Natalie Merchant has always gone her own way. From her days as the swaying 1980s flower frontwoman of 10,000 Maniacs to her success as a singer-songwriter of bluesy folk ballads in the ’90s, she never bothered with boring conventions of pop princess imagery or pandered to the radio’s demands. But she did have hits: five 10,000 Maniacs songs made it onto the Billboard Top 100, and three of her own songs cracked the Top 10. Her debut solo album, “Tigerlily,” sold more than five million copies.
She made two more albums on a major label, Elektra, then walked away from the glare of a fading music industry in 2002. Since then, she’s been less concerned about commercial success than individual expression — and causes close to her heart. She’s been an activist pretty much all her life and has used her platform and her voice to support countless non-profit organizations and charities since the moment she took the spotlight. Tonight at a ceremony in New York City, ASCAP is honoring her with its Foundation Champion Award, for a career of rogue music-making and her “kind and generous” lifetime of social justice activism.
A business question, in light of the Taylor Swift situation, is: You held on to your publishing rights, correct?
My independent albums I own, and I control all my publishing. But definitely all the 10,000 Maniacs and the solo records that came out on Elektra, they own the masters.
We read something about Michael Stipe in the early days encouraging you to hold on to…
Publishing. And usually you have a re-record restriction. They don’t want you putting out a record for a label, and then two years later recording it again on your own. So usually there’s a seven-year restriction period. So I could re-record everything again. When I did the 25th anniversary of “Tigerlily,” I did re-record. But Nonesuch is the label under the same Warner Music Group umbrella.
What was your motivation for doing a new take on “Tigerlily”?
So much had changed in the way that I viewed the songs, and the way that the songs had been received by the public. The album sold five million copies, and it became part of the culture. I did a documentary that was kind of a film memoir about the album — a little bit about the making of, but more what has happened to how these songs have impacted people’s lives and the culture. We did a small tour, and a friend of mine had a booth in the lobby and asked people to talk to her about how the record had impacted them. I was blown away by the stories. There was an Iraq War vet who said that his sister sent him the album, and he had to listen to it every night — it was like a tranquilizer for him. When he came to the show, he had full-on post traumatic stress in the audience. He just wept the entire concert. He called me “the angel of Baghdad,” because he said there was something in my voice and that album that was able to counter the horror of what he was experiencing there. Aileen Wuornos listened to “Tigerlily” obsessively, and wanted “Carnival” played at her funeral — one of the scariest female serial killers in America. I would never have expected that. You have no idea when you release a record what will happen.
“Wonder” has become an anthem for children with severe physical and developmental challenges. I’ve sung the song with a blind choir at Perkins School [for the Blind], and it was used as theme song for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Doctors have told me that the’ve seen the poem over cribs of children in neonatal intensive care units. So the motivation was twofold: it was how the the songs changed for me, and a second attempt to render them in the studio.
Would you say the record industry in the ’90s was a good place for an independent singer-songwriter?
It was excellent. I was so lucky. My career started in 1981, and I got to ride the crest of the wave, up until about that time most artists didn’t get to really participate that much in the success of their records. Believe me, Elektra in the beginning, when 10,000 Maniacs signed — our deal was so awful that we almost didn’t get to participate in the success of our own records. But the ’90s were a really good time for artists, if they were lucky enough to have a good deal. Major labels were flush with cash, because everyone had gone out and re-bought their favorite albums on CD. They were ripping off artists like 10,000 Maniacs, by giving us reduced royalty, claiming that they had to transition to a new technology. So we had to bear some of the burden of that — which they, of course, did in one year, probably. Then they continued to stiff us on royalties another 10 years.
So you were seeing it from both sides, as a solo artist and as the former member of a “legacy act”?
I was lucky, because when I went solo, a friend of mine suggested that I look up Jon Landau, at a time when Bruce Springsteen had taken a hiatus from doing big tours and was making a record without the E Street Band and slowing down. Jon had never worked with anyone but Bruce, and he took me on, and he was scandalized by the deal I had. He fought for me. There were retroactive payments for royalties that I’d been cheated out of. He also convinced Elektra to just trust me to produce my own record. I don’t think I could’ve gotten away with making “Tigerlily” for Elektra if I hadn’t had Landau pushing for me.
So you rode the wave, and then you left Elektra in 2002 and started your own label. Was it because you saw the writing on the wall about where the industry was going?
It coincided with getting pregnant and stepping away. The sky started to fall for the music industry at the same moment when I decided I’d had a really good, 20-year career, and I wanted to start a family. I was 40. I had recorded this record of songs [“The House Carpenter’s Daughter”], and I didn’t think Elektra would be interested in it anyway. So I asked if I could leave the label. They said yes, and then I just put it out.
What do you think would have happened if you’d been born and started a music career just a little bit later, and tried to make a go of it in the Spotify age?
