Earlier this year singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, 50, released her first album of original songs since 2001’s “Motherland.”
The self-titled collection of songs is deeply personal, and Merchant’s voice hasn’t lost any of its haunting timbre.
She was due to play in Portland last July, but a sudden illness sidetracked those plans. She’s back in good health and will play her first show in Portland in many years on Thursday at the State Theatre.
Merchant was the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs before launching a solo career with the 1995 album “Tigerlily.” It went on to sell more than 5 million copies, aided by the singles “Carnival,” “Jealousy” and “Wonder.”
A conversation I had with Merchant from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley revealed, among other things, her thoughts about the songs, how she moves through the world and what it felt like turning 50.
It’s interesting because now we’re going out on tour and people know the album and they’re singing along and they’re recognizing songs in the first couple bars and that is pretty thrilling. I lived alone with these songs for a good 12,15 years. For me, the album is the great catharsis of my life. It’s the place that I’ve put all my creative energy and it’s a repository of reflections of my personal life and the world outside. It’s an encapsulation of that and it’s something that exists now for as long people will be able to, as long as people will be able to play this record, it exists and there’s something extremely powerful about that, it’s an art form that I’ve developed the skill for engaging in and whether people want to hear it as an album or want to look at the packaging of it, at this point is immaterial because I’m just driven to make albums.
When I listened to “Giving Up Everything” I was so struck by the line ‘I mercy killed my craving.’
I like the personification of a trait that you don’t want in yourself.
What do you do to stay present and appreciative of what’s right in front of you?
I really just admonish myself perpetually because I worry about the future and I am pretty consumed with recrimination about the past. I was raised in the Catholic Church until I was about 12 but outside of that I’ve never really had any spiritual training or followed any particular path. I think maybe that’s helpful for people. One of my best friends is Tibetan. She’s the most devoutly spiritual person and practitioner of religion I’ve ever met. She’s saying her mantra perpetually, her lips are constantly moving and she doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, she really makes an effort to never say anything negative about anyone or anything. She’s so forgiving and understanding and she’s a great example. But I don’t feel like that I could achieve what she’s achieved.
You have such a distinct way as a songwriter of taking something grave and making it into music in a such a way that it doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the situation but rather you create art around it.
It’s helpful to use a narrative and the voice of one person because it’s overwhelming otherwise. And I just think that, yearning for peace and restoration of home or a yearning for a home is completely essential to being human. It’s a universal sentiment. That yearning for peace is as well. So to write a piece of music, and I’m not the first person who’s ever written a song about yearning for home and peace, those are high aspirations and I think that music needs to conserve those aspirations, give us a moment to reflect on those together. Love that exists in so many different forms, that’s something else that I like to write about. It’s not all romantic love. Once you have a child you realize that the love you have for your family that you create it just completely dwarfs a romantic love that may be in the impetus of your family – the love for your friends and love of beauty and love of nature and love of mankind and community.
I’m thinking about the song “Maggie Said.” Tell me about it.
It’s about an older woman who’s lived a pretty embittered and cynical life and is talking to a younger person, trying to save her, save her the trouble. Sometimes when I’m singing the song in front of people I’ll have an epiphany of what the song’s actually about. It’s about the inability to be vulnerable. She says “holding back, what did I get from all of that?” It’s that resistance to love and inability to be open and accepting of your own vulnerability because you can’t really, truly love unless you’re vulnerable.
Do you have any lifelong favorite albums that you can always go back to?
“The Harder They Come” soundtrack, Cat Power’s “The Greatest,” “Pink Moon,” Nick Drake. “Liege & Lief” by Fairport Convention, “Blue” Joni Mitchell. I’ve also been listening to a Mayte Martin record lately. She’s a Flamenco singer.
I know when I go to a show as a fan and I see people glued to their iPhones I tend to cast judgment in thinking that there’s no way they can possibly be present in the moment of the show. Does that make you crazy or do you just accept it?
It depends on my mood and it depends on how much of it is going on. I’d be less annoyed by it if I thought nobody was going to post it but it’s just…I work so hard with writing the songs, pre-production of the tour, hiring the best musicians and technicians to make sure it sounds great, looks great and then someone will post this horrendous YouTube video where I’m just a blurry blob and the sound is absolutely horrendous and you can hear people coughing and talking and shifting around in their seats and it just drives me mad and there’s no way to control it, it’s the wild west out there. But I am frustrated with the whole world. I just feel like our culture is suffering so quickly and severely from the obsession with gadgets.
So you turned 50 recently. I’m not all that much younger than you and I know I experienced a shift somewhere along the way where I don’t want to turn back the clock because I wouldn’t trade my life experience for anything. What are your thoughts on that?
It would be wonderful to have a perpetually youthful body wouldn’t it? And be able to have all that wisdom and experience in your mind and not lose your mind, not lose your memories and to keep your mental agility. But that’s part of the acceptance of giving up clinging to your former self.
WHAT: Natalie Merchant
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $35-$65, reserved seating