Making Her Way
Natalie Merchant has experienced enough for several lives: teen rock star, fiercely independent solo artist, mother, wildly successful environmental campaigner. She’s been around the world and back, and she's done it in her own inimitable style.
- [Announcer] "Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.
- Welcome to "Articulate"
the show that explores the inner lives
of great creative people.
And on this episode, making her way.
Till now, Natalie Merchant is experienced enough
for several lifetimes.
Teen rock star, fiercely independent solo artist,
mother and successful environmental campaigner.
And she's done it all in her own inhibitable style.
- I can remember being at CBGBs and changing my clothes
in the bathroom.
There was a woman there who worked for a record company
and she came up to me and she said,
you are so uncool, that you're really cool.
- [Jim] That's Natalie Merchant ahead on "Articulate".
(bright upbeat music)
- Shall we begin?
♪ These are the days
- [Jim] As Natalie Merchant's daughter,
Lucia starts college,
her mother is pondering her own early adult life.
For at 17, she was already embarking on a career in music.
- I was a little firebrand, you know, I had my mission
and my messages and I needed to get them out.
We bought this old school bus and there was a seat for me.
And then next thing I knew we were driving up and down
the East Coast, sleeping on people's floors.
Sleeping in a tent when we had to.
Making absolutely no money whatsoever,
but having the time of my life.
- [Jim] It was a bold beginning to a decades long
musical journey that has produced over a dozen albums
and multiple top 10 Billboard hits.
♪ Give them what they want
But Merchant has never been driven
by these transient signals of success.
Hers has been a quest for truth and connection.
Music was just her roadmap.
- I think I have a very honest voice.
Anything I sing is straight from the heart,
but technically I don't think I have a very good voice.
'Cause to me it's more about emotional, you know, immediacy.
♪ Oh, people down-cast in despair ♪
♪ See the disillusion everywhere ♪
♪ Hoping their bad luck will change ♪
♪ It's a little harder everyday ♪
- [Jim] Born in rural New York state,
the third of four children,
Merchant grew up during the economic slump of the 1970s.
She did have a sense throughout her adolescence
that her community was in decline.
But at home music was a consistent presence.
Her paternal Sicilian grandfather
played accordion, mandolin and guitar.
Her maternal grandfather was a piano tuner and singer.
Growing up Merchant and took piano lessons
and her mother encouraged her to listen to everything.
Classical, show tunes, rock.
After her parents divorced, she lived with her mother
who continued to encourage her love of music.
Though the young Natalie never foresaw that being her life.
After working for a summer program for disabled children
as a teenager,
she thought she would go into special education.
But when she and a group of local musicians
whom she met at a party decided to go on tour,
Merchant saw it as a way to escape her hometown.
Named after the 1964 horror movie, "Two Thousand Maniacs",
the group became 10,000 Maniacs.
Natalie Merchant was their lead singer.
- Such a horrible name.
The name was such a curse.
- Probably at the time it was good.
- I remember playing in Berlin and a spring of 1983.
I think the first time we went to Germany,
maybe at '84 and all these punks had come.
And they were throwing lit cigarettes and beer cans at me
going, where are the 10,000 Maniacs?
They were so angry because they thought we was...
We were a punk band based on our name.
And people say, oh, you had a pretty adventuresome streak
to be able at 17 to just do that.
And I think it had built up over years
of living in a small isolated town
and knowing that the world was out there
and I wanted to be a part of it.
And then I got an opportunity.
- [Jim] Merchant embraced this opportunity
with the fearlessness and drive
of a teenager discovering herself.
Touring helped her learn how to perform on stage
and build an identity as a musician.
- I don't think I sang with my face to the audience
until I'd been in the band for three years.
I basically sang with my back to the audience.
It was too much to know that people were looking at me.
Or if I did turn around I had my eyes shut.
So, I was extremely introverted and shy.
I can remember being at CBGBs and changing my clothes
in the bathroom.
And this girl coming up to me with like safety pins
in her nose and going...
I was putting on my 1930s cotton frock (laughs)
and my Oxford, you know, flats.
And she said that, we're not in Kansas anymore.
And I just went...
And then what was interesting was there was a woman there
who worked for a record company and she came up to me
and she said, you are so uncool, that you're really cool.