I think there’s a class of working musicians, making a respectable living as musicians. It’s really funny, but I’m sort of in a “superstar” category, just by the math of amount of sales that I’ve been able to amass. But I wouldn’t have been a superstar, that’s for sure. I don’t think of myself as a superstar, just for the record [laughs] — but I’m in that category, which I find very laughable, especially today as I was shoveling my driveway. I think that, for artists who are motivated and are kind of interested in visual art forms as well as music, the developments have been incredible — the fact that you can do photo sessions, make videos, start a website, and if you do want to make physical product, there’s so many small manufacturers for that. It’s an exciting time in that sense. The new paradigm, we’re still adjusting to it. But I’m benefiting from it, in that I can announce a tour of obscure venues on the other side of the planet and sell out in two days, based on Internet sales, which is pretty incredible. I’ve gone to England and played small markets in unorthodox venues — churches and community centers and libraries — and traveled around with a small van and P.A. and a sound woman and guitar player. I’ll play a show, and it’ll be 400 people, and 375 will be from other places, as far away as South Africa and Scandinavia. They’ll be in some small, rural union hall in, you know, Hebden Bridge [laughs]. It’s crazy. But that’s what the Internet can be.
One of its positive effects.
Yeah. And also, not a negative reflection upon you and your trade, but I used to completely rely on the press to make people aware of my existence, and of my views, or to interpret my personality. It’s just been so great to have this direct communication with my supporters. I can tell them when I have a tour, or when I have a record coming out. You pinpoint the people that are interested in you. Maybe it’s a little narrow, and it doesn’t have the same reach as a major publication, or even national television, but it works. The key is that you have to first find your audience, and keep them in some way faithfully connected. I don’t do a lot to keep people connected; I just don’t have the appetite for the Instagram postings and all that. But a lot of young artists do, and they’re doing well.
Did your activism, or your engagement with different causes, start when you were in 10,000 Maniacs, or before that?
Well, I joined 10,000 Maniacs when I was 16. I think my activism started when I was 9. My sister and I had a white elephant sale, and we donated all the profits to the Girls Club for girls less fortunate than I was so I could have free membership [laughs]. Then when I was 15, I spent the summer working in an arts camp for children with physical and developmental disabilities. Then I joined the band, and one of the very first shows 10,000 Maniacs ever played was a free Hiroshima/Nagasaki Remembrance Day concert in our town. It’s just been part of the work ever since. I think I’ve become more and more proactive — not just waiting for someone to come to me and say, “Could you do a benefit?” I’ll find an organization that I really want to support, like Doctors Without Borders, and donate 10 percent of the profits of my tour to them. Sometimes it’s quietly and under the radar, and sometimes I feel compelled to get the executive director of the organization to stand on stage and speak about their work, or collect signatures in the lobby. With 10,000 Maniacs, we took Greenpeace on tour. When we took Campus Outreach Opportunity League on tour, they took me to one of their volunteer sites in every city. I did a lot of work with runaway teenagers’ drop-in centers, nursing homes and domestic violence shelters. It’s so integrated into my life, especially since I had my daughter and really settled down and became a reliable member of my community — like a physical, settled community. It’s been increasing, the involvement.
What’s been the driver? If it started before you even found fame, it’s obviously not just the weight of having a platform.
I think it might be being raised Catholic. I really took to heart those messages that were transmitted to me about Christian charity, and sense of obligation for other people, and that you should tithe — that you should give a certain portion of your time, effort and money to those less fortunate than yourself. That’s got to be where it came from.
Is that still part of your life at all, the faith or the religion side of that?
No. When my parents divorced, we left the church, which was when I was 9. But I think those early influences are indelible. An ethical framework was constructed inside my head and my soul, at a really young age, by Catholicism. I know a lot of people who are lapsed Catholics who are so resentful, and I don’t really have any resentment. I’m really grateful when I’m in the art museum — I know who all the saints are. I can spot Saint Jerome [laughs], Saint Sebastian. I know what’s happening. “Oh, there’s the Annunciation.” … I still love Jesus. I still love him as a construct, and a teacher.
And now you’re teaching and developing curriculum for music classes?
I’m volunteering three days a week. This is my third year, working with preschoolers in the Head Start program [in Hudson Valley, New York]. I’ve got 150 kids I work with every year. They didn’t have anybody teaching any music or movement to the kids before I came in. My hope is to develop a curriculum, and then I’m working on raising enough money through doing gigs, and trying to motivate local businesses to create an endowment, so that the program will go on. I pay a guitar player and a violinist to come with me. The kids are gorgeous. I love them so much, even though they are constantly making me sick [laughs]. They are so bright and intelligent and inquisitive and creative. And they’re very poor, so they don’t have access, and probably won’t have much access, to extracurricular activities. In the public schools they’re about to go into for kindergarten, there won’t be much arts programming, so this is a crucial time in their lives to have that exposure and build confidence. It’s wonderful to see them being valued for the way that they express themselves. I love when they do recitations of things that I’ve taught them.
Are you writing much music for yourself these days?
There’s a poet named Lina Schwarz — she’s a Jewish-Italian poet, she lived in Milan in the early part of the last century — and I’ve been adapting her poetry to music, learning Italian, singing in Italian, and interpreting these poems. I just came back from Milan, and I’m hoping to record with an Italian band that I found. That’s the project I’m working on that I’m finding really fulfilling. I always write my own material, but it’s more like a journal these days. Ever since I first went to Italy back in the ’80s, I’ve wanted to sing in Italian. It’s a bit of a dream fulfilled. I don’t know if anyone will be interested in hearing it, but I’m certainly having fun doing it. I’ve reached a point in my life where I can do those kinds of projects, and I don’t have to appeal to huge numbers of people.