A celebrated pop performer over two decades, Natalie Merchant began her career as the lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs, then branched out into a solo career focused on messages of politics and women’s issues. Merchant attempted to blend her own style of social consciousness and spirituality into music that encompassed folk-pop and moody ballads.
The daughter of Anthony and Ann, Natalie Ann Merchant was born the third of four children on October 26, 1963, in Jamestown, New York. In an interview with Drew DeSilver in Vegetarian Times, Merchant said, “When I was growing up, the town was the center of the universe, like home towns always are when you’re a kid. In 1974, we won an ‘All-America City’ award, and it made everybody in school feel proud.”
However, Merchant’s childhood didn’t resonate with the perfect harmony of a child at the center of the universe. At the age of seven, her parents divorced. Around that same time, she realized that her hometown suffered the same difficulties as other cities. She watched many people lose their jobs as companies shut down or moved elsewhere. She found isolation in an already isolated community. Merchant wrote a song called “Maddox Table,” on the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair, which was about the events she saw taking place in the furniture-making capital of Jamestown. “I met an old man who used to work at Maddox Tables,” she told DeSilver in Vegetarian Times. “I told him I’d written a song about the company, and I gave him a copy of the record. I never thought I’d meet someone like the person in the song.”
After her parents divorce, Merchant primarily lived with her mother. She found a group of friends she felt she could communicate with when her mother remarried and moved the family to a commune in upstate New York. “I fell in love with those people!” Merchant told Nisid Hajari in Entertainment Weekly. “They were artists. They were ladies that didn’t shave their legs. They lived alone and fed the wood stove in the winter, and they were strong.”
At the age of 16, Merchant made several changes to her life, one of which was deciding to become a vegetarian. She discovered new worlds of nutrition, diet, ecology, and medicine, which had been around for centuries. Although Merchant was proud of her decision, her family did not share her joy. They continued to prepare meat dishes at home, and forced her to eat around the meat. Her vegetarian ideas were not completely dismissed, however. Her stepmother later became a vegetarian and her father cut down on eating meat due to a heart condition.
Born Natalie Ann Merchant, on October 26, 1963, in Jamestown, NY; daughter of Anthony and Ann Merchant.
Joined 10,000 Maniacs, 1981; signed contract with Elektra Records, 1985; released eight albums, 1981-1994; left 10,000 Maniacs to pursue a solo career, 1993; released debut solo album, Tigerlily, Elektra Records, 1995; released Ophelia, Elektra Records, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019
Merchant consistently made life decisions in the blink of the eye, and once she made up her mind, nothing could stop her. One such decision was when she decided to quit high school and go straight to college. While there, she pursued an associate’s degree and worked odd jobs. Merchant’s career in music began almost purely out of circumstance. In 1980, she met keyboardist Dennis Drew and bassist Steve Gustafson, who worked as disc jockeys at her college radio station. Early the following year, Drew and Gustafson enlisted guitarist Robert Buck to form a band called Still Life. In need of a singer, her friends asked her to join them, as well. After they added guitarist John Lombardo, the group changed their name to 10,000 Maniacs.
Merchant told People, “The first five times I went to see 10,000 Maniacs [in 1981], I wasn’t in the band. But they saw me sitting there and said, ‘C’mon up and sing.’ So I did that for the next five shows. They kept luring me up onstage, and I kind of liked it. It was pretty exciting, and Jamestown as a whole was pretty boring.”
The 10,000 Maniacs differed quite a bit from the other bands playing around town. While these other bands were doing cover tunes of top 40 bands, the 10,000 Maniacs were doing covers of alternative bands from Europe, like Joy Division, and Reggae groups, such as The Mighty Diamonds. College disc jockeys started giving the band their copies of import records, which they eagerly incorporated into their play list. Soon, the band started writing their own material: peppy, pop-folk songs flavored with bluegrass and Italian folk music.
