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Natalie Merchant: ‘Sometimes I am so moved, I can’t even sing’

Nicole Brodeur
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — This can’t be happening. Natalie Merchant is singing to me over the phone.

“Come all thee fair and tender ladies ...”

My arms tingle, I look out my office window to make sure that it is day and I am awake, and then I remember how we got here.

Merchant, talking from her porch in New York’s Hudson River Valley, was telling me about volunteering at her daughter’s school by teaching an introduction to folk music. (Can you imagine? Natalie Merchant teaching your kid about songs and how to sing?)

Stop your swooning, Merchant told me.

“Half of the kids dropped it after the first week,” she said. “It wasn’t moving fast enough for them.”

Those who stayed got to witness the melodic gifts that Merchant, 46, first showed off with 10,000 Maniacs starting in 1981, then in the solo career that will bring her to Seattle on Friday, when she will perform with the Seattle Symphony.

The evening will revolve around Merchant’s 2010 album, “Leave Your Sleep,” on which she sets to music the works of 19th- and 20th-century British and American poets — both celebrated, like e.e. cummings, and lesser-known, like Laurence Alma-Tadema.

The songs are a mix of merry and morose; of broken hearts and hopefulness; star-crossed lovers and hardworking men. The forest floor and the stars in the sky.

The project perfectly suits Merchant’s voice: The way words float from her mouth with curled edges, or dusted with something otherworldly, or from another time.

Fronting a rock band doesn’t call for a lot of subtlety, Merchant said, “so this is an amazing experience of being able to whisper over the orchestra. Suddenly you have a whole section of woodwinds and horns and harps. There are so many textures.

“It’s limitless what you can do.”

The symphony seems a perfect partner not only for her sound but for the songs. “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” for example, is about a Jesuit priest in the Victorian era, “coming to terms with talking with a young girl about the death of her parents,” Merchant said.

“I feel that finally I have found a medium for expressing the depths of the emotion,” she said. “Sometimes I am so moved, I can’t even sing.”

So you understand when she began to fret about how the recording industry — and people’s tastes — have changed from when she started out.

Auto-Tune, which mechanically corrects a singer’s pitch, Merchant said, is “like a robot, and seems to be the preferred way to listen to songs.”

She recalled the music at a skating rink where her 9-year-old daughter Lucia had been invited to a birthday party. “It was like being tortured.”

Ah, but time spent in skating rinks with Auto-Tune circling your head is what you do for your kids. Merchant calls this “the selfless time,” when her daughter needs an orderly household and a mother “who sits there and waits at the birthday parties and talks to the other parents and becomes a community member.”

To that end, Merchant has become involved in the fight against hydraulic fracturing, a drilling-for-natural-gas process which environmentalists say contaminates the water table. And last fall, Merchant helped raise $75,000 for breast-cancer research. She lost her mother to the disease last year.

She keeps a 1905 Victrola in her dining room, and the soundtrack of “The Wizard of Oz” on a 78. Her daughter and her friends watch the needle on the spinning vinyl like most folks watched the moon landing.

“I am a strong proponent of romanticism, as in rejection to modern culture and returning to nature,” she said. “And maybe it comes across in the work that I do.”

As a teenager she studied folk music from the British Isles and Ireland, and learned to embrace song as storytelling.

“It’s extremely genuine, more ‘Do you hear my insides coming out?’ I want to hear emotions come out of someone’s body. I want them to reveal their soul to me. That’s what singing can do.

“When people give birth, when people get married, when they’re ailing and when they die ... Our culture developed song.”

And with that, Merchant sang again, this time the Revolutionary War ballad, “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.”

“I’ll sell my flax, I’ll sell my wheel, to buy my love a sword of steel;

“I’ll dye my petticoat crimson red and through the streets I’ll beg for bread.”

We’re both quiet for a moment.

“Can you imagine?” Merchant said. “It will make your heart crack open.”

Then Merchant told me about how, while her mother lay dying, she sat by her bed and sang her to the other side. I felt a crack then.

“Hours and hours,” Merchant said. “Mostly Shaker hymns, because they were about leaving the world of flesh and blood and going into the arms of a savior, and a mother, and going to a golden land.”

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