Sunday, December 09, 2001

Merchant not afraid to show more soul

By Kim Curtis
The Associated Press

        SAN FRANCISCO — It's hard to believe that Natalie Merchant, queen of 1980s college radio when she fronted folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs, is pushing 40.

  • Who: Natalie Merchant.
  • When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
  • Where: Taft Theatre, Fifth and Sycamore streets, downtown.
  • Tickets: $33-$37. 562-4949.
        Ms. Merchant was with 10,000 Maniacs from the age of 17 until she was 30.

        “I took inventory of my life when I turned 30, and I felt I was stagnant. I wanted to speak for myself. I was tired of being the spokesman for an all-male band. We were together longer than the Beatles,” she said from a Denver hotel room.

        The 38-year-old singer is a Jamestown, N.Y., native, but lives in New York City. She says her musical tastes haven't changed much; she's still a folkie at heart. But she's showing more soul with her latest solo release, Motherland. Gospel singer Mavis Staples even stepped in to provide backing vocals.

        Although her distinctive voice remains immediately recognizable to most top-40 radio listeners, Ms. Merchant maintains a low profile. When someone tells her that she looks like Natalie Merchant, “I tell them, "Look, I even have her credit card.' ”

        But she also hears stories from fans about how her introspective, literary lyrics and catchy melodies have affected them.

        Several years ago, she was stopped by a young man in Portland, Maine, who told her that during his three-year prison term, he'd continually listened to 1995's Tigerlily, her first solo album.

        “Now, he's training to be an Olympic boxer,” she said. “He asked if he could hug me. . . . That's a good power to have.”

        Question: Motherland is the first album where you've revealed your R&B influences. Why the hesitation?

        Answer: People think of it as derivative when white people try to do gospel and R&B. I decided if I have a true love of that music, I should just take a bold step and write songs in that genre.

        Q: What was it like to work with Mavis Staples?

        A: I don't think of myself as a blues singer. . . . But when you have someone like Mavis Staples telling you (that) you have a wider knowledge of gospel music than she does. . . . We just sat in a room and sang gospel songs back and forth. She completely accepted what I was doing.

        Q: Is this how you imagined you'd be earning a living as you approach 40?

        A: I'm surprised that I ever earned a living this way. I just joined a band to get out of my hometown and see other places. . . . I have to make two more records under my contract. I still have the enthusiasm and the strength for touring, but I don't see myself at 45 living on a tour bus and leaping up and down on stage.

        Q: What's next?

        A: I've thought of starting a nonprofit theater group or some type of traveling arts group. I feel like the experience with theater and dance is not available to many kids who are economically unable or isolated.

        Q: In “Tell Yourself,” on your latest release, you sing about the struggles that are a part of being 13. Did you have someone in mind when you wrote that song?

        A: I was singing directly to teen-age girls. My niece just went through that year and it was a tough one. I think 13 was the toughest year for me. When we're at our worst, we revert to that age. I was the shy girl. And I also was the girl who made friends with the outcasts because I felt so compassionate for them. I was a bit of a loner. Children, especially boys, can be so cruel.

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