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

Tue, May 6, 2014, 01:00

“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

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