Natalie Merchant recently celebrated turning 52, and while the singer-songwriter’s career peaked some time ago, her influence on music continues to this day.
Which isn’t to say her career is over – just last year Merchant released Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, a fresh take on her multi-platinum Tigerlily. The album reintroduced the original songs to old fans and new, helping make sure Merchant’s art isn’t forgotten. But should we be expecting any new material from her, or should we be satisfied with the frankly stellar discography she has to date?
Natalie Merchant’s Early Life
Natalie Merchant’s music is a reflection of her childhood and home life. Born on October 26, 1963, she was raised in western New York, near the border with Pennsylvania. Her grandfather, an Italian immigrant, played several instruments and taught some of what he knew to Merchant when she was young.
Her mother was another huge musical influence, encouraging her to listen to classical music and show tunes, as well as contemporary artists like Al Green and Aretha Franklin. Notably, Merchant’s mother wouldn’t let her watch TV, which led to music being her primary source of entertainment.
Her father was also a huge influence in her musical tastes since he was a professional jazz musician. He saw her interest in music, so the family saved to buy a piano for their home. Merchant quickly took an interest in playing piano, so her parents signed her up for lessons. According to early interviews with her, she postponed learning to read music for a while, as she was able to play most of the pieces her instructor taught her by ear.
When Natalie Merchant was seven, her parents divorced, with her mother receiving custody of Merchant and her siblings. Natalie continued to excel in school, graduating high school early and immediately enrolling at the local community college, when she was just 16.
Once in a college environment, Merchant quickly settled into the campus music scene and started hanging out with the college radio DJs. She started attending some local shows and quickly became known as a supporter of the arts.
At one of these concerts, her friends asked her to come sing with them on stage. Unfamiliar with any of their songs’ lyrics, Natalie Merchant improvised songs from the words in one of her social sciences textbooks. This led to a loose collective of musicians forming, and they began to play around New York state. They quickly developed a following and a repertoire of songs, and before long decided to call themselves 10,000 Maniacs.
Natalie Merchant & 10,000 Maniacs
10,000 Maniacs was one of the defining acts of 80s indie music. An array of talented folk musicians with Natalie Merchant in front, with her awesome (though strange) stage presence and distinctive voice.
Merchant’s demeanor led to the group getting a cult following in New York, with fans bringing flowers to shows to show their appreciation for the eclectic singer.
Eventually, she started to write real lyrics, and the band started to gain a wider following, touring across the country. In 1983 10,000 Maniacs recorded their first album, Secrets of the I Ching. The album was commercially unsuccessful and almost entirely ignored by critics.
However, it was noticed by booking agents in New York City, and the group soon began playing shows in Brooklyn. This, in turn, led to a record deal with Elektra Records and their first “official” album, The Wishing Chair.
The Wishing Chair caught the eye of critics and helped move the group onto the national stage, providing them with the resources they needed to record In My Tribe. In My Tribe eventually went multi-platinum, thanks in large part to promotion from MTV and a two-year long international tour.
At the end of the tour, Natalie Merchant learned she had developed spinal meningitis. The illness added to the stress she felt from touring and her fame. It was too much for her, and she felt she was losing her artistic sensibility. She took a break from touring in 1991, spending almost the entire year working with homeless youth in Harlem.
After spending some time doing charity work, Natalie Merchant informed her bandmates that she would prefer to focus on a solo career. But before leaving the group, she wanted to make sure the band would have financial security well into the future.
Together, they produced and released MTV Unplugged, their take on a 90s tradition. The album went multi-platinum and helped alleviate any guilt Merchant might have felt from leaving the group.
Unfortunately, while Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs were on good terms, Elektra Records weren’t. After they signed her as a solo artist, they canceled their deal with 10,00 Maniacs. The events, and the feelings of loss and separation they caused, were among the inspirations that she used when writing material for Tigerlily.
Tigerlily, which was released in 1995, is what I’d consider the hallmark album of 90s women singer-songwriters. The album earned her a spot on the Lilith Fair’s 1996 tour and helped expose Merchant to a much wider audience. The album, Merchant’s most successful, has sold over five million copies to date. At the time, it also earned her performances on Saturday Night Live and every late-night talk show.
After Tigerlily, she released Ophelia, which was also successful, though musically very different from Tigerlily. While Tigerlily’s instrumentation could be described as spartan, Ophelia was dense and full. Between the two albums, Natalie Merchant cemented her place as a not just a musician, but a true artist.
Natalie Merchant in the 2000s
With a solid and diverse fanbase, Natalie Merchant continued to release new albums through the 2000s. She released Motherland in 2001, her last album with Elektra Records.
Her contract expired that year, and instead of renewing it or signing with another label, Merchant decided to create her own label, Myth America Records. Through that label, she released The House Carpenter’s Daughter. That was her last album for seven years; she spent the remainder of the decade touring internationally and working with other artists in her genre. Most notably, she worked with American alt-country-rock group Wilco and punk-folk singer Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue, a compilation of Woodie Guthrie songs that Guthrie failed to record before his death.
In 2009, Natalie Merchant signed with Nonesuch Records, and the next year released Leave Your Sleep. The album was inspired by watching her daughter, born in 2005, grow up through early childhood. Thanks to promotion from Nonesuch, the album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Folk Albums chart.
A few years later, she released Natalie Merchant, which featured entirely new material. Released in February 2014, the album quickly secured a #2 spot on the Billboard Folk Albums chart.
What’s Natalie Merchant Doing Now in 2018 – Recent Updates
On November 6, 2015, Natalie Merchant released Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Put out by Nonesuch Records, the album was a new look at the songs from Tigerlily.
Notably, the tracks weren’t remastered versions of the originals, but entirely fresh recordings, with new instrumentation, arrangements, and contributors. Despite being the same basic songs as the original album, this new version had a completely different feel and helped show Merchant’s growth as an artist and person in the 20 years since Tigerlily.
The album eventually rose to #5 on the Billboard Folk Albums chart and was almost universally loved by critics. Of course, many people felt it could not hold a candle to the wide-eyed innocence of a younger Merchant, but in its own right, the album was taken to be a stellar representation of not just modern folk, but motherhood, femininity.
Since the album’s release, Merchant has performed a couple live shows but has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. It’s likely we’ll see another album of original songs sometime in the next few years, but with someone as dedicated to artistic purity as Merchant, it’s hard to predict when that will be.