Natalie Merchant is running a little bit late, her publicist tells me. In fact, she has an engagement at her daughter’s school that has run just a few minutes past schedule. But she’ll be calling me as soon as she gets back home, and my patience is appreciated.
Not exactly the rock star life, is it? But then, Merchant has never been the typical rock star, despite reaching the heights of pop stardom with Jamestown’s 10,000 Maniacs in the latter 1980s and early ’90s, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1993, and piloting a post-Maniacs solo career of both commercial and artistic merit. Throughout all of this activity, Merchant has crafted a delicate balance between intellectualism and sensuality in her art.
Merchant’s most recent project, an album called “Leave Your Sleep,” and an ancillary picture book of the same name, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, finds the revered singer and songwriter transforming classic children’s poems into new compositions. The inspiration for the project was Merchant’s daughter, Lucia, born in 2003 to Merchant and husband Daniel de la Calle. (The couple has since divorced.)
The “Leave Your Sleep” material has also yielded a new run of ambitious concerts, which find Merchant interpreting the material with the help of orchestras in cities spread across the country. Merchant will join the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Kleinhans Music Hall for just such a program, at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Here, Merchant chats with me regarding the creation of “Leave Your Sleep,” a new New York City public school curriculum based on the album and book, “motherhood as an art form,” working with symphony orchestras and the difficulties involved with aging gracefully in the pop music public eye.
Q. Let’s talk about the project that transformed the “Leave Your Sleep” album into a curriculum for students at New York City public schools. The album seems like the perfect vehicle to introduce kids to the power of both poetry and music, and also to the way the two can be married together to produce a third art form. How was the experience for you?
A. The whole project really transformed me and transitioned me into a direction I’ve wanted to go for a very long time – toward education through music. I’ve wanted to work with young people in this capacity forever. I want to give them beauty, and appeal to them through a level of sophistication that children absolutely have. We ended up using the album and the book as a course curriculum in 100 public schools, and it was a fantastic experience, for me certainly, but more importantly, for the kids.
The idea from my perspective was to teach the kids context, to give examples of how everything is connected, whether it’s a poem that is 100 years old, or a piece of music that is even older – these things can have resonance for them in the present tense. Understanding context leads to empathy, and empathy is something that absolutely must be nurtured in children.
The arts are all about the way we live in our time, in our historical moment, and the way that moment is connected to historical moments in the past. Music elevates and makes kids feel included in a shared common culture. The big point is this – our culture will die without the children perpetuating it.
Q. You’ve performed in a wide variety of formats over the years – from full rock band, to a more subtle acoustic environment. What particular challenges are involved in working with a chamber group or orchestra?
A. To be perfectly honest, the only real challenge comes down to the orchestra itself. Having a great orchestra is more than half the battle. I’ve been blown away by my experiences with these different orchestras. The whole experience has been extremely pleasurable. The different musicians in the orchestras have been very impressed by the scores we’re bringing in for the songs. These are remarkable musicians, too. They bring unerring efficiency, and that efficiency lends to the power, the passion and the beauty of the performance.
Q. Kleinhans and the Buffalo Philharmonic – this seems like a situation tailor-made for what you’re doing, no?
A. Kleinhans and the Buffalo Philharmonic have incredible significance in my life. My mother was fanatical about the BPO and Chautauqua orchestra. She was a single mother working for slave wages, but she still found a way to contribute to public radio, and whenever we could, we’d hear the BPO perform. This was a huge part of my life, and of my musical education.
When I was 9 years old, the BPO came to play a concert at my school in Jamestown. This was during the period that Michael Tilson Thomas was the conductor, and he was a hero to me. I got his autograph! To be playing Kleinhans with the BPO now – well, it’s a huge deal for me.
Q. Can you discuss how motherhood became an inspiration for the creation of “Leave Your Sleep”?
A. The project was born out of my desire to make art out of motherhood. When you become a parent and you also happen to be an artist, there are two roads you can go down – you can either push the art to the side and concentrate wholly on being a parent, or you can continue your free-flowing artistic life as it was before you became a parent, which usually means hiring someone else to basically raise your child for you. Neither of these options seemed ideal to me. So I guess I created a third option.
The project started rather innocently. While I taught my daughter by reading to her and playing her music, I was rediscovering the literature of my own childhood. I simply started to put these beautiful children’s poems to music, and in the process, I channeled my creativity into mothering.
Q. You’ve always been a unique lyricist, and the lyrics in your songs have been a very significant factor in their emotional resonance. How much of a challenge was it for you to then work with someone else’s words?
A. Because the project started out so innocently and organically – a mother singing to her child – I never really had time, or reason, to get too freaked out about it. It just felt completely natural to me.
Q. The only other artist that comes to mind when thinking of transforming another’s poems into new songs is Joni Mitchell. Joni worked with poems written by William Butler Yeats and Rudyard Kipling. Was her work in this area an influence on you?
A. Not consciously, I don’t think. Because this project was so specifically aimed at connecting with my daughter and at the same time maintaining my own artistic creativity, I guess it all felt ... not insular, but sort of separate, within its own world.
Q. This is not exactly breaking news, but it is incredibly difficult to mature with grace and dignity within the world of popular music. Do you think it is even more so for a woman?
A. Wow. Yes. Well, I suppose it depends what kind of an artist you want to be. In a way, I was mature from the age of 18, when I started out, writing about a different kind of love, not the drama-filled romantic entanglements of most pop music. I never really sang about teen angst. As a result, I can still sing those songs now, at my age, with conviction and emotional involvement.
Aging in this culture is not dealt with very effectively. There is wisdom that can only come with experience. Instead of seeing aging as decrepitude and decay, we can see it as something beautiful and natural. You know, I dyed my hair forever, but recently, I stopped dying it altogether, and now I’m fully and completely gray. I had to learn to embrace that.
There’s always a place for teen rebellion and young adult angst. But there’s so much to be said for experience. If you’ve nursed children, if you’ve nursed your parents to a dignified death, if you’ve watched dear friends suffer, struggle, or even pass away – you have something to report on, you know?
Q. Do you ever get the sense that the pop music industry, for want of a better description, is condescending to young people by assuming that they don’t want or can’t deal with anything deeper or more meaningful than teen angst and sex?
A. Here’s how I’ll answer that. When I was touring with Bob Dylan about 15 years back, I’d notice that roughly 90 percent of the audience was comprised of people in their 20s. He’s an icon for generation after generation. Young people were eager to hear what he has to say. That’s encouraging.
At the same time, the youth needs to keep producing icons of their own, while acknowledging the icons of the past. It needs to be this way. It’s the natural order of things.