Natalie Merchant on overcoming pain, roadblocks to produce the "best-sounding record I've ever made"

"I lost a lot of hair because it's very stressful," the artist tells Salon about the gorgeous "Keep Your Courage"

Published April 16, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Natalie Merchant (Photo by Shervin Lainez)
Natalie Merchant (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Natalie Merchant has worn many hats in her career: leader of the beloved, folk-influenced college rock band 10,000 Maniacs; solo artist creating ornate, meditative music; director of "Shelter," a documentary on domestic violence; and artist-in-residence working with students at a nonprofit pre-school.

"There's no limit to the things I could do, except time and the fact that my clone hasn't arrived yet," she says lightly in a phone call with Salon. "I've got enough projects lined up to keep me busy until 2027."

In the very near-term, Merchant is releasing the gorgeous "Keep Your Courage," her first album of all-new original material in nine years. Produced by Merchant herself, the collection is a lush, stunning record brimming with strings, piano, and horns, led by the orchestral grandeur of "Sister Tilly," a stark interpretation of "Hunting the Wren" by Lankum's Ian Lynch, and the majestic, deeply moving "Feast of Saint Valentine."

"I'd been through some pretty rough times . . . This album was written at a time when I was emerging from that personal pain and struggle."

Collaboration is also essential to "Keep Your Courage": Merchant worked with seven composers — including her longtime collaborator Stephen Barber; Megan Gould, a member of her string quartet; and noted musicians Gabriel Kahane and Colin Jacobson. On "Big Girls" and "Come On Aphrodite," Merchant duets with Abena Koomson-Davis from Resistance Revival Chorus. Throughout the former song, the women repeatedly sing the phrase "Hold on" in unison as horns bloom around them. It's a deeply inspiring moment that sets the tone for the rest of the record, which Merchant describes in promo materials as "a song cycle that maps the journey of a courageous heart."

But even as there's a thematic throughline on the record, each song is different orchestrally and musically. "They're all little intrinsic worlds unto themselves," Merchant says.

Salon spoke with Merchant on the spring equinox – "Blessed equinox to you, sister," she says in response upon realizing the significance of the date – and despite fighting off a cold, she was talkative and in good spirits. 

Among other things, she shares she's been hard at work since May 2022 putting together the orchestral program for upcoming shows. (Her forthcoming tour is a mix of concerts with symphony orchestras and shows with a string quartet.)

"I've done probably 75 orchestral shows in the last 10 years," she says. "It's been my bread and butter. But we've expanded a lot of the string orchestra arrangements to include woodwinds and brass, which is exciting. And then all the new stuff – like 'Sister Tilly' live is going to be orgasmic. [Laughs.] It's going to be transcendent. Transcendent's better than orgasmic. 

"I'm traveling with a string quartet, so we'll approximate the arrangements," she continues. "But to have the brass section and the woodwinds, it's going to be blissful."

"Keep Your Courage" album by Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch)One of the things I really loved is you said the album is "a song cycle that maps the journey of a courageous heart." What drew your writing in that direction and when did you realize that's what you had landed on?

I started writing songs, which I hadn't done in probably five years, and it seemed like the theme that just kept recurring was intimacy and risking intimacy. So that's what I started writing about. I think it was the isolation of the pandemic. [Laughs.]

Also, I'd been through some pretty rough times. I had major spine surgery the week before the lockdown, so there was a lot of pain and struggle. This album was written at a time when I was emerging from that personal pain and struggle. But then also as the pandemic eased, that's around the time that I went in to record the record.

When you were recovering from something, you want to be around someone, and all of a sudden, it's like, "Nope, you need to be by yourself." 

[I wanted to be around] my surgeon and nurse and possibly a physical therapist. [Laughs.] There were just so many reasons why I wanted to be around other people. But I had my daughter, which was such a godsend. The two of us spent a full year alone in our house together. We couldn't risk me getting infected, so she didn't go back to school for a year.

Talk about silver linings – what a gift that you were able to spend that time with her.

Yeah, and it was her senior year of high school, and she went off to college. Just around the time she went to college in September, and then I went into the studio in October. The timing for that was perfect.

When you started writing songs again, was there any ramping up period? How did you find yourself writing differently this time around?

Just the fact that I was doing it, that was what was different. [Laughs.] I redirected my creative energies for years into other areas, in other directions. I couldn't commit to that cycle of writing, recording, touring that I'd lived for 20 years before I had my daughter. It consumes so much energy and time. I wanted to be a good parent. And I'm a single mother, so I'm it. 

