It’s been 13 years since singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant released an album of original songs. In the ensuing years, she married and divorced, had a daughter, and kept a fairly low musical profile. Her new record, Natalie Merchant, drops May 6, marking the return of one of music’s most illustrious voices. Merchant will kick off her tour this weekend in London.
NPR debuted your video “Giving Up Everything” on its website, saying, “Rarely is an artist as honest and revealing as Natalie Merchant in her new video and song.”
“I was talking to a journalist yesterday, and he said, ‘Giving Up Everything’ is like the black hole in the middle of the record that I keep getting sucked into.’ He said he kept listening to it over and over and over. It’s like a mantra to me."
Could you have written it in your 20s?
“I started writing it in my 30s, but I couldn’t finish it until last year...The video was pretty much an accident, a really beautiful accident. I just started pulling things out of [photographer Dan Winters’] studio. There was a skull at one point, but we took that out because, to me, the skull just represents one thing: death. And, the song isn’t about death. It’s about regeneration or redefinition or transformation or liberation.”
That’s true of many of your songs — a lot of layers.
“To me, that’s what I look for in art of any sort: Speak to me, but speak for me sometimes. Sometimes, I don’t have the ability to really put into words what I’m feeling. And then, I’ll see a painting or go to a play or a film, and it will excavate something inside and bring it to the surface. It’s an exercise in empathy, too. I struggle with my past, present, future, identities, and associations. There’s so much struggle. And attachment."
You listen to a song for three minutes, it does something to you, and then it’s gone. You can listen over and over but you can’t keep it.
“That’s what this album is so much about. In the last 14 years, I’ve been thinking a lot about life and I’ve been living; trying to live a conscious life. And, at little stops along the way, I sat down and wrote these thoughts down; my impressions of the struggle and the triumph and what I was seeing inside myself and outside myself. Think about the major catastrophic events that have happened in the last 14 years. The wars we’ve been through. Hurricane Katrina. Touchstones along the way. I can’t separate myself from world events.”
“There are so many fronts to be fighting at any given moment. But, you just measure success in little victories. Look at Pete Seeger. When Pete died, he was a storyteller, a singer of songs, a writer of songs, and an activist, and an environmentalist — just one little man! But, look at what a beacon he was to people. He tread through the wilderness for us and made a path that we could follow. And, he would always say, ‘I have to be an optimist. I don’t like the alternative.’ I, on the other hand, am pretty cynical and pessimistic.”
Are you? Why do you keep doing it?
“I am extremely pessimistic and cynical. But, at the same time, I can be optimistic about individuals and resolving smaller situations. Globally? No.”
One of your earlier songs, “Tell Yourself,” is about self-esteem. Your daughter is about to turn 11. What do you tell her to tell herself about the things that have tormented girls for millennia?
“I tell her how beautiful she is, and I explain to her that your body’s changing so that you can grow breasts and hips to become a body that can carry babies. We have very frank conversations about her body all the time. And, it’s interesting because she says to me, ‘You don’t love yourself, Mama, because you always look at yourself in the mirror and you always see the things you don’t like.’”
Is that true?
"Yeah, like most women. Immediately, my eyes are drawn to the faults. And, she’ll hug me and say, 'You’re so beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, Mama.’ Because that’s what I tell her, and she says, ‘You need to believe it.'"
The decision to go gray. Was it hard?
"No. It was humbling, because it doesn't happen overnight. It’s a three-year process. I wore a hat for six months. I was prematurely gray; I started going gray in my mid-20s. So, I had been dyeing my hair since I was 27. I had to do it every three weeks. I did it myself. It was just a mess — every three weeks I had to make a mess. Every time the roots would show I would say, ‘That’s the real me. When am I going to let that happen?’ And I said 50."
Was that one of the things your daughter saw you dwell on?
“She didn’t like the gray hair at all. I don’t think she wanted to admit how old I was. I didn’t have her until I was 40. I think she sees the younger mothers and thought that I was the same age. She’s just concerned about mortality and people with gray hair are dying [Laughs].”
Well, you’re also in the public in a way that most people aren’t...
“There are more women in the public eye going gray. So, it’s not just Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris, and me. Oh, and Glenn Close! I think Glenn Close has gone gray and a couple of models. But, when you can count us on more than two hands, I think America will begin to come out and restore its balance. The thing I’ve been saying lately to people is, ‘Matriarch means the oldest, wisest woman in the room. It doesn’t mean the ugliest.’ I want to grow into my role. One of my least favorite expressions is ‘mutton dressed as lamb.’ When I see women wearing skinny tight jeans with their hair and fake tan…”
“You can’t retain youth. You have to make room for and nurture the next generation of beautiful young women. And, you can have a different sort of beauty.”