Childhood, through poetic eyes


A true labour of love and five years in the making, ‘Leave Your Sleep’ is a double album of poetry set to music. The ambitious American singer- songwriter, Natalie Merchant, talks to TONY CLAYTON-LEA

COMPACT IN size yet expansive in intellect, American singer-songwriter (and more besides) Natalie Merchant had the measure of her latest ambitious project some time before she embarked on it. She places the palm of her right hand to her open mouth and mimes a yawn. Yet Merchant knows her forthcoming album – Leave Your Sleep, a double album of poetry set to music – is nowhere close to dull, which is why the feigned yawn turns into a broad smile.

In brief, Leave Your Sleeptakes selected works from poets (including Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, ee cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti) and sets them to what amounts to a global musical reach. Merchant, who was in Dublin recently to play a very rare one-off intimate show in Whelan’s, had the project in mind for years.

“I thought it would be a really interesting exercise, for one,” she says. “For years, I’ve been a singer-songwriter, and I’ve always done covers, but I just thought it would be great doing a full album of words where I didn’t have to draw out the words myself.

“I have a young daughter – she’s seven now – so I didn’t have those long, luxurious expanses of time to waste like I used to. Also, I’ve always required isolation and solitude to write, so all those things combined led me in this direction.” Now 46, Merchant has an air of US rock/pop royalty about her; she has been out there for almost 30 years, first as the frontwoman of 10,000 Maniacs, and then as a solo artist of no small ambition. Throughout her tenure as a highly admired singer and songwriter, she has sported varying styles and been pretty good at all of them. Merchant likes, and rises to, a challenge, which is partly the reason why her daughter, Lucia, became such a starting reference point for the new record.

“I wanted to make a project for her that would capture the moment around her birth. I decided to do lullabies, which was the start of the project. And then it went on to more sophisticated poetry, nursery rhymes. And then my daughter got older, her language skills developed, and the project kept growing. So then I began to look at even more sophisticated poetry – nonsense verse, and so on.”

Merchant says that when Lucia reached the age of five, she began to ask her mother probing existential questions such as ‘what happens when you die?’, ‘what is beyond outer space?’ and ‘why are humans on earth?’.

“It was my first experience of having a child around as an adult,” smiles Merchant at the memory, “and I was shocked to be asked questions such as these. Children have the capacity for thought and feeling that is much deeper than we give them credit for. Her brain is so young, yet it’s capable of pondering these things. I didn’t want to talk down to her, either, and so the project – which in effect is describing her childhood through my eyes – became my gift to her.

“And so the poetry began to evolve into something thematic, about childhood, about motherhood, and this epic of experience and innocence that children pass through.” Merchant’s selection process was, she reveals, determined on a “poem by poem basis – the process was intuitive, emotional, subjective”.

She realised that for a project of such ambition, she would have to match each poem with music that was “pure, authentic and evocative” without engendering accusations of pretension.

Again, this was seen as a ‘gift’ to her daughter. “I wanted to offer her and her generation something in a musical way that wasn’t synthetic or loop-driven, or even computer-driven.” Across the album, Merchant points out, the music pinpoints a place geographically or chronologically (for example, she features Irish traditional group Lúnasa on a few tracks), “so that at the first moment of hearing it people would be transported to a country via stylistic signatures. In many ways, this is as much an introduction to poetry as it is to music.”

With this in mind, it’s no surprise to discover that at one point Merchant had the purposeful notion of creating a text that could be used in schools throughout America. Realising the naivety of her ways – not because she couldn’t do it, she avers, but because of the bureaucracy involved in getting it accepted into the US education curriculum state by state – she says she is content to simply make librarians’ and teachers’ associations aware of the project, as a potential supplement to the teaching of poetry.

If the ambition behind the project was sizeable and occasionally frustrating (initially, she wrote a 2,000 word essay on each of the more-than 20 poets, but due to space restrictions, each essay, she says through gritted teeth, became 200 word “biographical fragments”) then it was also a test to her high level of self-assurance. “Once in a while I had a crisis of confidence, but I had a really clear vision of every aspect of the project – the music, the poems I wanted to use.”

Merchant is unsure as to whether a similar project has ever been envisioned let alone developed and released. Because of its size and scope, she likens the work to that of a soundtrack for a musical. “Some people have said to me that it’s the most ambitious record for a pop artist ever to undertake. I financed the whole thing, spent five years making it and then came to Nonesuch with the finished album. I knew some labels couldn’t afford to make it, and other labels wouldn’t even have wanted it.

“Also, I didn’t want any interference from people who might have said it was an extravagance. I wanted to make all my dreams come true, and I wasn’t really concerned with profit margins. Breaking even would be nice, of course, but even if that didn’t happen it was the experience of a lifetime to work with all of these wonderful musicians and to have the most authentic rendering of a vision I had as an artist.”

The only way some people can envision projects of artistic worth to be completed properly, says Merchant, is to do it themselves, and in the way they imagine. “This is like my masterpiece!” She sees a quizzical eyebrow directed at her. “Well, there may be another masterpiece – this is my magnum opus.”

Leave Your Sleepis scheduled for release in the US at the start of April, to tie in with National Poetry Month, an event inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets. In a quaint sidestep from the usual album promotional jaunts – for which she has hired both music and literary publicists – Merchant will initially be touring a selection of US libraries, museums and cultural institutions, wherein she will undertake multimedia presentations of not just performing the songs but also talking about the poets.

SUCH AN ENDEAVOUR,she earnestly remarks, is a way of maturing gracefully in her given occupation. “I’ve been offered so many summer ‘big shed’ tours for large sums of money and tens of thousands of people, and it’s not what I want to do. What I want is to present thoughtful music in an environment that is conducive to listening.

“As an adult that likes to listen to music in a live setting I’ve always considered the listening experience I like to have. And I always go back to a nice theatre setting that is good to absorb the music.”

Such sacrifices have been noted by the US poetry establishment, says Merchant. “Well, I think the project appealed to them. I had a long conversation with Dana Gioia, the director of the National Endowment of the Arts – he’s a former published poet, and a critic who writes quite a lot about the place that poetry has in American culture – and am also friends with John Barr, the president of the Poetry Foundation. They have both said that poetry’s genesis was in a lyrical form, and that in my project it’s great to have that brought back together.

“As for poets, I marvel at the ability of older, more traditional poets, that they are able to find the appropriate words to move me, yet at the same time to fit into the puzzle. That is very skilful. My form is ruled more by the structure of the song.” Goodness gracious – with all this talk of poetry it’s no surprise to discover from Merchant that she views her time in 10,000 Maniacs as being a lifetime ago. “Rock star days?” she ponders, looking ever so slightly seasick, “I don’t feel like I had any, to be honest. Dignity is all. I have a low tolerance for that lifestyle now – I threw myself totally into it back then, travelling so much, sleeping in a different bed every day, going on stage and completely draining myself every night.”

Being an adrenaline junkie, muses a temporarily wistful Merchant, is something that she loved for a while. “But then,” she says, almost disdainfully, “I outgrew it. There’s so much more possible.”

Leave Your Sleepis released April 2nd, through Nonesuch/Warner Music