So I really stepped away from that way of life. But I felt that if she'd be going off to college, that I would suddenly have this massive expanse of time and space that I would want to fill, and I wouldn't want to feel alone, because it's a big transition when your child goes away to college. So those were some of the motivations.

You worked with seven different composers on the album. What drew you to working with so many people rather than just maybe one partner or one collaborator on this?

"There were so many roadblocks on this record."

In the past, I've mostly worked with Stephen Barber. For the last 20 years, he's been my arranger, for the most part. So as I was writing the songs, I had Stephen in mind. But then when I wrote to him, he said, "Well, actually, I'm getting older and I want to focus on my own composing of my own work more than doing commissions." Womp, womp, womp, womp. [Laughs.] And then [it's] the f**king pandemic. Where am I going to find . . . It's just really hard. There were so many roadblocks on this record. It might sound effortless, but it was not effortless.

So I thought, "Well, this is a good opportunity for growth here." I'd loved Gabriel Kahane's work for years, and so I wrote to him and he was open to the idea. Actually, Nico Muhly was open to the idea, and then he got a big commission for a Korean television show, and he had to back out. But we're definitely doing something in the future. I love his writing too.

And then I have sort of this secret weapon in my string quartet, Megan Gould, who has done a little bit of arranging for me, but she did a gorgeous job with "Feast of Saint Valentine." And David Spear, who was a recommendation from Stephen.

Colin Jacobson. I wanted to do some shows once the record was out with orchestra, and I've been looking at The Knights for several years. It's a younger, sort of hip orchestra, small chamber orchestra in Brooklyn. So I went to see them perform at this outdoor event, and it was the first time I'd seen music in two years, probably.

He's the first chair violinist, but he's also a violinist in Brooklyn Rider, and his brother plays cello. But they also do a lot of work with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. So anyway, I got connected with them through that concert, and they're doing my Lincoln Center shows. But then Colin did an arrangement for the album too. He did "Guardian Angel."

So it was a combination of people I had known before or connections to them through people I'd worked with in the past, and then also just cold calling people I admired. So in the end, each song was able to have a different composer work on it, and I think it really adds to the variety.

What did you learn from working with all those people then? Did they teach you anything, or what takeaways did you have from working with all those different people?

I learn all the time from everybody. Gabriel has a lot of fanciful counterpoint going on that I normally would shy away from, because I would think it would be cluttered. But he's so skilled at it, that you're able to focus on both melodies at the same time and not be distracted from the lyrics, which I think is an amazing accomplishment.

I loved working with Steve Davis. He's more of a jazz horn player. He's a trombone player. So he's really steeped in that jazz world. But I loved working with him because it wasn't all on paper. There was a lot of improvisation, and I could sing a line, and then it's so exciting when you sing a line and then the trumpet plays the line . . . [Laughs.] [sings trumpet line] That was a line that I kept singing to my guitar player. But when he played on the guitar with a slide or whatever, it didn't sound right, but when Steve took my guitar line and turned it into a horn section, that was what it was supposed to be.

Natalie MerchantNatalie Merchant (Photo by Shervin Lainez)I loved your duets too with Abena Koomson-Davis from Resistance Revival Chorus. Your voices just sounded so good together. Did you just cold call her too, or did you know her previously?

Abena I met through doing a Get Out the Vote event. I'm part of the Hudson Valley Votes Coalition, and we invited the Resistance Revival Chorus to come up for this rally that we're doing. It was the biggest rally that had ever been held by the Democrats in the Hudson Valley, which was really gratifying. 

One of our candidates was Antonio Delgado, who was a young Black lawyer who was running for Congress for our district, and now he's our lieutenant governor. [He's] really incredible, gifted, bright star. I think he's going to do great stuff for us.

"There's a sisterhood there that's mutually respectful."

But Abena came up with the Chorus, and I was really blown away by her. Not just her voice — her voice is incredible — but her spirit. She's actually an ethics teacher down in the city, in New York.

Because of that, she can't really go on tour or anything with us, which I fully understand. But she's really very smart, very empathetic, [has] very interesting perspectives always when we talk. It's become a great friendship as well as a collaborative, creative partnership.

And I love that she's in the videos for "Come On, Aphrodite" and "Big Girls," so people are going to get a chance to see her sing and see the two of us interacting. It's a rare energy to capture between two female singers. It doesn't happen that often.

You mentioned empathetic. I think that's what struck me so much about the record and about her performance and your performance too. There's a lot of empathy.

