Natalie Merchant, To See Or Not To See? (Part Two)

All right, so…Natalie Merchant put out album number five since going solo.  The last four were plentiful enough to fill a retrospective or greatest hits CD, so I guess she decided to change things up a little.  The current album is called Leave Your Sleep, and it’s a two disc set with thirteen songs on each disc.  Sounds like a good start.  But this body of work is a mixture of poems, lullabies and nursery rhymes that Natalie adapted into song from a collection of 19th and 20th century poetry — both British and American.  You would think 26 songs would take a while to shape.  Well, it did — six and a half years!  In the interview I heard, Natalie shared maybe too much information about her inspiration for Leave Your Sleep.  A lot of songs were created while she was breastfeeding her baby daughter Lucia, who was born in 2003.  Now, that’s a creative process I don’t feel the need to experience.  Since turning 40, Natalie Merchant has done a lot — a first marriage, a first baby, and living in different homes around the world each season of the year.  It was in at least one of those homes that she made use of the time spent while “confined” to the baby’s room.  She set up a modest workstation with microphone and recorder, and let the creative…uh…juices flow.  Sorry, I had to move past the image in my mind; actually it’s a beautiful notion what she did.  Seriously, she experienced an incredible surge of creative energy as sat in the chair holding her baby girl in one arm and absorbing an anthology of poetry in the other.  Now that this once Whirling Dervish became a mother, she was driven to leave her own legacy, a connection from the past to the future.  She chose anthologies because scholars had already done the hard work to compile the writings.  Natalie explained that her touch came in when she found concepts and observations that interested her.  She would then pursue those qualities in these works, the more obscure the more intriguing.

Charles Edward Carryl is an example of one American nineteenth century author from whom she rescripted two poems into songs:  “The Walloping Window Blind” and the one I heard her play on the radio, “The Sleepy Giant”.  Carryl not only shares the pronunciation of his surname with English author Lewis Carroll, but also a similar style of quirky nonsensical writing.  Natalie’s interpretation continued.  “The Sleepy Giant” is a “372 year old retired giant”, or at least reformed because he used to be a voracious flesh-eating giant, but now sits peacefully in the corner making pottery, wearing a “faded velvet suit” and is a docile shadow of his former self.  She went with that scenario and then considered how the music would sound.  What would have been the style of music 372 years ago, and what period instruments would’ve been played?  Maybe a harpsichord, a viola da gamba, a recorder, a lute.  Things like that.  She decided to go with an arrangement described as “early music crossed with a cabaret song” and gave it a natural fairytale feel based on the chosen instruments.  Brilliant if you think about it!

This fanciful musical excursion took not just Natalie Merchant’s time, sweat and love.  It took much of her money.  She decided to fund the whole thing on her own in order to have full creative control.  “Complete freedom” she called it.  She also thought it to be a wise decision, as this was the era when the recording industry began its free-fall, and she worried that she would struggle to find a label to fund her elaborate and esoteric project.  She eventually partnered with the Nonesuch label.  Chamber music, reggae, jazz, and bluegrass were some of the various styles of music used, as well as folk music from the Balkans, Ireland, even China.  As her vision became clearer, she would see just how expensive her extravagant compositions would be.  More than one hundred and twenty musicians were involved, as well as twenty technicians and a co-producer, Andres Levin.  She commissioned five researchers, and chartered a legal team working with the Library Of Congress to obtain licenses, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

All of this was certainly an overwhelming task, and at times tested her resolve.  But the lesson to be learned is the usual cliche — Never give up!  It appeared to produce at least two positive rewards.  She received critical praise and major attention on Billboard, the top ranking being on the Billboard Top Folk Albums chart, hitting number one.  And she came forth having stretched her creative muscle, now with the feeling that she can confidently go in any musical direction she wants to, and the sky’s the limit!

I saved this quote from Natalie a while back, and I thought I’d share it with you:  “I’ve found out how overwhelming the media is and the way it drills things into your head, it’s almost like a mind control.  If I could control people’s minds, I’d like to put something useful in”.  I am definitely considering going to her concert, new stuff or hit stuff.  Whatever it is, I am sure it will be classy and special.  I side with those who have praised her.  She has indeed left behind a legacy, but I’m sure there is more to come.

Be your best, and write strong!

Dean