Talking with Natalie Merchant

The following are unpublished excerpts from my interview with Natalie Merchant, conducted on December 29, 2009, at the Bread Alone Bakery in Rhinecliff, New York. The interview was for the March 2010 issue of Paste, for a story on her album Leave Your Sleep, released on Nonesuch on April 13, 2010. To read the published article, which is considerably shorter and focuses on the making of the album, go here.

Photo by Mark Seliger.

All text © Kristina Feliciano.

A volume of the encyclopedia helped shape her destiny. 
At age 16, she attended a a party in Jamestown, New York, where the guys who would eventually form 10,000 Maniacs were performing. They invited her to sing, so she brought a book on stage with her and made up songs from it on the spot. “I’d been to the thrift store, and I had just bought the book. It was actually R on the encyclopedia. And I remember the guitar player, John Lombardo—he became the bass player—saying, ‘She’s an idiot savant! She has to be in the band.’” Laughs.

How does she look back on her time with the Maniacs?
“It was a great education. It was a great way to get out of town.” Is that what she wanted—to get out of town? “Doesn't everybody? I think everybody does. I joined the band when I was 16. I was lived in a small, isolated rural town. I just wanted to travel. By the time I was 19, I had traveled all over the United States and gone to Europe for the first time. And if I had just stayed on the track I was on, I would have ended up in art school, probably in New York City, which would have been a different track and an interesting life, but I think I learned quite a bit [on the path I took].

“The way I performed came naturally to me. It was very unorthodox, but it was the way that I did it. I remember when we started writing songs. We’d rehearse in different places. An old factory. In a truck-parts store that the keyboard player’s dad owned. I can remember specifically John [Lombardo, the bass player] saying, ‘Go to the chorus, and I didn’t know what a chorus was.” Laughs. “So that’s how untrained I was.”

She originally wanted to be a painter. 

Some of the painters she likes: Balthus. Giotto. “I love Goya. I love Werner Schulz. Post-Impressionists. The French Naturalists, like Millet. I like Corot, Corbet, Manet. Edward Hopper. A Portuguese woman named Paula Rego. Her work is kind of menacing, but intriguing.”

Some of the biographical “facts” that are written about her are patently false.
“I didn’t live on a commune. My stepbrother did and we visited. And my name is not O'Shea. I’ve got about two drops of Irish blood. My family is Sicilian and German. My name’s not really Merchant, either. We were anglicized at Ellis Island. It was Mercanti. The other part of the family is French and German.”

She loves gardening.  

“I learned to garden from my grandfather. He had five acres on the edge of town. It was a traditional Mediterranean garden, as traditional as can be in Western New York. I can my own vegetables. I lived in Hawaii for years and had solar power and my own well. I had my own guava trees and mango trees and papaya, star fruit. All sorts of citrus trees. I had a massive garden this year—massive. I’m more interested in food than flowers. I’m excited about what they call the ‘slow food’ movement.”

She sometimes feels misunderstood—or mischaracterized—by the press.  “I started young, and I had success early. But I was misunderstood from the beginning and misinterpreted, and I felt it was a waste of effort to reinterpret, to explain myself. Because I didn’t feel that I was responsible [for the misunderstanding].

“It started in England. The Maniacs did really well in England first. People actually thought we were a British band. But the British press—they can be harsh. And I was a 16-year-old girl from a small town in Western New York. I was an ingénue, and it feels like I was never given an opportunity to grow.

“I was an ingénue, but at the same time I was a serious girl. The assumption is that if you're serious about anything, you have no sense of humor. It’s like that song by Nellie McKay—‘Feminists don’t have a sense of humor,” she says, citing a line from McKay’s “Mother of Pearl” and then adding McKay’s quip, “Lighten up, lady!”

“It’d come time to support a record, and so many of my records had serious social commentary on them. And I’d be asked to explain the song or the motivation for writing the song, and if the song is about alcoholism or child abuse or illiteracy or whatever—I was very issue-driven in my lyric writing at that time—I would talk about these things. And then the interviewer gets this impression that Natalie doesn't have a sense of humor. It’s like being a vegetarian. I just got put into this humorless, feminist, muckraking vegetarian drawer.”