Natalie Merchant sees right through the sexist music industry: "The patriarchy wants to dispose of women at a certain age"

Salon talks to Natalie Merchant about what has and hasn't changed for her and her fans in 25 years of "Tigerlily"

Published November 8, 2015 10:30PM (EST)

  (John Huba)
(John Huba)

Natalie Merchant joined 10,000 Maniacs in 1981 when she was just 17. Even at a young age, Merchant displayed admirable self-possession that has defined her musical career, whether solo or in the band. Raised in Jamestown, New York, Merchant grew up steeped in music. Her family didn’t watch television news or read the paper, so it was easier to immerse herself in the cultural experiences around her. She talks about her childhood in terms of the symphony, an “awe-inspiring and inspirational Styx concert," and her mother’s show tunes albums.

This upbringing helped form a woman whose music has touched a wide and diverse audience, as is evident in "Paradise Is There," a new release including a documentary that focuses mainly on Merchant’s 1995 solo debut, "Tigerlily." Merchant, her fans, and album personnel remember the album’s creation on its 20th anniversary as well as chart the resonance the album has had.

The documentary celebrates "Tigerlily" as made by Merchant in 1995. Now, Merchant has gone back and made "Tigerlily"  again, this time with the savvy she’s acquired since the album’s debut. The new arrangements also benefit from years of live performances that reshape the songs.

The documentary and the new songs just came out and are available together as "Paradise Is There."

When "Tigerlily" came out, it was right around the time of Lilith Fair, as you know, and Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin and Jewel. And now we have Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry as our female pop stars. What is the place for female singer-songwriters now given that the current landscape is more slick and not necessarily as socially conscious?

Well, I think around the same time "Tigerlily" came out, I’m sure there was Madonna or Britney Spears or – what were they called? Spice Girls. And the – it was a black girl group, too, that was really famous. Started with a D. Can’t remember. So I think the landscape was very similar back then, but it seemed like it’s on steroids now, because the media is on steroids. Everything just seems exaggerated these days to me. And amplified a thousand times. But the same sort of artists were still out there. The same range of female artists.

Some who were more thought-provoking and serious, and probably had more substance to what they were trying to offer, and then there were the entertainers and the shock value artists. And I think it’s pretty much the same. What’s changed is the Internet, now – I think that all of us, whether we’re mega artists or small independent artists, we have more control over our image, and we have more control over our connection – that direct connection with our audience.

Whether it’s Beyoncé having 5 billion tweet followers or whatever, or it’s a small independent band in – somewhere like Madison, Wisconsin. A girl who’s sitting in her bedroom writing songs and blogging, and putting videos up of her songs and attracting thousands of followers. It’s interesting talking to a woman journalist, which happens, like, one in every 20 that I talk to.

But because I’m considered a woman of a certain age, a middle-aged woman, I’m really beginning to see the patriarchy of the music press. I kind of battled with its sexism when I was younger, trying not to exploit my sexuality when I was younger and put the focus more on the message of my music, and less emphasis on myself, and especially since I was a young female.

I’ve found now as an older female, I think the patriarchy wants to dispose of women at a certain age, because they’ve lost their sexual appeal to them, in certain ways. And I just feel like the validity of what I have to say has not in any way been diminished by the fact that I’m a couple decades older.

I feel that I actually have more wisdom and experience, and the music that I’m writing now has even more depth. And more power, and more strength. And to the people who are listening to it. And – but it’s just getting more and more difficult to – there’s this sense that you’re in some way disposable or irrelevant. I don’t know if you have an opinion about that.

Yeah, so I’ve been thinking – just, I get so angry, given – not just as a journalist, but just as someone who reads music media. And every time you see a woman, sure, they’ll describe her appearance for like, three paragraphs before her music comes up. That’s even the milder stuff. And it just seems so systemic, I don’t know how we can hope to stop it.

