Natalie Merchant: „Not being able to play the piano and sing, made me want to play the piano and sing“

Before I enter the hotel room to meet Natalie Merchant, I am being told that I am lucky, that she’s in a good mood today. „Normally she’s a dragon.“ I’ve probably never faster and easier debunked something as a joke. Natalie Merchant is not only one of those artists you get to meet once in a lifetime. Sitting with her with a cup of coffee and a jar of cookies on the table for half an hour, also gives you the feeling you could easily do this all day. And not only because her career, first as singer of the legendary US Rockband 10,000 Maniacs, then as a solo artist, is currently spanning more than four decades. It’s the little anecdotes, the humor, the deep understanding of music and arts and her overall life-affirming attitude, that makes spending time with Natalie Merchant so enjoyable. 

Her mentioned life-affirming attitude is even more admirable, as Natalie Merchant only very recently had to experience a huge health crisis, that posed a massive threat to her ability to express herself as an artist. Add a global pandemic on top of that, and you can only salute the strength it took her to recover and finally be back with a new album, the bold and beautiful „Keep Your Courage“, which features her first new music on over nine years. 
I will keep this introduction short, because Natalie Merchant told me so many interesting things that deserve all the space here. The only thing I would like to say to round it up is: I got so many messages from female friends, after they saw I had the honor of meeting Natalie Merchant. And all of them said something along the lines of: „This woman provided the soundtrack to my life/youth/existential crisis“. We need these kind of artists so badly. Let’s hope Natalie Merchant will keep on doing it for many, many years to come. Especially as with almost 60, she still considers herself in the prime of her life. 

It’s not an easy time to be alive, is it?

Has it ever been an easy time to be alive? I think in some ways we’re living in a golden era. In some ways. Especially I wouldn’t want to be a woman in any other time. I fantasize about it and then I’m like wait, what are you thinking (laughs). As a woman, you had a 50/50 chance of dying every time you got pregnant, and there was no way to not get pregnant, unless you became a nun. Women lived in a precarious state until the 1940, 50, 60ies. I can’t romanticize it. Would you want your teeth extracted without novocaine? Or have seven children and have two survive? And public executions, people’s heads on pikes! That still exists in remote areas of the world. When something like that will happen, the whole world is up in arms. But that used to be daily occurrences everywhere. Anyway. I have to remind myself, it’s always been difficult. It’s less difficult now. For most people on the planet. But we are all facing annihilation from our excesses… You better ask about my record (laughs). We’ll end up talking about everything except my record.

We can talk about everything AND your record. Because it’s all intertwined. 

It is.

I am so happy to meet you. It’s rare for me to meet someone who’s got such a rich treasure of experience. You’ve seen so many changes in the music industry, and you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Just in the world! Those of us who can remember the world before 2000 have special knowledge. We do! That feeling of being away. Nobody feels away anymore. People are taking the grand tour and going to North Africa for three months, and they still are connected all the time. That didn’t exist. The first time I came to England, I was there for nine months, I talked to my mother once on the phone for like five minutes. I couldn’t afford an international call! I wrote letters. On tissue paper, that was blue (laughs). Remember that? Do you remember writing on airmail paper? 

I do! I had a lot of international penpals, through this penpal service. From Jamaica, Canada…

I have two penpals right now. I just met my penpal, who is a Scottish poet. He sent me a book, it’s the reason I started writing again. And then we started corresponding – a very 19th century correspondence. „I appreciate your work“ – „And I appreciate your work“… and then we talked about the whole writing process, about not being able to write. Then I would write a song and I would send it to him. In some ways he was my muse, but I had never met him. We’d been doing that for almost three years, and I finally met him in London. It was really fun. I’ve always loved the idea of being part of a community of artists, likeminded, like-spirited. It’s something I was always very shy about. If I appreciated someone’s work, I’d be kind of frightened to even speak to them. But I am getting more bold as I am getting older, and if I read someone’s novel and I really like it, I get on their website and I write them. Just „hey, I read your book, I love it“. Usually I end up in some kind of correspondence. 

I mean, I’d be flattered, if I got such an email from you. 