♪ The kid's my favorite
♪ I've seen him I see him
- [Jim] These early years also helped Natalie Merchant
develop the sensitivity and moral clarity
that would define much of her writing.
♪ Seen him run outside looking for a place to hide ♪
♪ From his father
Her lyrics, not your usual tales of love, lost and loss.
Tackling gravior topics such as colonialism
and unplanned pregnancy
led "Spin Magazine" to name her,
the singer who killed the pop star in 1989.
- I think that's why we became a college favorite.
I think if we had written kind of vapid romantic songs...
I think the fact that there was this social conscious
in the in the lyrics,
I think it helped to set us apart.
♪ A crippled man to know this man ♪
♪ Is to fear this man
♪ To shake when he comes
♪ Wasn't it God that let
♪ Puritans in Salem
♪ Do what they do
♪ To the unfaithful
- [Jim] One later song, "Beloved Wife",
a first person account for a man losing his longtime partner
grew from her first time experience of death
in her late teens.
♪ You were the love
♪ For certain of my life
♪ You were simply my beloved wife ♪
- My grandparents had been married over 50 years.
And my grandmother went into a coma after a stroke.
And my grandfather watched her die for months.
He was at her bedside the whole time.
And then she died and he died three days later.
And he was healthy as an ox.
I was with him.
We went to the funeral home to see her body
and he had a heart attack looking at her.
So he ended up in the hospital.
I don't think he was even able to go to her funeral.
And then he died.
And I remember saying goodnight to him.
And I said, I'll see you in the morning grandpa.
And he said, no, you won't.
My grandparents' deaths were my first deaths.
I was still 19 when that happened.
And the other thing that I realized is that
when you have a really pure love for someone
and it's very pure grief.
It's like searing white light or something.
You feel hollowed out inside
and you feel like life without them
is really inconceivable at that moment you're grieving.
♪ Now alone without my beloved wife ♪
♪ My beloved wife
- [Jim] Natalie Merchant's life on and off stage
taught her to channel her experiences into songs
and showed her the reach music could have.
But just as the teenage Natalie had been eager
to leave rural New York,
Merchant would eventually grow restless with life
in the band.
In 1993, she left to chart her own course.
- I met the band 10,000 Maniacs,
the people in the band when I was 16.
And by the time I was 30, I left.
That's a lot of growing up.
I was like the de facto editor in the band
because I wrote the lyrics.
So everyone would bring their chord progressions
then I would write melodies and words to them.
And if I wasn't really moved by something, or it didn't...
I couldn't find a path way through that song,
it didn't end up on the record.
And so then there was...
I didn't like having that position in the band.
- Did it cause resentments?
- I'm sure it did.
- Were you aware of them?
- I'm sure I was.
But there wasn't much I could do about it.
I think they probably would have been happy
if I would just write some boy, girl love song.
Something other than, you know,
writing about nuclear disarmament and illiteracy
and child abuse and
toxic water supplies and (laughs) all the things
that I wrote about, you know.
- [Jim] So she started from scratch.
Over the next two years,
Merchant wrote and recorded the songs
that'll become her debut self-funded
solo album, "Tigerlily".
It was a big hit selling over 5 million copies,
despite a somewhat chaotic gestation.
- I had no clue what I was doing.
I had John Landau, this legendary record producer
and manager and journalists, you know,
just like a figure to contend with.
And he would go to the record company and say,
everything is totally under control.
And then he'd come to the studio and he'd say,
this is madness.
What's going on?
It's like, do you really know what you're doing?
I was like, no, but tell them I know what I'm doing.
- [Jim] One of the longest lasting legacies of "Tigerlily"
has been the song, "Wonder".
Merchant wrote it about an imagined child
with physical challenges who perseveres
because of the love and support around her.
But it quickly resonated with countless families
as they saw their own struggles in Merchant's song.
♪ Doctors have come from distant cities ♪
♪ Just to see me
- We started to hear from parents and children
who had special needs.
And it fast became an Anthem for them.
Yeah, kids would come to the concerts in wheelchairs.
And I remember singing at the Perkins school for the blind
and I actually did "Wonder" with the kids in the choir.
And one of the mothers came up to me
and said that her son was in the choir.
That when he was a baby, she would hold him,
you know, and sing "Wonder" to him every night.
