More than 30 years have passed since Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs recorded their first record. Two weeks shy of her 50th birthday, Merchant will take the stage of the Alys Stephens Center to perform alongside the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Merchant spoke with Weld about her upcoming performance, her “impending” death, and the things in between.
Weld: You have been working as an artist your entire adult life. Do you feel a certain responsibility when you’re creating, knowing there will be an audience waiting to see your work?
Natalie Merchant: Do I feel a responsibility? Yeah, I feel privileged that there is an audience for what I do. I actually started with the 10,000 Maniacs when I was 16. I hate saying “the music business,” call it the field of music…[it] has changed so much in the past 35 years since I’ve been involved in it. I feel lucky to have had success that I did in the decades that I did. Because I think it’s exceptionally harder — there’s so much available now that it’s difficult to get people’s attention.
Whether I feel a responsibility, sure. I do feel like I’m seeking someone when I’m writing — emotional messages to convey, lyrical messages to convey — otherwise, I wouldn’t bother. I would just keep it to myself.
Weld: Do you ever wish you that freedom to keep your art for yourself?
NM: Yeah, I still do songs that have never seen the light of day. I’m the only person who knows them, but I return to them. Some of them were very therapeutic and needed to be written at those times, mournful music you don’t need to share with other people. Experiments. You’re constantly experimenting as an artist. Everyone has a pile of drawings in their basement they don’t feel are worth showing people. … I have hard drives full of material that I want destroyed when I die. It’s too embarrassing.
Weld: Is that something you think about? What will happen to that body of work when you’re gone?
NM: I do have a stipulation in my will about what can and can’t be done with things I’ve written, but I’m good at throwing things away. It’s funny you ask, because it’s what I’ve been doing this month. I’m turning 50 this month, and I decided I have too much paper. I have nightmares of being crushed by piles of paper so I’ve just been spending time in my attic, in my basement throwing boxes and boxes of paper into the shredders. … It’s liberating, really. I definitely have that thought now that I have a daughter. You don’t think, “When I die there’ll be decades and decades worth of saving.” I don’t want to burden her, having to sort it all out so I feel it’s my responsibility to go through that. It’s sort of morbid but it’s realistic. It’s something I didn’t think about 20 or 30 years ago, but after I’ve had friends who’ve helped clean out their parents houses and it’s sad and it’s overwhelming.
Weld: You’re playing here just a couple of weeks before your birthday. Do those sort of milestones have any importance to you?
NM: Um…sure. I don’t feel the need to have a huge party to celebrate it, but it’s definitely making me take pause and take measure of things. I’m actually, on my birthday, singing at Toshi Seeger’s memorial concert. Pete Seeger’s wife died in early July. … I thought an appropriate way to spend my birthday would be celebrating the life of this extraordinary woman.
Weld: Does it feel different to be creating now, apart from knowing you’ll have an audience? Apart from knowing you’re already a viable member of the music field, is your process different?
NM: The process is pretty much the same. I fluctuate between total chaos and inspiration and then re-organizing and editing and refining, and that’s been my process since the beginning. I always overwrite. If four verses are required, I’ll write 40. It’s was so liberating with the children’s poetry project [2010’s Leave Your Sleep record] because the text already existed, and I just got to the point where I had adapted three times the amount of poems I needed.
I’m more confident these days when I go into the studio or I go on stage. When I was 16, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know how to distinguish the parts of the song. I didn’t know the difference between the verse, the chorus or the bridge. I remember the bass player saying to me, the first time in the studio, “Okay let’s sing through the bridge,” and I went, “What the hell’s the bridge?”
Weld: Before playing in Birmingham next Friday night, will you be in touch with the conductor in any way? When does the collaboration begin?
NM: I usually travel with my own conductor, actually. Sometimes I work with the local conductor. James Bagwell, who is my conductor, is actually from the Birmingham area. … What happens with the orchestral shows is that we don’t really tour, we just plan to do a few shows a month and turn those scores into big, classic pieces. The orchestra may or may not look at them. Usually, the soloists will study their parts. We have rehearsal, which is in the evening of the show. The contact I have with the orchestra really begins at the beginning of the show…which speaks to how phenomenal these players are.
Weld: What’s the experience like, singing with an orchestra?
NM: I don’t come with any electric instrument. I don’t come with a rhythm section. I actually come with an acoustic guitar player and a pianist and my composer. Even though the scores are explicit about how different instruments should be played — there are nuances and tempo and the expression of songs; it’s ridiculous how much stipulation is in the score — but still each night, the players bring something different to the performance and the hall. It’s intimate. So I have to be thoughtful because it sounds extraordinarily beautiful with the acoustics of the hall and the scale of the place. … I love playing these shows. They’re so nuanced and civilized. The emotional range is huge — it goes from a whisper to powerful passages. I feel alive in those moments.
Weld: Alive, how? Is music truly therapeutic for you?
NM: Whether it’s emotions or what, I don’t know. After I do one of these shows, for three or four days people will comment on how different I look. My face will look more relaxed. I have less tension in my eyes. It’s a huge cathartic release to be on stage. I don’t perform that much now that I have a daughter, but I started to do these orchestral shows and they work well for me. Traveling in a true tour, that’s two to three months to make it possible, and you can’t take breaks and it’s exhausting. And I did it for 20 years, and I can’t do it anymore. This gives me the opportunity to perform still…with incredible musicians and not have to sacrifice all that time away from my family so I’ve struck the perfect balance for me with these shows. I’m looking forward to playing Birmingham. I think it’s a special night, especially because it’s a homecoming for James.
Natalie Merchant and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra will perform Friday, October 18 at 8 p.m. at the Alys Stephens Center. For tickets, visit alysstephens.uab.edu or call (205) 975-2787.