My World: Natalie Merchant’s playlist

Posted on December 14th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .


The American singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant talks to Jo Frost about the female singers that she admires, and how motherhood and activism, rather than music, are now her primary concerns

As Natalie Merchant delights her legions of fans by revisiting her 20-year-old debut solo album, Tigerlily, it’s clear that the qualities that made her such a compelling artist then are still very much in evidence today. Songs such as ‘Wonder’, ‘River’ and ‘Beloved Wife’ defined her as someone with an astute social conscience and ability to touch people through her craft. It’s no surprise then that her carefully selected playlist exudes a distinct pensiveness. “I love melancholy music,” she muses. “I love music that evokes longing and I think that most of the songs that I chose have that feeling in common.”

The flamenco singer Mayte Martín is a very personal choice, being linked to Merchant’s 12-year-old daughter. “There’s always one album of the summer that I listen to when she’s away, that reminds me of her. And this Mayte Martín record became the album of last summer,” says Merchant, breaking into a quick rendition of the opening lines. “I’ve heard many flamenco artists but she’s my favourite.”

Dolores Keane dates back to Merchant’s days starting out as a budding young singer. “I think I bought my first Dolores Keane record when I was 18 years old. I have always loved her voice and her interpretation of Irish music. I don’t know what it’s about, I don’t even know how to pronounce it. But it’s kind of that same longing, it’s just really moving to me.”

She came across the Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara as an admirer of her record label. “I pay attention to anything that World Circuit releases – it’s a great label. It’s one of those that you can rely on, like Nonesuch. I was really drawn to her persona and her singing style.”

Possessing perhaps the most melancholic voice of all was Cesaria Evora. “She played in New York and I went to see her. I love that she would just sit down and have a drink while the band were playing, and she was barefoot. This song to me evokes the coastline of Cape Verde.”

The Hungarian singer Márta Sebestyén was a discovery Merchant made via producer and Hannibal Records’ owner, Joe Boyd. “Back in the mid-80s I made an album in London with Joe [The Wishing Chair with 10,000 Maniacs]. Muzsikás were on Hannibal and I got to meet Márta. She actually sang this song [‘Azt Gondoltam, Esö Esik’] a capella in my ear at a club once. I had seen her play and I told her I loved the show but I was disappointed because I didn’t get to hear this song. And I just sort of hummed it and then she sang. It’s one of my favourite moments of being a lover of music, is having that experience.”

Two artists on Merchants’ playlist are also fellow label mates: Rhiannon Giddens, who she first met when they both played Cambridge Folk Festival in 2010, and the young English singer, Olivia Chaney. “We actually played in London last year. Nonesuch was having its 40th anniversary, and Olivia, Rhiannon and I were all collaborating with the Kronos Quartet. We stayed up until 2am with Sam Amidon, swapping songs. Rhiannon had just bought a pair of clogging shoes at Portobello Market and she put the shoes on at about 3am and started clogging in the lobby of the hotel.”

The Olivia Chaney track Merchant has selected is ‘There’s Not a Swain’, written by Henry Purcell. “I love early music but I chose it more for Olivia than because of the particular song. I think the way that she performs it has a fluidity about it and once again it has this kind of longing… She’s got such a gorgeous voice.”

The three singers obviously discovered a kindred spirit and I wonder if there might be plans to collaborate in the future. “I’ve always been kind of a loner, so when I find that kind of sympathetic understanding with another musician that’s enough of a collaboration for me; the fact that I met them and we had that night.”

As Merchant prepares to tour again, she reflects on her life on the road with 10,000 Maniacs: “I didn’t come from a family of big travellers. So when I first got a taste of it, I lived like a vagabond for years; was constantly on the road, and that definitely shifted the way that I thought about the world and my place in it.”

Nowadays Merchant seems content to stay at home in the Hudson Valley. “I’m pretty attached to my community and home now, which I didn’t have when I was younger. No one could ever rely on me before – I was never there… I’ve lived in the same community for 27 years now,” Merchant continues. “You create that [sense of community], and I’m learning to value it even more now. I feel very lucky that it’s a community with many artists.” One particular neighbour and someone she calls a “dear friend and collaborator” was Pete Seeger. “I remember first meeting him and we took the train down to the city together. He told me – back in 1988 – ‘you travel all the time so what’s important is that you find a place and make it your home. Don’t just live there, be a member of that community… that will save your sanity!’”

As Merchant’s musical output has slowed, she’s become more and more prominent as an activist and it’s on these subjects that she talks most passionately about. She was heavily connected to the anti-fracking campaign that resulted in a film, Dear Governor Cuomo, about the historic victory in the state of New York when the practice was banned. “I fought really hard for three years. I’d go to the Capitol Building and raise my fist and yell ‘Ban Fracking Now!’”

Another issue Merchant is tirelessly involved in is to do with domestic violence and she directed a film on the subject called Shelter last year. “I found that there had been 37 homicides in the last 15 years [in the state of New York] all related to domestic violence. And I had not been aware of any of them. It was eye-opening, because I think of my community as being this bucolic rural community. What I found really shocking was no one had ever really gathered the statistics in the way that we did during the making of that film.”

“I really feel in the past ten years that activism and motherhood have become my primary role and being a musician has come third. But I find that I’m able to take what I know about how music moves and motivates people, and apply that to these campaigns and appeal to people’s minds but more deeply appeal to their hearts. And I feel that when people are given that information but at the same time given a kind of portal, it’s like this empathetic channel that music can create where you can enter into somebody else’s point of view and reality.”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #114 (January/February 2016). Subscribe to Songlines.

One of the tracks Natalie Merchant selected for her playlist was Fatoumata Diawara’s ‘Kanou’.

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