I think that there are body issues associated with the industry, too, of a slender woman who’s willing to show her midriff and her boobs will probably get much more attention than a more modest girl who maybe doesn’t have the kind of shape that is considered desirable. I feel like it’s the same when I let my hair go gray. The response from many women was, “Oh, how brave and how honest.” And from a lot of men, including men at my record company, was, “Are you seriously going to do that? Go out in public with gray hair?” It was because it’s a youth culture-based industry. Meanwhile, they’re ignoring that there are millions of mature adults who are looking for artists that speak to them and speak to their experience.

Are more of those women becoming part of your audience? Or who is your audience now?

Well, it’s interesting, because those women have grown up with me. So they have remained my audience. And we came together when we were the same age. But there are, like, three or four generations of Natalie Merchant fans, now. From The Estate Project that I did, I had this whole new audience of children, too. And then I have an audience of people who are in their 60s and 70s. It’s interesting.

I’ve attended a couple of the screenings of the film, now. And the age range is so wide. And I think when I perform live, I don’t get to study the audience so much, because I’m onstage and I can’t see a lot of the people and I’m very distracted. Because I’m up there doing my three-ring circus, trying to remember lyrics and dance and not fall over, and keep everybody in time and in tune. But when I get to sit and just look at the audience, and watch them react to the film, and then doing the Q&A after, which I was kind of frightened about in the beginning – this is a format I’m not familiar with, oh, what am I going to do, I’m not a public speaker.

But I’m a good conversationalist. So what I’m finding is I just stand up with the microphone and say, anybody want to talk to me? And then I get to have this really wonderful dialogue with my audience, which I think is going to make me a better artist. It’s already impacted me, making the film. Because I’ve had this opportunity to hear the reactions that people have had to the album. And subsequent albums, too. Because most of the fans wanted to talk about more than just "Tigerlily" once they got in front of the camera.

And I think it’s a great exercise for any artist, to have that kind of intimate dialogue with your fan base.

What things really reach you the deepest that people can say about your music?

That people find consolation in it. Music has been my refuge, too. As an introvert, it was the tool that I could use to communicate with people. And I think a lot of introverts experience huge emotion. But it’s really difficult for them to express it. At least not through the normal channels of discourse.

This music that has brought me so much comfort and relief and stability, and sanity, basically. This is the only work I do. This is my life. To be able to live the life of an artist has saved my sanity. I respond so strongly to other people’s art. Whether it’s visual or musical. And to know that I have had that impact on other people has been a revelation to me. That what I do has meaning and worth. And it’s almost like I’m beginning to see that the songs that I’ve written are like inventions. And I guess because you have to copyright songs, it’s almost like having a patent. That I’ve created these things that are these inventions that are so useful to people.

People tell me that they use the music to get through experiences that were very painful and difficult.

On the new recording of "Tigerlily," did you approach the songs as if they were totally new songs, or as if they were responses?

Well, several of the songs – I’d say more than half the songs, I’ve continued to play for 20 years. Because I just love hearing the audience’s response to them. So they were, like, living, breathing entities. But there were a few songs that had been just sort of packed away, like linens in an old cabinet. And one was “The Letter,” which I hadn’t performed in years. “Where I Go.” I haven’t touched that song in 20 years. “Jealousy.” I had abandoned that song years ago. And don’t even play it. And those are the songs that are kind of reimagined and reinvented, and became reacquainted with them. Because I didn’t even remember the words to a couple of the songs. And I may know the word version of it, but it sort of fell by the wayside. And I rediscovered it making the circuit, and the new arrangement, it has turned into my favorite song on the record.

Have you been unhappy in any way with any of the original recordings? Was there anything you wanted to correct?

I definitely felt that I wasn’t familiar enough with the material. Some of the songs were being written in the chaos of the recording. And I tell you, the recording process was absolute chaos. At first, I had intended to work with a producer, and then I didn’t want to work with a producer, and I had never produced before, and yeah, it was chaos.