(laughs) It’s been weird. Lately I’ve been meeting younger musicians, because I’m back out. I did the Newport Folk Festival, I did the Americana Weekend recently. Just things here and there. I’ve become friends with Rhiannon Giddens. Brandi Carlile told me that she went to Lilith Fair when she was 18 and she saw me sing and said: „That’s what I’m going to do some day“. She said that the camaraderie of the women on stage just seemed very mutually supportive, and she said: „That’s the kind of atmosphere that I want to work in.“ And someone really unexpected, I did a benefit with Valerie June and she said: „‚Tiger Lily‘ was my favorite album when I was 14 and I listen to it all the time. You taught me how to write songs.“ And she got on stage and we sang „Wonder“ together, and she was crying. It was so sweet! I wouldn’t think that Valerie June learned to write songs and sing from me. But you never know where the music’s going. And I’m still surprised when younger artists say they know my work. I do have to get out though and meet people. Because nobody’s writing me letters saying: „Uuuuh, I really like your work!“ I have to get out of the house and meet them (laughs). 

That is really beautiful. And it does fit with with the theme of your record, courage. I just did a year of studying Kundalini Yoga, and the Guru I worked with loves taking words apart and looking at the literal meaning of the different parts. In courage you got „cour“, the heart, and „age“. So if you take it literal, it’s the age of the heart. And that’s where true courage comes from, living in the age of the heart.

Or if you have age and wisdom. Then you realize, what’s the worst that could happen, if you lose love? The experience of having love… there is always the risk that it will go away. The person you love might die. The person you love might not love you. It might me unrequited love. But the worst thing that could happen is, you could have your feelings hurt. That’s actually the best thing that can happen to you, because usually you learn through having some kind of painful experience. You grow and learn. At least in my experience, the most painful experiences in my life forced me to grow. At the end of 2019, shortly before the pandemic started, I was in London. I went on a cultural holiday for three weeks, and all I did was go to museums and see plays. I was having an incredible time. So I was sketching in the V&A, that’s one of my favorite things to do, go to a museum and sketch. I got this intense neck pain and my whole arm was going numb. What I didn’t realize until two weeks later, when I was in agonizing pain in the hospital, was my spine was collapsing into my spinal cord. Two of my vertebrae had collapsed onto a nerve group that got control of all of this. I couldn’t use my hand, I couldn’t even pick up a glass. I lost all the strength. Anyway, I had to have emergency surgery, spinal surgery, and the three bones that were collapsing were taken out of my neck. Then the pandemic started and they had to discharge me early, because they said I was high risk. My daughter had to come home from school and I had to take care of her, while I was in a neck brace for two months.

So anyway, I had to retrain myself to play the piano. The nerves in my hand eventually regenerated, which was great. But I couldn’t sing, because all the tissues in my throat were in spasm. I could only use my head voice. So that went on for nine months. Around the time that I was able to play the piano again, I still couldn’t use these three fingertips while I was doing it (laughs). I finally got my voice back because I went to an amazing massage therapist and she loosened everything over the course of time. And that’s when I started writing this record. Not being able to play the piano and sing made me want to play the piano and sing. And I didn’t even care if I made an album. Playing the piano has always been my form of psychotherapy. Every time I have any difficulty in my life or sadness, I sit at the piano and compose. I don’t read music, I just sit down and play whatever I feel. I can hammer at the piano, it’s almost like screaming with the piano. Or I can be very melancholic… (laughs). So I didn’t care if I made an album. I was just like: thank God I can sing and play the piano again. I think I’d lose my mind. It’s the thing that kept me sane my whole life. So anyway, I wrote enough songs to eventually consider making a record. The record came out of some deep desire to connect. With myself again and my creative self and to connect with other people, who I couldn’t be in the same room with. I finished the album a year ago. But I didn’t want it to be just another post pandemic record, so we held it for a year. 

No wonder it’s become such an emotional album. I also love the sound that you decided on. Those horns? They crack me up every time (Natalie laughs). I love how the tradition of the great American songwriters like Carole King meets the richness of the Black Soul of someone like Sam Cooke. 