♪ Know this child will be gifted ♪
♪ With love, with patience and with faith ♪
♪ She'll make her way
♪ She'll make her way
- [Jim] Merchant didn't anticipate the energetic response
to "Wonder" but she embraced it.
Not only did the song take on a life of it's own,
spawned a movement and inspired a best-selling book
by RJ Palacio that would later become a hit movie
starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson.
It also had a lasting impact on Natalie Merchant's own life.
After she met Kate and Kelly Daley.
Twins born with a rare skin disorder
who were big fans of her music.
- I wonder if many musicians get the chance to meet somebody
who their music really impacted
and then become almost family with them.
And that's basically what Kate and Kelly were.
I was like the big sister.
And not just for a minute, for 11 years,
I would give them these little opportunities
to take a break from their horrendous medical regime
that they had.
Sometimes it'd be 12 hours of medical care in a day.
I'd be on "Saturday Night Live"
and I would get them tickets.
They would come over to the house
and I'd record demos with them of the...
They were both poets and we would turn their poems
So, unusual friendship.
- They were transported by music and especially your music.
And then fast forward,
when they died,
we had taken all their bandages off
and for their whole life they were bandaged
from the minute they came into the world
and they never had time without bandages.
And we took all their bandages off.
We washed them and we put the clothes that they had picked.
And we played "Wonder" when they left the house.
♪ Stand over my bed
♪ Disbelieving what they're seeing ♪
♪ They say I must be one of the wonders ♪
♪ Of God's own creation
♪ And as far as they see they can offer ♪
♪ No explanation
- [Jim] Three albums follow "Tigerlily"
but then a lengthy sabbatical trip,
which Merchant dedicated herself
to parenting her daughter Lucia.
- And I'd had a really long career at that point.
I'd had a 22 year career and sold millions of records
and toured the world and blah, blah, blah.
And the one thing that I really wanted
was to stay in one place and be part of a community.
Be someone that people could rely on.
And I didn't want someone else raising her.
Not go to the parent teacher conferences
and not volunteer for the bake sales.
- [Jim] As Merchant's day to day life changed
so did her approach to music.
The urgency of youth gave way to a more gradual,
but no less ambitious effort
unlike anything she'd done before.
A years long collaboration called "Leave Your Sleep".
- Here just sprawling project that involved 135 musicians
and two years of recording, seven years of research
and writing all started the day
that I brought my baby home from the hospital.
And I was just holding her.
And I had an anthology...
A really thin anthology of children's poetry.
And I pulled it off the shelf and it was...
I opened it to a Christina Rossetti poem,
"Crying my little one".
And I just started reading the poem and humming the melody.
And I basically wrote a lullaby to my newborn baby,
which became the impetus of this massive project.
That was a double album and an 80 page book
and tracking down biographies of really obscure poets
and photographs from different historical societies
around the UK and the United States.
But from that point of her being newborn
to her actually learning to read herself at seven
and writing her own poems, I worked on this project.
And it basically was my gift to her.
♪ See the clearing song that calls for the girl ♪
♪ On the milk white horse
- [Jim] The project was also a gift to others.
Like "Wonder", "Leave your sleep" became more than music.
It grew into a picture book with images
by children's author and illustrator Barbara McClintock
and became part of the curriculum
for New York city public schools
to teach students about poetry and music.
Stepping away from touring also allowed Merchant
to reconnect with the rural life she'd fled as a teenager.
Providing a sense of place after years
of nomadic adventures.
The same determination that drove her
to escape her childhood home
now motivated her to improve her new one.
- Because I wasn't moving I became much more aware
of what was going on in my community.
And I'd always been an activist on some level,
but then I really devoted myself to activism
and community organizing and volunteering.
When I found out that there could be as many
as 40,000 fracking Wells going in and a network of pipeline
and the destruction, basically of rural life in Central...
Mostly Central where the Marcella show
was the most plentiful.
And I went to Binghamton and I did a concert there.
And I met these people from Dimock, Pennsylvania,
which has suffered horrible water contamination.
And they had a milk jug...
A gallon milk jug full of brown water that they said,
this is what comes out of our well now.
And it's full of neurotoxins.
It's full of carcinogens.
It's just, you have to stop this.
Don't let this happen in New York.
