Natalie Merchant on learning curve

October 02, 1995|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Now that Natalie Merchant is touring in support of her first solo album, "Tigerlily," things feel a little different in performance.

Granted, some of that is to be expected. After spending more than a dozen years as the singer for 10,000 Maniacs, seeing a different set of musicians onstage every night is obviously something of an adjustment. Not that Merchant objects to the change.

"I like looking around the stage and seeing all new faces," she says, over the phone from New Orleans. "It's inspiring, actually."

What really has her excited, though, isn't the new band's look, but its feel. "The style of music that we're doing isn't radically different, but it's different enough rhythmically and texturally that it changed the way that I danced," she says. "Which is really exciting.

"We just look like we're having a good time together, and what I think is really interesting is there's no ego struggle at all in this band. And I love having a female guitar player. Not that [10,000 Maniacs guitarist] Rob Buck and I ever had a real strong sexual vibe, but it seems like if I had a male guitar player, there would be an inherent sexual vibe there. Whether it's real, or just perceived to be real by the audience, it's sort of a cliche, and I wanted to stay away from that."

Merchant didn't leave the Maniacs just to avoid a few cliches, though.

There had been a distance between the two camps for sometime -- both literally and figuratively. Unlike the other Maniacs, who preferred to stay where the band started, in Jamestown, N.Y., Merchant has lived around Manhattan for the last eight years -- 365 miles away.

"Most of the songwriting was actually done through the mail with cassettes," she adds. "It wasn't as collaborative as it might seem."

A universal intimacy

Working on her own also allows Merchant to pursue her own artistic vision.

"I have a theory about music, that it originally arose from an intensely spiritual place in human beings to express what was inexpressible in many other ways," she says.

"So that's what I try to do with some of my music. I don't look at

it as pure entertainment. I look at it as a place for people to find solace, a place for people to find a catharsis, definitely to celebrate all that's good in their lives, but also to acknowledge the things that are tragic.

She continues: "A thing that I've been told is that this seems like a very intimate record, and I try to tell people that it's more about a universal intimacy than me, or a personal, intimate vision. I try to write about things that are intimate experiences for all people."

Merchant wrote the songs for "Tigerlily" at the piano, which, she points out, "is a rhythmic as well as melodic instrument. The fact that I was writing the lyrics to a lot of these songs just as solo piano, I think, might explain the more precise phrasing. I tend to lay back in my phrasing on this record. I'm behind the downbeat almost all the time.

"The second instrument that I collaborated with was a drum. The drummer and I worked together for probably three months before the other musicians joined the band to work on the record. It really taught me a lot about the songs and what directions to take them in. Chord progression and the melody can go in a thousand different directions."

Free-form

That sense of interplay, and her willingness to take the songs in different directions, extends to the rest of the band as well.

"I didn't realize it when I wrote them, but a lot of the songs do have a gospel soul kind of structure," she says. "They get through the intro, the verse, the bridge or whatever, and then they just fire all out in a jam with free-form vocals. That's been really fun.

"Also, songs that had a hint of danceability have become more pronounced, and I've changed some of the melodic lines at the end."

Some of that comes from grow ing more familiar with the material as the tour goes on, but Merchant credits much of that spirit of innovation to her new bandmates.

"These musicians are different from 10,000 Maniacs," she says. "They're people that practice all the time and go see other people play all the time. They're constantly listening to music. They're influenced by things every day. Those things come through in what they're playing. Every day, I'm surprised to hear how they change the way that they approach a song.

"I think people are going to hear me sing songs I've never done before, and styles of music that they probably haven't heard me do before. I think that's a great experience for any musician."

In Concert

When Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 2 and 3, 8 p.m.

Where: The Warner Theatre, Washington

Call: (410) 481-7328

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