NATALIE MERCHANT BEING PLAYFUL and having demonstrable fun? “What’s the matter here?” some of you may very well ask. Absolutely nothing at all. In a fascinating short film promoting her ambitious new album, Ophelia, Merchant flexes her thespian muscles and allows fans a decidedly different view of their protoalternative-rock heroine. (The film is being submitted to film festivals; her label hopes to make it available commercially in the future.) Ophelia – an exquisite, mysterious song cycle that ventures even further from the sound of Merchant’s old band than did her multiplatinum solo debut, Tigerlily — finds her beating the sophomore slump and proving once again that there’s clearly life after 10,000 Maniacs.
I just had the pleasure of seeing your short film. Were you at all inspired in your attempt to make cinematic art by the achievement of Spice World?
I don’t know about that. Are you saying that I’m all the Spice Girls in one?
Exactly; you’re all-Spices — a variety pack of Spices, if you will.
Yeah, well, thank you.
What really was your intention in doing the movie?
I wanted to make a visual accompaniment to the record. I’d always been interested in the theatrical arts, and I thought it would be interesting, particularly after I wrote the song “Ophelia,” to animate the characters and flesh them out — bring them to life.
Deep down, are you a frustrated actor?
No. I did this more for the experience, sort of in the tradition of . . . I’m afraid to make comparisons myself, but it’s not the first time it’s ever been done.
Go ahead, please make a comparison.
Well, people like David Bowie were able to create characters and environments and subplots and subtexts to their records. I’m not inventing the wheel, but I wanted to do it in a more Cindy Sherman-esque kind of fashion.
You’re co-headlining Lilith Fair this summer. Who do you think would win in a female-archetype mud-wrestling match — Ophelia or Lilith?
Lilith is no victim, that’s for sure. I don’t think Lilith would end up in an asylum.
Despite some claims to the contrary, you do have a fully functioning sense of humor. Do you think people will get that from the movie?
I think the notion that I have no sense of humor was perpetuated by the media, mostly because of some of the serious content of the songs I’ve written. When journalists speak to me, they like to talk about lyrics usually, so I can’t really trivialize what I’ve written. I do have a sense of humor, but I don’t know who’s going to see this film, so I don’t know how large the scale is of people who are going to actually see my sense of humor. But at least there’s evidence now that it does exist.
10,000 Maniacs have carried on without you. Have you ever gone to see them?
No, I never seem to be in the same place. So I haven’t seen them play yet.
Do you have an ongoing relationship with your old band mates? Use ’em and lose ’em
No, it’s just that I acknowledge that I change, other people change. I move through life and create new relationships, and I tend to abandon the old ones. I’ve accepted that that’s my nature. I don’t even judge it anymore. It’s the way I am.
Tigerlily ended up being a massive hit, though starting a solo career is always a dicey proposition. What was different the second time around?
The thing about Tigerlily was that I had thought I should begin my first excursion as a solo artist with a small band and then take that band from the studio out on the road. It was a sort of security blanket for me. With this album, I discarded that security blanket and lived in a state of experimentation — just try anything.
Am I to understand by your latest single that you want us all to be more “Kind and Generous”?
Yes. I love that song. I know it’s not musically breaking any new ground for me, but it’s such a positive message, one that’s missing in the media. I can’t wait to be on the Lilith tour and have 10,000 kids in the audience all singing “thank you” at the end.
What about the song “Life Is Sweet” — how ironically do you mean that?
I don’t mean it ironically at all. There’s no irony on this album. We’re surrounded by it. I have only got fifty-six minutes every four years, and I want to say something honest to people
So you’re declaring an irony-free zone?
I loathe irony.