When Natalie Merchant gets in front of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on April 12-14, the concerts will vary each night—and she likes it that way.
The concerts also will reflect the variety in her career. Merchant was the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, the alternative band with such hits as “What’s the Matter Here,” “These Are Days,” “Trouble Me,” “Like the Weather” and “Eat for Two” in the 1980s and 1990s.
She pursued a career as a solo artist in 1995, releasing five albums and the hit singles “Carnival” and “Kind and Generous.” Her most recent CD was the 2010 double album Leave Your Sleep, a collection of songs based on American and British poems that became a children’s book last year.
Merchant is busy with various projects, including a new album that is expected to be completed by summer. She also is involved in the anti-fracking movement in her home state of New York, appearing in the protest movie Dear Governor Cuomo. She also is organizing a benefit concert for domestic violence organizations in New York.
And for the last four years, she has been touring with symphonies across the country.
TheaterJones: What can guests expect when they go to your concert? Will it be 10,000 Maniacs or more of your solo stuff?
Natalie Merchant: The orchestra repertoire that I have is about 30 songs now. The selection of songs is a mixture of new material that I’m working on. Leave Your Sleep is a majority of the concert, and (there is) solo and Maniacs material. Then in a couple of cases, we’ve reinvented some of the songs with orchestra instruments. It’s a wide variety. And the program is too long so we vary it; we (can) cut about six or seven songs.
What do you think of this symphony tour? How does your music change with the orchestra? How have the concerts gone over so far?
I really enjoyed doing these concerts for the past four years. It’s very challenging. It’s very pleasurable. It’s amazing how much variety there is night for night. There’s variables—the conductor, the players, sometimes you have the audience that makes a difference. It’s just wonderful the textures and colors the orchestra can provide.
In your last CD, 2010’s Leave Your Sleep, you adapted British and American poetry into songs. How did you like this project as opposed to your other music? Was it more challenging or enjoyable?
I went to 130 musicians. It was the most complicated project, the most complicated and evolved project. It was a double album, 29 songs. In most respects, it was a massive album. I’m finishing another album, and it seems so simple—six musicians, 10 songs.
I intentionally experimented with many different types of music. It was really an opportunity to play with musicians and many styles of music as I imagined. It was a great education.
The music industry has changed so much since when you first started in the 1980s. How have you tried to adapt to your music to fit the changes?
I made my first record in 1981. It’s changed quite a bit since then. Technology changed our lives in so many ways. I grew up in the country with a rotary telephone and a 12-party line. And the thought we would carry a device with an address book and watch films on it—that sounded like science fiction.
There were a few record giants. And there were a few independent labels. They were benevolent in some respects and tyrannical in some respects. We (10,000 Maniacs) were able to learn and grow. It was an education. They had money to develop young bands.
The opportunity to connect with your fans is great. That happens with the Internet. We can make our own films and edit them with the Internet. You can do what you could do with an entire crew of people. You used to rent studios. It’s amazing. I think there’s a downside to all that. Recording studios have been torn down to have condominiums.
You go to record stores and browse and talk to people. I think people are experiencing music independently. People were more communal, listened to a stereo together. I’m not claiming to judge, positive and negative. I watched it all happen.
The synthesizer replaced the strings. When I stand in front of the orchestra, they study for 30 or 40 years. There’s an immense dedication to craft. You don’t get that when you press down a keyboard module and press a string sound.
You were a big star in the 1980s and 1990s and now you’re less in the spotlight. Do you like being less in the spotlight? Why or why not?
Yeah, I like the balance in my life. I’m able to capture and maintain an audience, capture and maintain their attention—and yet still really lead an ordinary life. It’s wonderful to go a city and people come hear what I say. My audience has been patient and loyal. To have an audience that will be receptive to new material is really rare.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I don’t have any advice for making it in the music business. I would just encourage them to be honest because I feel if you’re able to be moved by what you’re creating, the audience will be moved too. I respond to authenticity to music.
◊ Here's a song from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe that might especially appeal to lovers of classical music, called "Verdi Cries," which you can purchase on iTunes, here.