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Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs

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After a long session rehearsing what would become their memorable "To Sir With Love" duet at the MTV Inaugural Ball, Merchant and her good friend Michael Stipe goof around in a hotel lobby like little kids, drawing critical stares from bejeweled and befurred Southern Dems in town for the Tennessee and Arkansas balls. No matter. As Merchant and Stipe pick each other up and giggle as they run through the revolving doors together, Merchant looks happier than she has all day. And it's clear, though Merchant will shed no light on it, that her oft-speculated relationship with Stipe is at least a remarkably close friendship. "He's one of the only people I know who just randomly quotes lyrics from one of my songs and goes, 'Brilliant, I'm green with envy,' " she says. "It overwhelms me sometimes."

And just as early-Eighties Athens denizens recall the cult of personality that built up around Stipe, many can remember that Merchant was attaining a mystique of her own. In her vintage dresses and Chinese cloth slippers, she looked like someone you might know, but not too well: the cool girl sitting at the corner table in the student union drinking chamomile tea and reading Proust. Unlike Stipe, Merchant still hasn't figured out how to handle her ascending fame. "If that's what's happening," she says, "then it's a very odd process, and it's happening like a slow leak in the basement." She mentions a young acquaintance's informing her that she was nice for a famous person: "And I'm going, 'I'm not famous.' And he said, 'But you're on MTV.' I said, 'That doesn't mean anything, that means I spent one night in front of a camera, and that's what you see.' "

Never was Merchant's discomfort more apparent than when the Maniacs first started playing larger venues to promote In My Tribe. She frequently behaved like a schoolmarm onstage, asking audiences to please quiet down so she could sing her next song or reprimanding them for applauding after she did something as banal as take the ribbon out of her hair. Rare indeed was the show during which Merchant didn't hold forth on whichever indignity she was currently appalled by. An antifur, antitobacco, teetotaling vegetarian, she wasn't always tolerant of those who didn't follow her austere lifestyle. Plenty of fans who were attracted by the Maniacs' infectiously catchy melodies and Merchant's lush voice were turned off by the lead singer's holier-than-thou stance.

So much of this lack of poise seems directly related to Merchant's relatively youthful beginnings with the band. A black sheep in her Jamestown high school, she took a stab at customary teen activities – swimming, tennis, editing the yearbook – but was miserable. "I felt I was much more mature and more an adult than a lot of the students," she says. "Most of my friends were teachers." And she hated following the rules. "I was so tired of asking for permission if I could go take a piss. I knew when I had to take a piss! I thought, 'If that teacher respects my ability to know when I have to take a piss and that I'm interested in what she's lecturing about, I can go have a piss, and I'll be back.' It just seemed absurd to me."

At sixteen, Merchant announced she couldn't stand high school anymore and was ready to be treated like an adult. She was permitted to enroll at Jamestown Community College, and it was there that she hooked up with Gustafson and Drew.

For Merchant, finding people who were on her wavelength was a godsend. Though she grew up idolizing folksters like Bob Dylan, Merchant says, "the first time I heard British punk music, it spoke to me in a way that no one around me was speaking to me at the time. This was in the pre-MTV days, when you couldn't just flick on the TV and see these bands. You would just happen to get a single or an album by chance or listen to it at someone else's house, and that was the message. It said, 'Someone else is thinking like you are.' " Which was all the encouragement she needed to go public with her crusade.

Merchant's political awareness, though sometimes hard to take, seems sincere, and her worries about the planet appear to affect her on a highly personal and emotional level. She is at her most impassioned when discussing the crime and homelessness in Brazil or the sun-cancer alerts in Australia: "I become really angry, and I think, 'Who's done this to our world?' I'm not being hysterical, either. I'm not the only person who feels this way . . . " Unlike other well-meaning celebrities who talk a good game but don't do much more than provide cash or show up at benefits, Merchant has always felt a deep-seated obligation, she says, to actively help those less fortunate than herself.

The summer she was fifteen, Merchant volunteered at a camp for handicapped children. She chalks her sense of duty up to being raised Catholic: "It's about being indoctrinated with that notion of service and giving up what you have to people who have less than you and giving of yourself in more than material ways." And her sense of obligation dovetails with a hefty dose of guilt.

"I'm still learning," she says. "I'm so selfish on so many levels." She admits that given the choice she prefers her own company to the company of others.

After Blind Man's Zoo, she says, the band scattered for a year, and Merchant divided the time between Manhattan and a rented house in upstate New York and volunteered at a Harlem day-care center for homeless children. When the Maniacs subsequently regrouped, Merchant immersed herself in the songs, writing the music as well as the lyrics for more than half the tracks on the new album. She felt inspired to try something different in the lyrics, too. "On Blind Man's Zoo," she says, "I made so many attempts to say really large things that on this album I just wanted to comment on small things."

Onstage, she doesn't whirl quite as furiously anymore – not as much nervous energy, she says. And not insignificantly, Merchant's look has changed, too. The unstyled, thick, dark hair has been cut in a simple yet stylish bob, and her frumpy thrift-shop schmattes have been replaced by smartly tailored suits designed by Christian Francis Roth. The twenty-four-year-old boy wonder of the fashion world, whose work retails for $2000 to $3000, heard In My Tribe on a friend's CD player and knew he had to meet the singer – and dress her. "I thought to myself," Roth says enthusiastically, " 'If my clothes could sing, I hope this is what they'd sound like.' "

"It's so great to have Christian dress me," Merchant says. "I have that girl side. I like to adorn myself . . . After I played Carnegie Hall last fall, everyone asked, 'Why were you so good tonight?' And I said: 'I'm a girl! I had a new skirt on!' " Her recent performance on Saturday Night Live in black bell bottoms and a tight orange top was the first time many of her fans could discern the shape of her body. "My Halloween outfit!" she says. "I caught a lot of flak for it, which I thought was good. I don't want to be typecast as the Emily Brontë of pop music."

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