Q&A with Natalie Merchant: On Her Old Collections and Her New One, Keep Your Courage

Music Features Natalie Merchant
Q&A with Natalie Merchant: On Her Old Collections and Her New One, Keep Your Courage

Looking back on our past three mercurial pandemic years, the sheer darkness of those early-2020 Covid months might just be a hazy memory for many survivors today. Especially, of course, if you’re doing your damnedest to put those lockdown days behind you. But philosophical folk-rocker Natalie Merchant will never forget, she swears. And she’ll always have a small scar as a big reminder. “In March of 2020, I had my neck opened and had three bones taken out of it, and then I went home to be in a neck brace for a couple of months,” she recalls, quite clearly. “But then the doctor, as I was leaving, said, “Nobody in, nobody out for two months. This entire country is gonna shut down.” He knew what was coming because he had had a meeting that morning telling him that they were going to become a Covid hospital, and he had to remove anybody that was high risk, if he could. So the pandemic was dark for everyone, but my pandemic was slightly darker than the average.”

Still, the upstate-New-York based singer/songwriter, at 59, managed to transmute that creepy coronavirus base metal into something approaching iridescent, uplifting gold via her latest aptly-dubbed solo set Keep Your Courage, her ninth, and first since 2017’s “Butterfly.” Her gossamer singing voice is even more resonant, and can go from hearth-fire flickering (the thoughtful “Guardian Angel,” a piano-anchored “The Feast of St. Valentine”) to lute-delicate classic folk phraseology (“Hunting the Wren”, a more pop-jangling “Eye of the Storm”), funky horn-peppered R&B (“Tower of Babel”), and two soulful duets with Resistance Revival Chorus anchor Abena Koomson-Davis (“Big Girls” and “Song of Aphrodite”) which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an old Stax session from the ’60s. Lyrically, the album revolves around the topic of love, but takes inspiration—as usual for this brainy, erudite composer—from several arcane-but-easily-relatable sources, including literature, Greek mythology, even the poetry of Walt Whitman. She didn’t hide, shivering, from the pandemic. As she’d done in two recent films—the interview-based study of her work, Paradise is There and her personal documentary on domestically abused women, Shelter, she faced the situation head-on and in the process simply rose courageously above, aided by the presence of her daughter, whose college plans all had to be deferred at the tenuous time.

“And I was glad I wasn’t alone, that’s for sure,” says the ex-10,000 Maniacs frontwoman. “Because it was shocking to see the statistics—i think it was like a third of all the adult people in this country were alone.” So she sought solace outdoors, she adds. “I spent so much time outside in the forest, and it was sooo quiet. I’ve lived in this area for 35 years, and I’ve never heard it so quiet. No cars. No airplanes. Just birdsong and the sound of the wind in the trees. So the stillness is what I remember.”

In fact, as Merchant—who’s undertaking a sweeping Keep Your Courage world tour— sees her post-pandemic landscape now, there’s only one minor disturbance to her idyllic rural reverie. “I have a mink that is terrorizing my pond right now, and has been for the past few years,” she’s sad to report. “I wish I could make him go away—they’re voracious killers, but I don’t wanna end my article with how this mink is biting all the heads off my turtles!” No mink or turtles were harmed during this Paste chat, however….

Paste: In all the research information I went through regarding you and this album, there was a two-word phrase that interested me most—“Ephemera collection.” You’ve said that’s where you’ve always kept the photo you used for the album cover of a Joan of Arc statue, ever since childhood. What is it? What does it house or contain? And where, exactly, do you keep it?

Natalie Merchant: Ha! You don’t know what an ephemera collection is? Oh, it takes up a lot of space, too much space in my life, to tell you the truth. I’m a closet archivist, so everything’s in acid-neutral archival boxes of all sizes, all labeled. Like my postcard collection, where everything is labeled according to topics, so I collect WWI postcards, and stereoscopic viewer cards—I probably have 150, just from WWI. I collect what they called Real Photo postcards, actual photographs but in postcard form, from probably 1900 to 1940. I have about a thousand of those.

Paste: What are some of your rarest acquisitions?

Merchant: Where I’m like, “I can’t believe I found that?” I have a small carte de visite of a Shaker woman. They’re the cards that people would leave when they’d come to visit—they would leave a card if they couldn’t see the person, or they would leave it as a gift. And I also have a German woman, a carte de visite that is her profile, but from the front of her cape to the back of her head—she had a good sense of humor. She just turned around to the camera and had the back of her head taken, which I’d never seen before. So there are three different views of her head—very funny. So anyway, yeah, I have a huge collection of ephemera, and Joan of Arc came from that. I was going through some of my portfolios, and she was in one of them.

Paste: But you were just a teen when you collected the picture, you’ve said. And that appealed to you back then?

