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 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.
“I met a family from rural Pennsylvania, and they had a jug of water that they had taken from their well that morning. It was brown and they could [light] it on fire with a match. Not only was it contaminated with really frightening carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals, it was also full of methane. That was enough to put me into action.”
Merchant also has a reputation for control, which she says is deserved, and also one as a mother figure.
“I put my maternal instincts into the way I run my business, the way that I oversee my collaborations. My company is called Mama Moneybags, which is fun to have on my credit card. Even with this album, it is important for me to create an environment in which people feel at home. I would make sure there is incredibly good catering, clean linen for everyone, proper transportation. I would make people surrender their cell phones. People need to feel comfortable to reveal themselves.”
No Irish blood
On a lighter note – and Merchant is warm and funny as well as serious – she would like to make it clear that, contrary to Wikipedia, her mother was not Irish. “I am 100 per cent Sicilian,” she says. She does, however, cite music by Dolores Keane and the Bothy Band among her favourites.
Merchant has the air of someone who is not a fan of the modern world, so in what period would she have liked to live? “I always say post-novocaine and C-section. The period I romanticise most about is the period between the first and second World Wars. There was great turmoil, but such immense change was occurring, especially in the arts. And there were so many people that still hadn’t entered the modern age. There were places in the world that were still so remote. Mass media was just taking hold, cultures were still very unadulterated. Even in the US, some of those early 78 recordings of rural music, whether southern blues or Appalachian or religious music, there is a purity to it that was diluted by mass media.
“But what is exciting today is that we are hearing voices that have been suppressed for centuries: Arab women novelists, African novelists, child soldiers writing memoirs – these people are able to have their voices heard.
“Maybe 50 years from now, people will romanticise the turn of the 21st century, such a fertile time, the birth of the internet, such an explosion of information – who knows? Maybe they’ll romanticise about it because maybe we are the last generation who’ll experience any kind of stability.”
Natalie Merchant is available on Nonesuch Records