Media Diet: Natalie Merchant

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


| November/December 1998



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.