And the musicians I had chosen were young and not so experienced. Namely, Jennifer, the guitar player. She was a wild card. She really was. She has just no regard for the process of her or me or whatever. She was still full-blown adolescent. And it was like having a teenage daughter, suddenly. And I was only 30 myself. I’d never had a child before, and suddenly I had a teenage daughter.

So there were things in the process that were a little frustrating, and songs that I felt didn’t really live up to their potential. But I didn’t realize that at the time. At the time, I was just so excited to be doing it. And doing it without being bossed around by anyone. Because in 10,000 Maniacs, I was always the little sister. I was always the youngest person in the band. And we worked with producers. And they were great teachers, but there were definitely decisions made in the recording process with producers in the past that I’d felt like I’d been kind of bullied. I was oversensitive, probably, and that’s just the way I felt. But I thought – whether I sink or swim, succeed or fail, I want to be making decisions.

Can you say a little bit about the new version of “Carnival”?

I wanted to remove the electric instruments from Carnival. I have played it acoustically for years now, and it stands without the guitar riff, and the drums. I think Allison played those drums on a cardboard box, or a water bottle. I can’t remember. But there’s nothing conventional about the drumming. It’s really immediate and instant. And to me, the voice of that song, it’s almost like an internal voice. It’s that dialogue you have with yourself when you’re walking down the street, and you’re alone in a big city. And you’re just looking at the insanity of it all, and questioning it inside. I like this new version, because there’s nothing bombastic about it. It’s contained and controlled, and internalized.

One thing I kept thinking of was, I really liked what you contributed to the Cowboy Junkies’ "Trinity Revisited." Like your remaking "Tigerlily," this was the Cowboy Junkies remaking their own "Trinity Sessions."  And I wondered if you felt like you learned anything during the making of that record to bring into this one.

Yeah, I thought what Michael Timmins did – that was his concept, to rerecord with Ryan Adams and Vic Chesnutt and me. That was a great session. It really was. Going up to Toronto and playing the music. And I’m a huge fan of great songwriters and love to do other people’s material. You learn so much and just enjoy doing it. But definitely, “their concept of, let’s not just repackage the same album, let’s go back and reimagine the whole thing.” And I felt really honored that they chose me. “Misguided Angel” has been one of my favorite songs.

Great. And the last question for you, I know you’re a huge movie buff. And you also like to read. And I wonder if there’s any movies or books that you use, kind of going back, to give you courage to maintain your identity throughout your career?

Well, there’s something that’s relevant to the film is, there’s an interview with Elizabeth Lesser, who is the foundress of the Omega Institute. She wrote a book called "Broken Open."

I read the book after my mother died, and her book kind of informed this whole project, in a way. Because the stories that we kept hearing from people were about suffering, trauma and recovery, and how music played a role in that recovery.

But also, that suffering is just part of life. It’s inescapable. And that tragedy and suffering is maybe something, at least as an artist, that I’ve learned to accept and be inspired by, and embrace it. Because it’s real tragedy that we know the most. And we feel most connected to other people. Because when it’s your moment of need, those people that come to your aid.

Or if you’re the person who actually has the privilege of coming to someone else’s aid, you create a bond with that person that is so much stronger than the kind of bond you have with people when you’re in a stasis state. And you’re just sharing space, sharing comfort, sharing – I don’t know. It’s almost like you can build a wall around yourself to keep yourself as comfortable as possible.

But the truth is, when there are holes in the wall, or the wall breaks down entirely, that’s when you find your strength, and you find how strong the love is in your life. I’ve had a couple friends who have lost everything. One through fire and another through a flood. And they said once they got over the immediate shock and devastation of having to start again, they actually found themselves grateful for the trauma. Because they found so much love pouring in their direction, and support.

I thought that that became sort of the emblem and the outstanding memory of the whole experience. It wasn’t the whole trauma itself. It was all the help they had in the rebuilding.

By Erin Lyndal Martin

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10000 Maniacs Lilith Fair Music Natalie Merchant Tiger Lily