Yeah. And her energy is very sisterly. That's the thing that people are telling me about the duets, that there's a sisterhood there that's mutually respectful. An equal partnership, instead of "guest vocalist." It's more like we're doing this together. And it's such a thrill to hear her sing my words. I've always wanted to hear other people sing my songs.

Do you have any other dream collaborators or people you tried to get on the record that weren't available? Or for a future record that you want to sing with.

Everyone I invited showed up to the party except Nico, but he promised to come to dinner another time. Well, I have a dream of producing a record of my catalog, some of the deeper catalog songs, sung by other people. After hearing Abena, I'm convinced that's a project I need to do.

"It's a complicated album with a lot of moving parts, but somehow it doesn't sound too cluttered."

What are you most proud of of the record, now that it's done?

Very proud of the songwriting. I've been doing this for many decades, but I really feel like this album proves that I've mastered the craft of songwriting. I'm proud of that.

But also the production. I've had less opportunities to perfect that, because I only make a record every five years. But it feels like this is the culmination of all those recording projects I've ever been involved in. I'm really proud of the production on this record. I think it's the best-sounding record I've ever made.

And it's complicated. It's a complicated album with a lot of moving parts, but somehow it doesn't sound too cluttered. And there are these amazing, crystal clear spare moments, and then there are these multi-layered, almost Phil Spector moments where there's a quartet triple-tracked with a horn section, triple-tracked with backing vocals, with six tracks of vocals. [Laughs.] I think "Sister Tilly" has 110 tracks. 

And during the recording, we had to limit ourselves to five people at a time, because we didn't want to expose ourselves to COVID. But also there were only accommodations for five people and I didn't want to expand beyond that and have people staying in hotels and whatever. So it was a layering process. . . . Well, the actual core band was in the same room making music at the same time, but then all these other ancillary groups of people came and added their layers, but it's cohesive. Yeah, I'm proud of the production.

Balancing doing the creative side and then also the production side — how did that all fit together for you? Was there any sort of adjustment period?

I lost a lot of hair, because it's very stressful to be the person that is . . . And I financed the whole thing too, so I'm keeping track of the budget [Laughs] while I'm also trying to be creative and making sure the catering is right and doing the packaging. It's just a lot of different jobs, which I love. I'm totally addicted to work. I love working, so I'm happy to do that, but I really do feel like I need a clone to do all the different things that are required of musicians these days.

It's a lot more DIY.

"It's a very challenging song, subject matter and it's super bleak."

You have more creative control if you're financing things, but it's a bigger burden for you. It's another thing on your list. And I really love doing my own production, but sometimes I just want to be the singer in the corner, working on "How am I going to phrase this perfectly? How am I going to emote this properly?" But when you're the producer, [you have to ask] "Was that the tempo that I want it to be? Is everything in time? Is everything in tune?"

Also my production style is very maternal. I'm also making sure, "Is everyone happy? Is anyone having a blood sugar crash? Does someone need to take a walk? Did someone not sleep enough last night?" Musicianship is really tied into physicality. When I see people flagging, they need food. Being a mom, I could just read the signs. [Laughs.] I know what's happening. I just scan the room and I can tell how much sleep or food everybody in the room has had. A little [pie] graph in my head.

You're building in your snack break, and be like, "All right, drink some water. You need some snacks."

It's amazing how you can play a song before lunch and have a complete attitude change after lunch. And it'll affect tempo, it'll affect everything. And sometimes you just need to know when's the right moment to abandon a song and come to it another time. 

And there were a couple songs I wrote for the record that we tried and I realized they didn't fit in with the others. It's just smarter to make that decision earlier than later.

I didn't expect to put "Hunting the Wren" on the record. That was kind of a spontaneous decision. 

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How did that come in then? Was it at the last minute? Why did it fit so well then?

It was something I wanted to give a try, and a lot of people weren't on my side, because it's a very challenging song, subject matter and it's super bleak. It's very bleak. And some people felt it didn't really fit the record. But as we played it over and over, the song won everybody over eventually. I'm so glad it's on the record now.

I want to say it fits so well where it's placed in the record sequencing and then also the sound. You would never know that it was potentially not going to be on there. It's so natural and logical where it is.

Thank you for noticing, listening to the record in sequence. "Keep Your Courage" is definitely a full work and it's meant to be listened to as a full album. I don't know if you've seen the vinyl, but it's a gatefold sleeve. It's two discs. I haven't held an album of my own in my hands in years, and it's a different experience. It feels like a more substantial creation.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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