Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant Biography

N a career spanning 17 years, Natalie Merchant has strived to weave a deep social consciousness and an intense spirituality into music that runs a narrow gamut from sprightly folk-pop to moody balladry. She rose to prominence as lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, but chose to embark on a solo career at a time when the band was experiencing a popular resurgence. The move to go it alone has been characterized thus far by an unusual degree of autonomy and hard-won commercial success.

In a sense, Merchant's career in music began almost by accident. In 1980, as a 16-year-old student at Jamestown Community College in her hometown in western New York, she met campus radio DJs Dennis Drew and Steve Gustafson. Early the following year, Drew (who played keyboards) and Gustafson (who played bass) recruited guitarist Robert Buck to form a band called Still Life. On a whim, Merchant began sitting in with them, and she was soon asked to join. Changing its name to 10,000 Maniacs (a misreading of the title of the '60s cult splatter film 2,000 Maniacs), the group added guitarist John Lombardo and began performing gigs at parties and small clubs.

The band's first two albums—the EP Human Conflict Number Five and the full-length Secrets of the I Chingwere products of a sound engineering program at State University of New York at Fredonia. Both were issued on the group's own indie label, Christian Burial Records, although later they would be reissued together by Elektra as Hope Chest. With the addition of drummer Jerry Augustyniak to the lineup in 1983, the band began touring the East Coast, during which time Merchant struck up a longstanding friendship with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. In the meantime, legendary British DJ John Peel put I Ching's six-minute closer "My Mother the War" into heavy rotation. Intrigued by the track, representatives from Elektra Records soon came calling, and 10,000 Maniacs was signed to the label in 1985.

Although the band's label debut, The Wishing Chair, garnered favorable reviews, the album sold poorly, and Lombardo departed in frustration. However, the group's next album marked a commercial breakthrough. With help from producer Peter Asher (best known for his work with adult contemporary singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt), 10,000 Maniacs smoothed out the rough edges just enough on In My Tribe to enhance its mainstream appeal without resorting to by-the-numbers folk pop. Lyrically, Merchant tackled such issues as child abuse, alcoholism, and illiteracy; musically, the band interpreted these weighty subjects with jangly guitars and Merchant's silky voice. In its early incarnations, the album had also included a cover of Cat Stevens' 1971 hit "Peace Train," but the song was eventually removed after Yusef Islam (Stevens changed his name after becoming a Muslim in 1989) voiced his support for death threats that had been made against Satanic Verses author Salmon Rushdie.

A worthy follow-up to In My Tribe, 1989's Blind Man's Zoo was even more socially topical than Merchant's usual fare, although its highest-charting single, "Trouble Me," had been written as a simple ode to her father. Following the album's release, the band separated for about a year, with Merchant spending much of her off-time working at a Harlem day-care center for homeless children. This involvement in social work bespoke a strong sense of duty, one which Merchant attributes to her Catholic upbringing. As she told Rolling Stone at the time: "It's about being indoctrinated with the notion of service, and giving up what you have to people who have less than you, and giving of yourself in more than material ways. I'm still learning. I'm so selfish on so many levels."

Though Merchant's outspokenness on various topics of social and political concern—from toxic defoliants to vegetarianism to American intervention in Central America—has sometimes seemed strident, her views for the most part have been tempered by a lack of self-righteousness that has legitimized her moral authority. Moreover, Merchant's songs have been distinguished by a modest beauty and a purity of spirit that offsets an occasional tendency toward zealous indignation.

By the time 10,000 Maniacs regrouped to record its 1992 release Our Time in Eden, Merchant's confidence level was such that she not only wrote the album's lyrics, she also composed the majority of the music. Spurning Asher in favor of noted alternative-rock producer Paul Fox, the group also expanded its musical palette to include horns (courtesy of James Brown's band) and more keyboard work from Merchant herself. Lyrically, the album revealed a more subtle side of the singer, as she emphasized abstract imagery and spiritual matters in favor of her customary focus on social commentary. The new direction presaged an approach that would blossom in full in her solo career.

Dating back almost to the band's inception, Merchant had hinted that her tenure with 10,000 Maniacs would not be permanent. Although the group would go on to release the very successful MTV Unplugged album in 1994, Merchant announced in July 1993 that she was leaving the band to pursue a solo career. Reports varied about whether or not the split was acrimonious, and Merchant issued a terse statement indicating that "no irrational or explosive events brought it about." As she told the Los Angeles Times in November 1993: "I don't feel melancholic at all.… I felt I was expending too much effort in trying to participate by committee when I really wanted to be a little tyrant and have my own way."

As 10,000 Maniacs forged on without her (the remaining members added singer Mary Ramsey and former member John Lombardo to became a viable musical entity once more), Merchant released her first solo effort in 1995. Titled Tigerlily, the album entered the Billboard charts at No. 13. Written and recorded over a period of five months, Tigerlily was produced by Merchant herself, and featured a company of backing musicians that included two former members of the Wallflowers. Characterized by sparse instrumentation, and focusing largely on piano-based balladry, the album dispensed with lilting song structures in favor of reflective, melancholic textures. A lengthy tour followed (including several European dates opening for Sting), and the album enjoyed generally favorable reviews and strong sales.

Scheduled for release in late May 1998, Merchant's second solo effort, Ophelia, features more than 30 musicians, and will be issued in conjunction with a film in which Merchant is cast in seven different roles. She is also set to co-headline the Lilith Fair tour later this summer with Sarah McLachlan.

Natalie Merchant Bio from Discogs

American singer, born 26 October 1963 in Jamestown, New York, USA.

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