So I said, what if we get scientists and artists
and activists together and we create an event.
And we focus it as an appeal to the governor.
And a lot of people were saying, well, we need a ban.
And I thought, a ban, that'll never happen.
You know, (laughs) let's just extend the moratorium
at the very least.
Let's just keep the wolves out.
And then we did it.
We did a concert.
We did a rally and we filmed it.
And we traveled around the state
and we were able to generate a lot of renewed energy
in the anti-fracking community
because they had been fighting for four years at that point.
They were exhausted.
And we got the ban, you know,
Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York state.
And I think that with music,
you can bombard people with information.
But I think music, you know,
and that all goes into the head.
There's something about music
that kind of opens up that channel to the heart.
♪ Make a wasteland
♪ Of this country
♪ Burn our homes
♪ Steal our dreams
- [Jim] For Merchant music isn't an end unto itself,
it's a tool to connect people to a cause, an experience
and one another.
It's also a source for personal strength.
As she's grown older and moved from young rock star
to parent, mentor and community leader,
Merchant has carried music with her to smooth over
the inevitable rough transitions of her own life.
- I've helped a lot of people die.
And I've sat with them and, you know, hands on them singing,
and it can be very beautiful.
Death can be a beautiful moment of release.
But I find that if you put your hand on the chest
and maybe on the forehead and you just sing to them,
it's just incredibly...
When my father was dying, the nurse came in and said,
the entire ICU has just gone silent.
And she said that it's never like this.
Keep it up.
She said that like all the moaning
and the yelling and that she usually hears at night,
it all stopped.
- Because they'd heard you sing?
I sang to my father for, I think four solid hours.
- [Jim] What did you sing for him?
- A lot of hymns.
"Poor wayfaring stranger" a lot of shaker music.
But there's a song "Watch ye" that is a shaker hymn.
And it's watch ye watch ye and be ready to meet me
for I shall come at noon day.
Fear me not for with my hand
I shall lead you on through this land of...
I will lead your little boat through this land of sorrow
or something like that.
♪ Watch ye watch ye
♪ And be ready to meet me
♪ For low I shall come at noon day ♪
- [Jim] Now Natalie Merchant is in the midst
of another transition.
- I was terrified of having a child,
especially girl because I thought she'd hate me.
And that isn't what happened with us.
We are the best of friends.
And she's going off to college and I'm not worried
because I know that we'll be close forever.
She did my tarot reading yesterday.
- [Jim] Do tell.
- She's a good little witch.
It was pretty extraordinary.
I said, what about the coming year?
And the first card was the chariot,
which is all about direction and control and, you know,
speeding for forward movement.
So that's your past.
The present card was the tower.
So that's a catastrophic event.
Life-changing so I was like, okay,
between the fact that COVID
and you're leaving for college,
my entire life has been disrupted and changed.
That's good for present.
And then the third card is future.
And it was the hermit.
Hermit means introspection and seclusion.
Going towards spiritual pursuits and wisdom.
- [Jim] Pursuing wisdom isn't much of a change
for Natalie Merchant.
Over the decades through her songs and the connections
she's always sought to grow, to give and to learn.
And she has discovered that there's another kind of wisdom
to be found away from music.
In the piece of silence.
- Well sometimes I feel like I lack the training
to be able to talk to people about the things
that they've experienced in their lives,
that the music brings up or expresses for them.
And sometimes I feel it's...
I'm not equipped to respond to them
when they talk to me about it.
I just listen and sometimes I just start crying
and sometimes we end up in each other's arms.
And you know, that's all I can do.
- [Jim] Natalie Merchant now begins a new chapter.
One she'll no doubt take on with the same energy, intention
and sure footedness that's characterized her life so far.
♪ Cantering over the sawdust course ♪
It would likely be yet another unchartered,
unpredictable journey of exploration.
And with love, with patience and with faith,
she'll make her way.
♪ As a girl
♪ On a milk white horse
♪ Cantering over the sawdust course ♪
♪ (smooth violin music)
For more "Articulate" find us on social media
or on our website,
On the next "Articulate",
a fatal accident in his teens would come to define life
for Darren Strauss.
Finally telling his story publicly provided some relief.
And from championship skier to acclaimed composer,
Stephen Manky has never lost his rhythm.
Join us for the next "Articulate".
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.