found a convent in the South of Spain that is a cloistered convent–and only Nonesuch would be probably interested in this project–but I’ve obtained permission to live there for a period of time, and I thought that would be really fascinating. Some of those women have been cloistered for 60 years. I thought that being inside, even just for a month, and observing that lifestyle would be really interesting to see what kind of music I would write in that environment. So that’s a project I’m interested in. I could go a lot of different directions. So who knows?”

Here’s a video performance of a song from Leave Your Sleep, based on the poem “The Man in the Wilderness” by an anonymous poet:

Image by Mark Seliger, courtesy of Nonesuch Records.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.