Merchant talks about music and the post-Sept. 11 world


December 14, 2001



From her earliest days with arty folk-rockers 10,000 Maniacs, through her first three solo releases, Natalie Merchant has often been out of step with the prevailing pop trends. But she has never seemed quite so contrarian as she does right now.

In this era of ultra-polished platinum product, the singer-songwriter has made the darkest, rawest, and least polished album of her career, "Motherland." Though she is often dismissed as an aging flower child, the moods on the disc are many and varied, from black cynicism, to biting satire, to unbridled anger. And while the lyrics are often political, they are never what anyone could call lock-step politically correct.

I had a long, frank conversation with Merchant early in a tour that brings her to the Arie Crown Theater (23rd and Lake Shore Drive) at 8 tonight. Some tickets remain through Ticketmaster at (312) 559-1212; prices are $30-$40.

Q. You took a very different approach on "Motherland" than the sort of role-playing, "many faces of Natalie" concept on 1997's "Ophelia." The new album seems a lot darker, like a tour of underground America.

A. Well, I wouldn't want to mess with your critique. [Laughs] But yeah, there's some darkness on the album. But there's some humor, too, and a couple of minutes of ecstasy, and some upliftingness here and there.

Q. Producer T-Bone Burnett is red hot because of the soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou?" Were you going for a similar feel on your album?

A. T-Bone makes really honest-sounding records, and my philosophy in the studio tends to be, "I want to make a document of this particular moment when these musicians were in this room and recorded this piece of music." Which I know might sound kind of silly, because that should be what record-making is about. But with technology--especially digital technology and the advent of Pro Tools--people don't make records like that anymore.

We're very old-fashioned, quirky people, and we like all the ancillary bumps and grinding noises that the old vintage gear makes. I think T-Bone and I share that idea of recording. I wanted to learn his techniques and see what he's about. I like producing my own records; I don't think I need someone to tell me what songs of mine are good and refine my lyrics or find people to play on my records. I just wanted to see how it works and how he got that sound.

Q. The song "This House Is On Fire" seems oddly prescient in the wake of Sept. 11, with lyrics like, "There's a wild fire catching in the whip of the wind/That could start a conflagration like there has never been." You've said it was inspired by the anti-WTO riots in Seattle two years ago.

Q. Do you think Sept. 11 will inspire people to do anything constructive?

A. I lean toward cynicism myself. When we talk about the Internet and the interconnectivity of the world, I don't think people really associate the gluttonous behavior of the United States and our disproportionate use of resources in the world with our interconnectedness with the rest of the world. We let the whole world in while we're sucking up 40 percent of the world's resources with 4 percent of the population.

I think my cynicism comes from the fact that first you have to make all those connections, then you have to assimilate them, and then you have to do something about it. And the assimilation of that information can drive you insane. If you think about it, you'll be paralyzed.

Q. But you do think about it, and you're not paralyzed. You bring beautiful music into the world.

A. But a lot of people are paralyzed, and they want a distraction from it, and then they get the Backstreet Boys.

A lot of people say, "After Sept. 11, how did your life change?" Aside from all of the fundamental and really visceral changes that happened because I have an apartment in New York that's half a mile away from Ground Zero, psychologically I feel like the age of innocence--the age of pretending that I don't know what I know--is over for me. I know that the United States is one of the few nations in the world that wouldn't sign the international declaration of children's rights. And when I see images of 5-year-old Afghani children working 10 hours a day for 50 cents to make bricks with their hands, I can't just say, "Well, that's too bad." We actually contribute to that because we've done very little to prevent it.

Q. How do you see rock 'n' roll coming into this? When I see you perform, there's a community of like-minded people there.

A. The only thing that might make them like-minded is that they might like Natalie Merchant. You can't make assumptions about people just because they like Natalie Merchant.

Q. Perhaps. But if you have to go review Limp Bizkit, as I often do, you might make certain assumptions about the people gathered to see Limp Bizkit vs. the people gathered to see you.

A. [Laughs] Point taken!

Q. So given what you're saying, what do people do? What do artists do? How do you create in the face of everything you've just described?

A. Well, I've been writing songs and recording them for 20 years now. I've always written albums that have a mixture of political and personal material, and I guess that's one way that I've always addressed issues, even in times when it's been very unfashionable. And I've given millions of dollars to people who are on the front lines in nonprofit organizations who are fighting the good fight. I feel like that's been one of the things about my life that I can be most proud of. But I do feel like the evolution of our souls is going to be our only saving grace in the end, and that's the thing that artists can work toward--helping people evolve, and making them more aware of the impact that they can have on the world on a small scale.

What would the world be like if we didn't have figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.? If we didn't have John Lennon singing, "If you want money for people with minds that hate/I'm telling you brother you're going to have to wait"? There'd be no models of nonviolent rebellion. People would think the only way to affect change would be to blow things up and murder people.

Q. One of the other things you do as an artist is shed light on people whose stories haven't been told. Tell me about the song "Henry Darger," which is about a Chicago author and "outsider artist" who died in 1973.

A. I'd love to visit his grave site. Because in many of his drawings there were violent images of young girls, or girls who were tied up, people jumped to the conclusion that he was a child molester, or that he might have actually murdered a child. Nathan Lerner, the man who rented him his apartment for years, really worked to publicize the content of the book about him [Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings by Michael Bonesteel] so that people understood that this was a fantasy that he had--that he had to create the demons in order to slay them. On his grave stone, it says that he was an artist, an author, and a protector of children. He's buried in Chicago somewhere.

Originally, my concept for the album was that I was going to write about America, and hidden histories and misfits and outsiders, and events in American history that we don't know much about. I had this very clever concept for the album, and as I wrote songs that didn't relate to my strict scheme, I just thought, "Oh, I'll just make an album of the songs I'm writing this year." I think that's probably a better way of writing albums, anyway, rather than restricting myself to a strict theme.

Q. You were born in 1963; you're a Gen X'er. "Tell Yourself" is a really interesting song where you're talking to a member of Generation Y, a teenager, and you're not preaching or lecturing, but telling her: "Hey, I know this period of your life sucks. Let me tell you a couple of things that might make it suck a little less."

A. [Laughs] Thirteen was the worst year of my life. My niece just went through it, and I wrote that song for her.

Q. Do you get a sense of younger fans tuning in to your music?

A. Oh, absolutely. Every night when I leave the theater and I talk to people on my way to the bus, there's always somebody who comes up to me and says, "You helped me through my awkward years." Two nights ago, there was a 17-year-old girl who said, "I don't think I would have made it without you." I think there are definitely musicians who I wouldn't have made it without them. The first time I listened to Billie Holiday, I felt like here was someone who was able to express with her voice the depth of emotion that I felt when I was rejected or when I was loved. Until I heard Billie Holiday at 14, I don't think anyone had really hit the mark for me. I was just a kid, but she got me, and she still gets me.

Q. Does it make you angry or sad when you see an artist like Britney Spears?

A. I avert my eyes, to tell you the truth. I can't even look. [Laughs] I would like Britney to have a conversion of some sort. It could happen.

Q. I think we ought to have her sit down with you!

A. I've said hello to her a few times, because we've been at big radio events. The funniest thing was, she and her mother were driving a golf cart, and I was on my way to the stage. Her mother kept screaming, "Britney first! Britney goes first!" If she had a horn, she would have been honking it. I just turned to her and said, [affected British accent] "MADAM, please!" "Britney first! Britney goes first!" I said, "If it really matters to you that your golf cart is in front of my golf cart, I yield the way."