In 1983, the band released its first album, Secrets of the I-Ching. Their subsequent albums gained popularity, and the 10,000 Maniacs became a success. By 1989, the feel-good vibe of the band began to fade. The release of their fourth album, Blind Man’s Zoo, did not fair well with many critics because of its “stiff-collared preachiness.” The band even stopped playing cuts off the album in concert as a result of low responses from their audiences.
In 1993, after 12 years with 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant decided to leave the band and pursue a solo career. Two years later, she released her solo debut, Tiger Lily, which entered the Billboard album chart at number. 13 just two weeks after its release, and eventually went triple-platinum. With the help of 10,000 Maniacs producer, Paul Fox, Merchant wrote and recorded the 11 tracks on Tiger Lilyln only five months. During that time, she refused to let record company executives hear any of the music until the album was mixed.
“A lot of people at the [Elektra Records] company really had preconceived notions of what my solo record should sound like, and I didn’t even want to hear them,” she later told Entertainment Weekly. Merchant claims that she initially financed studio time with a loan, then Elektra Records paid her back. According to some reviews, Tiger Lily explored a sadness between poignant and maudlin, depending on the listener’s point of view.
The song “River,” which appeared on the album, was a tribute to the late actor River Phoenix, who she had a brief friendship with and spoke to mostly by phone. “I feel I am most successful as a songwriter when I just look at the people and tell their stories,” Merchant explained to Jeremy Helligar in People. “I didn’t know River Phoenix that well, but his death struck me powerfully. I thought, ‘There’s someone who was a kindred spirit. Somebody whom I always wanted to spend time with but never got to.’ The few times we spent together, he inspired me to push out boundaries. He had such a vibrant personality. I felt cheated when he died.”
In May of 1998, Merchant released her next album, Ophelia, which explored the seasons, angst, and joys of a woman’s life. Right after its release, it debuted at number eight on the Billboard album charts. Ophelia presented full orchestral arrangements, layered vocal harmonies, keyboards, horns, and guest performances by more than 30 musicians. Merchant’s lyrical inspiration on Ophelia returned to Shakespeare’s doomed Hamlet heroin with traces of “the heart is a lonely hunter” theme. In addition to releasing the album, Merchant collaborated with directors Mark Seliger and Fred Woodward to produce a companion 23-minute video of the same name. In the video, Merchant played the roles of seven different characters (complete with dubbed-in Italian and Swedish accents) ranging from a Depression-era suffragette to a Mob moll.
In 1998, Merchant co-headlined the Lilith Fair summer festival with fellow pop singer Sarah McLachlan. Away from the studio and off the road, Merchant spent much of her time as a liberal activist, which earned her many accolades and a reputation as a media crusader. Merchant returned to her hometown in 1998 for a special appearance with 300 children at the Jamestown Boys and Girls Club. That same year, she donated $30,000 to the “Way to Go” program at the club, and another $15,000 each to the YMCA and the YWCA. The programs earmarked Merchant’s donations to help prevent teen pregnancies. Natalie Merchant also took high-profile stands on such issues as commercial logging, animal rights, and abortion, but refrained from using her music as a vehicle for her activism. She insisted that the inspiration for her songs would continue to come from her personal experiences, memories, and observations. “I write songs about the things that are important to me,” she told Andy Steiner in Utne Reader. “I guess you find whatever you can in your own experience that will be meaningful to other people.”
Tigerlily, Elektra Records, 1995
Ophelia, Elektra Records, 1998.
Buffalo News, April 18, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 1993; May 26, 1995; July 21, 1995; May 29, 1998.
Mother Jones, January 1999.
National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998.
Newsweek, June 1, 1998.
People Weekly, May 23, 1988; July 3, 1995.
Time, May 25, 1998.
Utne Reader, November/December 1998
Vegetarian Times, March 1989.
“Natalie Merchant,” Wall of Sound, http://wallofsound.go.com/artists/nataliemerchant/home.html (May 1, 1999).
“Natalie Merchant,” Elektra Records, http://www.elektra.com (May 1, 1999).
