Merchant of doom: Natalie’s fears for the modern world

The singer is back after more than a decade, and this time it’s personal

Natalie Merchant: ‘I lie awake at night and worry about the health of the planet in 40 years’ time, when my daughter is my age.’ Photograph: Philip Ryalls/Redferns

Natalie Merchant: ‘I lie awake at night and worry about the health of the planet in 40 years’ time, when my daughter is my age.’ Photograph: Philip Ryalls/Redferns

Tue, May 6, 2014, 01:00

Natalie Merchant is mulling over what lies behind her new, eponymous album, her first record of her own material in 13 years.

“Some of it is intangible, because it is a slow progression of events that make up a life. But I think I’ve reached a point in my life – I’m 50 now – and there are so many things that I’ve experienced that have given me a totally different perspective on life than I had when I started making records when I was 18 [with 10,000 Maniacs], or when I became a solo artist at 30.”

An anger at the state of the world and a sense of personal loss pervade the album. In the intervening period, between the release of 2001’s Motherland and now, much has happened.

Speaking from her home in Rhinecliff, upstate New York, Merchant doesn’t shy away from how the joys of marriage and the birth of her daughter gave way to divorce and the deaths of her mother and grandmother.

“When my mother died a few years ago, I didn’t anticipate that it would have the kind of impact that it did. I knew that I would miss her and that it would be sad, but there were all these feelings of abandonment, and then at the same time the realisation that I truly was an adult now. I was the next generation. I had a child. I would play that role in her life. And on my deathbed I would be judged by how well I had mothered her and what kind of bond I was creating with her.

“Your connection in the circle of life becomes so apparent when the circle is broken like that. And then you have to reform that circle.”

If her internal world was traumatic, the influence of the “bigger world that is out there” was no less disturbing. “I had to live through eight years of George Bush, two wars, nuclear reactor meltdown, the BP oil spill, Hurricane Katrina and the World Trade Centre. And I can’t ignore them, so I wrote about them.” The song, suitably enough, was called The End.

 

‘Darkest nights of the soul’
Conflict and disaster seep into her work, but she is most animated when it comes to the environment. “My darkest nights of the soul don’t involve what I said or what I did. I lie awake at night and worry about the health of the planet in 40 years’ time, when my daughter is my age. Will there still be leaves on the trees?”

Merchant has been campaigning in her home state against the mining of gas and oil by fracking.

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