In the thirteen years since her last album of original songs, Natalie Merchant got married, had a daughter and got divorced. So maybe it’s not surprising that the lead single from Natalie Merchant, “Ladybird,” has lyrics directed at a woman wondering whether she can fly away from her domestic life. A lilting lullaby for happier times, the song is vintage Merchant, who rose to fame in the Eighties as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. We caught up with Merchant for a conversation about her music and her fondness for the utopian communities of upstate New York.
Why is the album self-titled?
I couldn’t come up with a single word or short phrase that summed it up. The only thing that summed up the record was my singing and writing. Also, I had always wanted to call this album The Hunger Banquet, and then The Hunger Games happened. It’s not fair! I’ve had that title for twenty years.
Why make this album now after all these years?
I was compelled. It felt overdue. I made Motherland in 2001, and in order to make Motherland, I had to shelve half the material that I had written. Then I made The House Carpenter’s Daughter, which meant that all the songs I wrote in the subsequent two years I shelved. And then I wrote fifty adaptations of poems that all had a thematic thread, which was childhood, so I worked on that record [Leave Your Sleep] for five years, and all the while, just kept writing, writing, writing. I was anxious to get these songs down on – we can’t say tape anymore, can we? I don’t even know how to talk about music anymore. I do still believe in the album: I hereby swear that I believe in a body of work that represents a period of time, like a novel or a show that a painter might launch after three years of seclusion and painting. So I’ll keep calling it an album.
Was it hard to winnow down that stockpile of songs?
It was and wasn’t – those songs all seem to have a certain potency to them, and when I would hold up any other song that was lighter, it didn’t fit. In the days of the big record company boardroom meeting, I’m sure someone would have asked, “Where’s the single?” But I felt like these songs belonged together and this album needed to be made.
What was the spark behind “Ladybird”?
When I create the characters, they’re usually composites, and either I inhabit the character or I dialogue with the character – “Ladybird” is definitely one of the dialogues. I was able to understand the situation that the woman was in because I had grown into being married and having a child, and now I’ve grown into being divorced with a child. It’s a painful, difficult thing to do, to accept that a marriage is unsatisfying. It slowly dies. Or you have to murder it.
What’s your greatest vice?
It’s embarrassing, because my vice is in some respects a virtue: my compulsive organizational impulse. Sometimes I wish I could let things be in chaos – I cannot go to bed with dishes in the sink. I sacrifice spontaneity because of that: Is this going to cause a mess?
A young child is a force of anarchy, though.
My daughter saved me. I’d be so much worse if I didn’t have a little cyclone, constantly bringing tiny things to the living room. She has an ample room with lots of closets and drawers and plenty of space for all her little things, but she’s just constantly migrating them into the living room.
Do you feel like you’re settled in your home now?
Well, I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley for half my life, always lived in rural New York. So it does feel very comfortable. The Hudson Valley is great: there’s a huge community of artists up there, a big locavore movement, lots of young people moving up from the city who want to farm. You go to the co-op and everyone’s talking about their chickens and their compost and their worms. Last year, my sun porch had 45 tomato plants, and I have a communal garden with a couple of my neighbors. It’s great except for the five months of the years when you can’t go outside and you curse your very existence.