As she scans the menu at an elegant French restaurant with vegetarian-friendly options, Natalie Merchant offers up a story as proof that she has, indeed, lightened up. "I once said I'd never have a lover who ate meat," she announces. "I sort of laid that down as the law. And I remember sitting across the table from this man I was living with years ago, and he ordered lamb, and I had to go into the bathroom and start crying because I just couldn't believe I was involved with someone who could eat lamb." She laughs. "I certainly can sit across the table from somebody who eats lamb now. The smell of it might put me off, but I don't feel like I can't trust that person anymore." And although she says declaratively, "My new project is not judging other people," everyone at the table orders fish, just to be safe.
For all her professed lightheartedness, though, Merchant hasn't totally made the leap. Offstage, she continues to dress simply, even frumpily, in slacks and blouses buttoned up to the neck. She wears no makeup and doesn't need to: Her strong, half-Italian, half-Irish features combine to create a delicate and quite beautiful face. She's surprisingly petite and speaks in a near whisper but is eminently composed. She thinks before she speaks and speaks in complete, well-constructed sentences. Still, something about her manner suggests a fragility, a touchiness, like a loud noise or sudden movement might startle her right out of her chair.
Though not an exuberant woman out of the spotlight, she does exhibit a sense of humor and a profound curiosity about others. Merchant confesses she can't get into a taxi without engaging the driver in a conversation. "The most interesting people I meet are cabdrivers," she says. She also tries to be accessible to fans: "I sit out in the parking lot for an hour after a concert and talk to people – sometimes for two hours, sometimes for so long it irritates everyone else, and they're like 'Natalie, let's go!' and I'm like 'I haven't talked to everyone yet!' "
But Merchant is as intensely guarded about the details of her own life as she is curious about the details of other people's. An inquiry into whether she's involved with anyone right now is met with an icy retort: "That's none of anyone's business. I don't discuss my sex life with journalists." And like a bored trigonometry student, after an hour she gets squirmy and starts checking the clock.
Besides being dear to Merchant's heart, issues serve the pragmatic function of attracting attention to something other than her emotional life. One gets the impression her hurry to escape adolescence precluded close female friendships of the spill-your-guts variety. 'I've just always had a lot of male friends," she says, "and very few female friends." But she's quick to add that her female friends are highly valued.
As for her taking the lead role in the band, Merchant pulls no punches. "I think it was a natural process that the older I got the more I demanded attention and power – and not in a negative sense," she says. And for the most part, the guys in the band are unruffled. The Four Stooges, as they like to jokingly refer to themselves, are growing weary of their rock & roll lifestyle. Everyone except Buck has gotten married. Drew quit drinking and became a father last year. Gustafson will be a dad in mid-August. Each of the men except Augustyniak has put on considerable girth (as they're getting their picture taken, Gustafson cracks, 'Okay, guys, everyone say, 'Jenny Craig!' "). All but Augustyniak. (who lives in Pittsburgh) continue to live in Jamestown. They like the quiet life.
"We tried to be in some of the videos," Drew says, "and it was such a horrifying embarrassment. I mean really terrible, terrible embarrassment. We just said, 'Fuck this.' I don't need to be in any goddamned video. We've got this beautiful woman: Do the video! Don't talk to me, I'll stay home with my wife. Boy. Did you ever see the 'Peace Train' video? Uccch."
"Natalie has always been the focus of the group, the lead singer always is," Drew continues. "Our kick is the music, really, and that's a democracy." Buck says the fact that Merchant's stardom has eclipsed the band's seems strange to people around him. But, he adds, "it doesn't seem strange to me."
Still, Merchant doesn't seem to have totally worked the kinks out of her persona. The second single on Our Time in Eden, "Candy Everybody Wants," takes on traditional Merchant themes, in this case, the American appetite for televised sex and violence – and big business's willingness to satisfy that craving. "The song is complete satire, and the fact that it might end up being on Top Forty radio is real interesting," Merchant says. "I think it would be the first pop song in a long time to have lyrics like 'If lust and hate is the candy, if blood and love taste so sweet, then give them what they want.' They're not typical pop lyrics, and it's very subversive."
But what about the video, a wry mélange of nonsensical advertisements in which Natalie – making fun of glamour and fashion and, of course, consumerism – looks drop-dead gorgeous in a glam green dress? Isn't she worried that some people will see the video and think nothing more than "Wow, Natalie looks hot"? "Satire," she says, "is sort of crafted in a way that escapes some people." Isn't she worried that she will, quite literally, be giving people what they want?
"That," she replies, "is beyond my control."
This story is from the March 18th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.
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