Born: Jamestown, New York, 26 October 1963
Best-selling album since 1990: Tigerlily (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "Carnival," "Wonder," "Jealousy"
Natalie Merchant began her career as the thoughtful lead singer for the folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs. The band achieved success with a few albums and eventually broke up. Merchant, who was the primary songwriter for the Maniacs, launched a solo career in the mid-1990s and became even more successful. Her unique voice, uncompromising political opinions, and folk-rock style make for music with a social conscience.
Merchant is the third of four children of Ann and Anthony Merchant. Her mother and father divorced when she was seven, and the young Natalie lived with her mother. Eventually her mother remarried and moved the family to a commune in upstate New York, a lifestyle change that profoundly influenced Merchant psychologically. The women who lived in the commune were strong, capable, and solitary.
In 1981, at the age of seventeen, Merchant joined a local group that became 10,000 Maniacs, and she had much success on the independent, college-rock scene. The group scored several hits, such as the quirky "Like the Weather" and "Hey Jack Kerouac" from their breakthrough album In My Tribe (1988). They released six critically well-received albums and established an active fan base. The fans faithfully followed Merchant when she left the band in the summer of 1993. Merchant confessed that all she wanted to do growing up was leave her hometown and to expand her horizons; because the Maniacs were all from Jamestown, New York, she knew she would have to go solo.
Finding Her Voice
With her passionate, rich alto, Merchant is a songwriter who constantly absorbs the world around her; she interprets issues, people, events, and causes through song. Her self-produced debut album, Tigerlily, appeared in 1995. The album's title refers in part to her love of flowers, and she told Billboard magazine, "I love names that combine two incongruous things. It's a combination of songs which are almost fierce in power lyrically and musically, and others which are really gentle and graceful." Although Tigerlily is contemplative, austere, and somber, there is a light touch in the music; the arrangements and even the vocals are reined in. The first single, "Carnival," is a moody, midtempo contemplation on life: "Have I been blind? / Have I been lost inside myself and my own mind?" "Carnival" peaked at number six on the Billboard Top 40. Tigerlily is so wholly formed, it does not sound like a debut solo album; it is as if Merchant had been collecting the material in her head for years. Merchant dedicated the song "River" to her acquaintance, the promising young film actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993. The album sold more than 5 million copies and peaked at number thirteen on the Billboard 200 chart.
No Sophomore Slump
After extensive touring both on her own and with Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair in 1998 and 1999, Merchant released Ophelia (1997), which peaked at number eight on the Billboard 200. Her appearances in the Lilith Fair in the summer of 1998 helped spur sales. Ophelia 's first single, "Kind and Generous," is Merchant's love letter to her fans. She wrote following the tremendous success of Tigerlily. She sings, "For everything you do / You know I'm bound / I'd like to thank you for it." The single landed in the Adult Top 40. Ophelia, named for the character in Shakespeare's Hamlet who goes mad and drowns herself, continues in the vein of Tigerlily, but at times with a heavier hand and heart.
In November 2001 Merchant released her third solo effort, Motherland, her most ambitious record to date. She co-produced the album with the well-regarded T-Bone Burnett, who has worked with Elvis Costello and the Wall-flowers, and it is perhaps her most expansive work to date. Arabic influences appear in the opening track "This House Is on Fire," and there is a tango-flamenco hybrid flavor in "The Worst Thing." Though Merchant released the album in the fall of 2001, the lyrics in the title track assumed a new meaning after the terrorist attacks of September 11. She now says it feels like the death of nostalgia and dreams; she sings a plea to be "faceless, nameless, innocent, blameless and free." Motherland, though, is not all worldly melancholy. The positive pop gem, "Just Can't Last," suggests that life's troubles are ultimately fleeting, and that Merchant can still write a song with a light, lilting touch.
Merchant, eccentric and principled, manages to educate, inspire, and imbue her songs with a social and moral awareness. On stage at times she seems like a school-teacher. One of her goals is to inspire people to think a little more.
Tigerlily (Elektra, 1995); Ophelia (Elektra, 1997); Natalie Merchant Live in Concert (Elektra, 1999); Motherland (Elektra, 2001). With 10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (Elektra, 1987); Our Time in Eden (Elektra, 1992).