Merchant is rocking the suburbs, reluctantly

Singer known for lyrics with conscience, causes

Merchant rocks the suburbs

July 10, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Many a night on Natalie Merchant's summer tour this year, she's found herself gazing out the window of yet another generic chain hotel, contemplating the concrete jungle that's taken over the rich land all around.

Merchant's concert tour this year with Chris Isaak has taken the pair to large venues that tend to be in the suburbs. And in the weeks that they've been on the road so far, Merchant has discovered much about today's suburban life that she despises.

"We find ourselves in these exurban wastelands," said Merchant, 38. "I look out my window, and I see some of the most fertile land in the world, and it's been scraped away and paved over for the Bon-Tons, the Sears, the Shells, the Texacos. It just never ends.

"Touring and seeing the country and seeing what mindless corporate greed has done to our country, I just feel, who has the right to control the resources of this country?" she added. "Who has the right to make a wasteland out of this incredibly fertile, bountiful piece of land? Who has the right?"

Sounds like the makings of a quintessentially Natalie Merchant song.

And if she doesn't have enough fodder so far, this weekend could change that.

The honey-voiced singer-songwriter with a conscience comes to Maryland this Sunday, where she plays the Merriweather Post Pavilion - in Columbia, one of the most pre-fab of all suburbs.

There's much in the world that inspires the ire that Merchant pours into powerful lyrics.

She became a pop phenom in the 1980s as part of the band 10,000 Maniacs with socially conscious hits such as "Eat for Two," about teen pregnancy, and "What's the Matter Here?" a song about child abuse.

In the years since, she's made it her mission to continue crooning about various causes. Her third solo album since she left the Maniacs in the early '90s, November's Motherland, featured songs inspired by the horrors of lynching, the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and the presidential ballot battle in Florida.

And, in a recent half-hour phone interview from her hotel room in Indianapolis, here's a sampling of subjects that she railed against - al-Qaida, big corporations being an "oppressive force in culture," water riots in Bolivia, and having only "16 seconds to get across eight lanes of traffic" in American suburbs.

"I'm just talking about the things that move me," Merchant said. "The things that bring me pleasure or despair or outrage. ... It's been a consistent social commentary. Even when I wrote my first songs when I was 17, I was writing about the obsolescence of religion.

"If you don't have the platform to rail against these things and complain and organize," she added, "I think you just feel paralyzed."

Merchant's social awareness started early. Growing up in the countryside near Buffalo, N.Y., she remembered her rage at learning about the Love Canal scandal near Niagara Falls. In 1978, state officials evacuated families from a housing development built atop a canal where chemical waste had been dumped after a doctor reported a high rate of birth defects and miscarriages among residents of the area.

"I was just coming of age and seeing the world with all its warts," she said. "And it was a really hard time because of the discoveries I was making."

And then one night, she made a discovery that would show her what to do with her anger.

"I stumbled into a party one night, and there were instruments and people were playing and I got up and sang," she said. "I was 16 and that became 10,000 Maniacs. So I guess I stumbled into the right place."

Walking a fine line between grandstanding and being well-meaning, Merchant has won over fans. While she hasn't had the record sales that today's frothy popsters have posted, her sincere lyrics have earned her enough fans to have her first two solo albums sell almost 5 million albums combined, according to Soundscan, a firm that tracks music sales. Her latest album hasn't fared as well - Soundscan reports its sold about 364,000.

But over the years, Merchant has earned respect for her work - and titles such as "Thinking man's Madonna."

"I prefer `Emily Dickinson of pop,'" Merchant said, laughing.

Turning serious, Merchant said she wonders about the labels that society has given her.

"Men are threatened by a woman who's confident and intelligent," she said. "`Why is that so threatening?' is my question. I've really gone out of my way to keep my image to a minimum and really push my music to the forefront."

Which brings her to another of her pet peeves - the fact that the music industry has been awash recently with sexed-up, young female singers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

"I felt a little pressure [from music industry executives] in 10,000 Maniacs," she said. "I was young and they would say, `The formula's there. Here's a girl, nice voice, not bad to look at, what can we do to her? Let's get a stylist, put her on the cover of the record and all that.' But I said, `I can't wear that short skirt and sing about child abuse. I can't do it. Sorry.' And they just grew weary of trying."

But recently, Merchant realized there are far more serious things in life to fret over. Since Sept. 11, Merchant hasn't felt safe anywhere in New York, not even the apartment where she lives in the West Village, not too far from where the World Trade Center stood.

"It's got me on pins and needles, wondering about what the world is going to be like," she said. "I don't know how to write about what happened," she added. "Just like I didn't know how to write about the Gulf War. Sometimes things are too large."

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