I always wanted to be someone’s Carole King. Aretha did her songs. Carole could do them, but when Aretha did them, it took them to another place. And I think Abena (Abena Koomson-Davis, who sings with Natalie on „Big Girls“ and „Come On, Aphrodite“) does that with my words too. I sing more straight, she bends the notes more. There’s this really rich texture to her voice and our voices are really different, but when we sing together, sometimes she’s like: „Is that me or you?“ (laughs) And we’re singing in unison, often times. We’re not singing in harmony. It was important to me that I present Abena as a complete equal in the song. Equal time, equal volume. I was telling a journalist earlier, I haven’t really confessed this ever until I talked to him (laughs). But I had Mavis Staples in the studio for an afternoon. She sang backup on two songs and I was like: „Why did I not do duets?“ Maybe it was being young and inexperienced. But that’s always been in the back of my mind, that I really screwed that up (laughs). A lot of people don’t even know that it’s her. Anyway, I learned my lesson. Part of growing older and having wisdom is being able to accept: „Well, you screwed that up, but you learned something from that.“ 

I also like that the songs are so long. You really take your time with them.

You have to be brave to make an 8 minute song. „Sister Tilly“ is almost 8 minutes long, but it also has three distinct movements, three different parts. And I did all those harmonies in the, I called it „the apotheosis section“, when she’s ascending to the heavens and becoming a lotus flower and a super power, a white light vibration… (laughs) I’ve lived around Woodstock New York for around 30 years. And there’s a particular type of woman. Speaking of yoga, I for many years did this Friday morning Hatha Yoga class. I was the youngest person for like 30 years. They were all older women. I mean, really older women. Some of them where in their eighties. And I loved that class, because I would hang out afterwards and talk to these ladies. And some of them were the purple ladies. I don’t know if you have this phenomenon in Germany, but women get to are certain age where they are like: „Just purple for me!“ (laughs) Even their hair. I love wearing purple myself! I always have. But they get to a point where it’s just head to toe purple. But these women, they tell stories about hitchhiking in India in 1975. I’ve met a couple of women who’ve told me they lived in the Chelsea Hotel in the late Sixties. I don’t even wanna know what they were up to! (laughs) They are always at political rallies, they are always volunteering, showing up. They are feisty and independent and they’ve travelled all over the world, they had lots of lovers… they are a generation of women that just didn’t exist until the mid/late 20th century. They were radical reformers! I’m grateful to them. When I had my daughter, there was this beautiful, well equipped birthing center. It was assumed that I would breastfeed, my obstetrician was a woman. My mother didn’t have that culture. I think women had a lot to do with alternative medicine coming to the United States and the fact that there are now vegetarian restaurants and health food stores and natural healing centers. That’s why also when we bury „Sister Tilly“ at the end, when we let her go, there’s kind of an eastern influence to the song. It’s actually a sitar at the end. 

You want to know another of my Guru’s theories? Way more women than men suffer of osteoporosis. Our bones‘ health is amongst others connected to the amount of oxygen we take in over the course of our lives. And the level of oxygen you take in also depends on how you use your voice. He says women take in less oxygen, because they have been robbed of using their voices for centuries. So singing and voicing your opinion can actually prevent you from developing osteoporosis. 

That’s an interesting theory. Definitely as I get older, I get much more honest. When someone asks me: „How was your meal?“ I’ll say: „Well, actually, it’s been one of the worst meals I ever had. And I don’t hold you personally responsible, but I just think you should know, this was awful!“ It happened two nights ago. And my friend, who is in her seventies, she was just laughing. She was like: „I can’t believe you just did that.“ And I said: „Your meal was just as bad, you should have supported me!“ (laughs) And I also find that when I express my displeasure these days, people look at me like I’m their mother and I’m yelling at them (laughs). Years ago I would have never said that. I couldn’t even tell a beautician: „Don’t take off five inches, I said one!“ So many times you get a horrible haircut, because you were too meek to say: „That’s not the amount of hair I want you taking off!“ 

But you know what? After all you’ve been through, I feel like your voice sounds even stronger.

It’s richer and I am more comfortable. When I listen to even „Ophelia“ and even parts of „Mother Land“, I wasn’t fully committing to the vocal. I was committing as much as I could, but something was holding me back. I can hear it. It’s almost like I wasn’t fully opening my mouth at times. The timidity is gone now. The only things I miss about youth is the endurance and the flexibility. But outside of that, I wouldn’t go back. Maybe 45. I was kind of in my prime at 45. Physically and in so many other ways. 

I wouldn’t go back either. And it’s so nice to hear from someone who is a couple of years ahead of me, that you still feel the same. 

I feel more comfortable in myself now and happier. More content than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’m 60 this year!

Photo © Jacob Blickensteff