Given the degree to which the music industry has changed, singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant knows just how remarkable it is that her record label would release The Natalie Merchant Collection
, a deluxe ten-CD box set that includes all eight of her solo studio albums from the past three decades.
The other two discs feature four new songs and six reinterpreted selections from the catalog, all arranged for string quartet, and previously unreleased tracks recorded in the last 20 years (including collaborations with Billy Bragg, David Byrne, the Chieftains, Cowboy Junkies and Amy Helm). The package also includes a 100-page lyric book and a pictorial history.
“I just got my first copy in the mail about 20 minutes ago,” says Merchant via phone from her upstate New York home. She brings her 3 Decades of Song tour to Connor Palace on July 8. “It’s pretty thrilling. It’s heavy. It’s like a brick. It’s colorful. It’s like a gift-wrapped box. It’s a much different experience than just seeing the PDF. That’s the dilemma of our industry these days. What’s the difference between a PDF and a boxset? I would say texture, mass, sense of accomplishment and awe. I wasn’t so in awe when I looked at the PDFs but when I hold the boxset and the book, it’s much better. Nonesuch told me it’s only the third time they’ve done this. I think they did one for Phillip Glass and Kronos Quartet, so I feel really lucky.”
Initially, Merchant joined the band Still Life when she was only 17. After a couple of name changes, that group rechristened itself 10,000 Maniacs. Thanks to Merchant’s powerful voice and poetic lyrics, the group had a few commercial radio hits. Merchant would leave the band in 1993 and release her solo debut, Tigerlily
, in 1995. Songs such as the simmering “Wonder,” which features a meaty guitar riff that’s juxtaposed with Merchant’s plaintive vocals and a touch of piano, and the jazzy “Carnival” helped turn the album into a hit.
“It was a natural transition to become a solo artist,” she says when asked about her departure from the group. “It was exhilarating and challenging to make all the decisions myself and stand by them. I funded that record myself. I didn’t want any interference from the record company. I sensed that they wanted to capitalize on the fact that I was a female singer. They wanted to put me through that sausage machine. That wasn’t what I wanted.”
She hired Jon Landau as her manager. At the time, he had never worked with anyone but Bruce Springsteen. That helped keep the folks at her record label at bay.
“I had this protection because people wouldn’t have questioned Jon Landau,” Merchant explains. “They would have definitely questioned me, especially if they had seen the chaos reigning in the studio. It was just total chaos. I hired a guitar player who was only 22 years and had never been in the studio. She was erratic. She was a brilliant musician but showing up sometimes and not showing up other times. Out of it came something really special. It would have had gone in a different direction if I had gone into the studio with a seasoned producer. It’s a very small record but it’s honest and heartfelt. I learned a lot about making records and that’s why I rerecorded the album. I wanted to serve the songs in a different way.”
Those songs are just some of the tunes on The Natalie Merchant Collection
, which Merchant says will arrive at "the right moment."
“It feels like the twilight for physical product at this point,” she says. “If I waited any longer, there might be no market and no audience for something like this. I think there are still some sentimental people who remember what it was like to get the gatefold record of Carole King or the Stones or Genesis and worship at the altar of the turntable. For those of us who were introduced to the recorded music of '60s and '70s, there was this cult of vinyl and that’s what it feels like to me when I hold this boxset. Usually, the record company decides to put out your record after you’re dead and releases a pile of crap that no one wants. But this was hand-picked.”
An activist who regularly plays benefit concerts and contributes to social causes, Merchant recently helped make the protest concert film Dear Governor Cuomo
with New Yorkers Against Fracking, actors Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo, and filmmakers Jon Bowermaster and Alex Gibney, and she directed and produced SHELTER: A Concert Film to Benefit Victims of Domestic Violence
. Not surprisingly, she describes the current administration’s lack of concern for so many significant social issues as “toxic.”
“The only way I can remain in any way engaged or optimistic is to be satisfied with small victories,” she says. “The Hudson Valley where I live is fast becoming this Mecca for people who want to get their food locally, produce energy locally and be protective of critical resources. It’s people who want to be engaged and want to assist people. It’s a huge amount of land but a series of small towns with its own personalities. It’s almost like a confederation of really cool towns. Since the 1920s or even earlier, it’s attracted forward-thinking people. That gives me hope. We call it the bubble. I’m sure every state in the union has its own bubble with progressive people, and that gives me hope.”
Natalie Merchant: 3 Decades of Song, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 8, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. Tickets: $11-$66, playhousesquare.org