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Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant

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Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant was an influential figure in the alternative folk-rock scene of the late 1980s and early '90s, both as vocalist for the band 10,000 Maniacs and as a successful solo artist. Merchant's warm, lilting vocals and exuberant stage presence endeared her to college-age listeners and veteran adult contemporary fans alike, as did her politically-charged songwriting on tracks like "What's the Matter Here?" "Gun Shy," "Campfire Song" and "These Are Days." Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs at the height of their popularity to begin a career as a solo performer, which launched in spectacular fashion with two platinum records, Tigerlily (1995) and the ambitious song cycle Ophelia (1998). But she retreated from the spotlight for much of the new millennium, releasing just three albums over the course of a decade while devoting more time to marriage and motherhood. Her passion for traditional American folk remained at the forefront of her new material, as evidenced by the pensive Motherland (2001) and The House Carpenter's Song (2003), which compiled covers of classic Americana songs. After nearly a decade of research, she released the Top 20 album Leave Your Sleep (2009), which featured...

Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant was an influential figure in the alternative folk-rock scene of the late 1980s and early '90s, both as vocalist for the band 10,000 Maniacs and as a successful solo artist. Merchant's warm, lilting vocals and exuberant stage presence endeared her to college-age listeners and veteran adult contemporary fans alike, as did her politically-charged songwriting on tracks like "What's the Matter Here?" "Gun Shy," "Campfire Song" and "These Are Days." Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs at the height of their popularity to begin a career as a solo performer, which launched in spectacular fashion with two platinum records, Tigerlily (1995) and the ambitious song cycle Ophelia (1998). But she retreated from the spotlight for much of the new millennium, releasing just three albums over the course of a decade while devoting more time to marriage and motherhood. Her passion for traditional American folk remained at the forefront of her new material, as evidenced by the pensive Motherland (2001) and The House Carpenter's Song (2003), which compiled covers of classic Americana songs. After nearly a decade of research, she released the Top 20 album Leave Your Sleep (2009), which featured nursery rhymes and poems set to a diverse array of musical styles. The album preserved much of what made Natalie Merchant an enduring popular figure on the alt-rock and folk scene: a childlike innocence combined with great lyrical compassion and a fierce commitment to her independent vision as an artist.

Born Natalie Anne Merchant on Oct. 26, 1963 in Jamestown, NY, she was the third of four children by Anthony and Ann Merchant. By all accounts, Merchant's childhood was filled with music, thanks in part to her mother, who introduced her to classic rock, pop and R&B by the Beatles and Al Green, as well as classical compositions. But there was also deep sadness, due to her parents' divorce when Merchant was seven, after which she was raised solely by her mother. Merchant's adolescence was marked by a lack of outside influences like television and newspapers. As a result, she developed into a shy, bookish teen that left high school at 16 to begin her studies in visual arts at Jamestown Community College. While there, she also began writing songs, which brought her into the orbit of a Jamestown-area band called Still Life. Merchant was soon tapped to serve as singer and primary lyricist for the group, which soon adopted the moniker 10,000 Maniacs. Within a few years, the band's folk-rock sound and Merchant's delicate yet passionate vocal delivery had caught the attention of influential BBC Radio DJ John Peel, which led to airplay in London and in turn, a contract from Elektra in 1984. Their major label debut, In My Tribe (1987), immediately established them as a vital new act in the growing alternative/college rock field, and Merchant as a significant new singer-songwriter on covers of Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" and original material like "What's The Matter Here?" and "Like The Weather," which combined her penchant for socially conscious subject matter.

By 1992, Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs were among the most popular alternative music groups in the business, scoring platinum releases with their sophomore and third albums, Blind Man's Zoo (1989) and Our Time in Eden (1992), as well as an MTV Unplugged (1993) special. Merchant had also become a forerunner for such female folk-rock performers as Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole and Jewel, as well as a strong influence on the songwriting of R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, with whom she had a three-year relationship. But as 10,000 Maniacs' profile rose in the music business, Merchant was also seeking to establish herself as a solo performer. She eventually left the group in 1994 to release her solo debut, Tigerlily a year later. Merchant funded the album herself in order to have complete creative control, which resulted in a Top 10 single, "Carnival," and two additional Top 40 songs in "Wonder" and "Jealousy." Tigerlilly would sell more than five million copies and firmly establish Merchant as a musical entity outside of her work with 10,000 Maniacs. Three years later, she released the ambitious Ophelia (1998), a concept album of sorts on which she gave voice to a series of independent female archetypes throughout history who questioned the patriarchal status quo. The album repeated the success of its predecessor, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and generating a Top 10 single in "Kind and Generous." Merchant promoted the album through appearances on the second tour of McLachlan's Lilith Fair as well as a short film, also titled "Ophelia" (1998), in which she portrayed a variety of characters.

In 1999, she released Natalie Merchant: Live in Concert, which preserved an appearance at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. The following year, she chose to embark on a folk-oriented tour of the United States, for which she was joined by the alt-country band Wilco. Her final major label album, Motherland, was released in 2001. Though not as great a chart hit as its predecessors, the album was praised for its ambitious musical scope, which found Merchant experimenting with blues- and world music-inflected sounds, as well as a grittier vocal delivery. She subsequently toured for much of the next two years, including jaunts to Europe and a shared bill at stadiums and arenas with Chris Isaak. In 2002, Merchant's contract with Elektra expired, but rather than re-sign with the label, or any other entity, she launched her own imprint, Myth America. Its sole release was her 2003 album The House Carpenter's Daughter, which featured covers of traditional and contemporary folk songs, many of which were performed as part of her 2000 tour. She subsequently took a seven-year hiatus, during which she married documentary filmmaker Daniel de la Calle and gave birth to a daughter, Lucia. Though her marriage ended in separation, her experience with motherhood inspired a half-decade research project into children's poetry that became the focus of her 2009 album, Leave Your Sleep. Merchant adopted short poems, nursery rhymes and lullabies into a vast array of song genres, from New Orleans jazz to Celtic sounds and Native American instrumentation. Leave Your Sleep was also a strong comeback for the singer, debuting at No. 17 on the Billboard 200.

By Paul Gaita

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CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Go Further (2003)
3.
 ABC 2000 (1999)
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