Merchant: I lived in a small town, Jamestown, New York, where we had to make our own entertainment. And something that was really inexpensive was old books and postcards and magazines, and I would take them home and make collages with some of them. But mostly I just hoarded them away, and now I still have them. And I would ache to live in a different time, I really would.

Paste: Have you ever had a past-life regression? Or do you feel an affinity with one particular bygone era?

Merchant: Hmm. I don’t know if I’ve had a past-life regression. And I can feel an affinity, but then I think about it realistically, and I say, “I’m fine where I am.” Anything that involves giving birth to a child before there was real medication, like an epidural? Uh, no—pre-epidural childbirth is not an appealing thought to me. My obstetrician told me, “A hundred years ago, there was a 50/50 chance you would survive this.” So I was grateful that I had some modern medicine available to me, because I definitely wouldn’t have survived my labor.

Paste: Well, I’m from the Midwest, originally, and I never trusted anyone who wouldn’t drive five states away just to get item X to complete their collection of something. When did you notice that trait in yourself?

Merchant: That I liked collecting things? I liked collecting shells on the beach when I was a kid. And I liked collecting acorns, I liked collecting buttons—just little things. So I probably realized I was a collector by the time I was about three or four.

Paste: A Snapple Fun Fact on the cap lid last week informed me that squirrels forget roughly half of the acorns they store away.

Merchant: I wish they would forget the ones in my garden! They don’t forget the ones in my garden—they dig ’em up, and then they take half of the plants around them with it. I have an ongoing battle with the chipmunks in my garden and all the nuts they bury there.

Paste: For decades, I’ve collected promotional rock buttons and badges. I still have your 10,000 Maniacs enamel one, with an elephant on a ball, for the Blind Man’s Circus album. I don’t know if you need it, but I can send it to you.

Merchant: Oh yeah, I’ve got that too! And it was a good little piece of promo, I thought! But the buttons I collect are clothing buttons. I mean, I like to sew, but everybody who comes to my house and sees the amount of sewing kits and things I have? Well, there’s loving to sew, and then there’s something.

Paste: As folks get older, they start to lose the clutter in their lives. I’ve been giving some of my prized badges to the artists themselves occasionally. Have you started that process yet?

Merchant: Not at this stage! I’m enjoying my clutter, while I’m still able to enjoy it.

Paste: Jumping right from that, how is your painting going?

Merchant: Well, I haven’t been doing as much, because this has been an all-consuming effort, putting this record out and getting ready to tour, and all the orchestral shows coming up. I feel like I would like to have a week that’s free and I can just paint. But I did go to Italy in October, and I spent a lot of time alone in Florence, and I just drew in my sketchbooks all day long, and it was blissful.

Paste: And obviously, we want to talk about this record. But overall, it sounds like you found comfort in not just Shakespearean tropes that you’ve touched on in the past, like Ophelia, but Scripture, mythology, film, even photography. Like “Narcissus,” which might serve as a bigger metaphor for anyone oversharing too much about themselves on social media today. Or not.

Merchant: Well, I like using those kinds of cultural references—Biblical or mythological or broader cultural ones—even if it’s Joan Didion or Led Zeppelin or whatever, which I mention on the record, because there’s a whole world of associations that people make with those parables and stories and figures in history. And it just extends the meaning of whatever you’re writing. So that’s why I use them. I mean, if I say ‘Napoleon,’ it’s a lot different than just saying ‘emperor’ or ‘general’ or ‘warrior’ or whatever. So I say ‘Napoleon,’ and whatever you know about Napoleon is going to come flooding into your brain, right? So I wanted to write about the myth of Narcissus, but through the eyes of Echo, who was just so in love with him but could not express her own feelings about it because she’d been cursed to only repeat what other people said. And she watched him wasting away, and then she wasted away herself.

Paste: And the symphonic “Sister Tilly” is a unique composite.

Merchant: Well, I wanted to create a woman who would be representative of my mother’s generation, because these women are leaving us, and I feel a great debt of gratitude to them. Not only was I raised by a woman of that generation, but I have so many surrogate mothers of that generation, too. And I think as a society we owe so much to them—they really moved us forward in so many ways. So yes, I just created this composite of many of the different women I’ve known. And I have to admit, I’m a little bit of a Sister-Tilly-in-training myself. I recognize that a lot of the things that are in “Sister Tilly” are in me.

Paste: But “Tower of Babel” is your most bare-knuckled one, right? Everyone wants to chalk politics up this so-called red/blue divisiveness, yet every item of bad news I saw reported on TV this morning could be attributed to just a single party, Republicans. Lucinda Williams told me at the beginning of the pandemic that the old Let’s-just-agree-to-disagree mindset was over for her—she would never again have a discussion with anyone un- or ill-informed on world politics and climate change. What do you hope for out there these dark days?

Merchant: What do I hope for? (pause) Miracles. Miracles on every front. Because I think that’s what it’s going to take to save us. It’s grim. And I can go grim if you want me to. But I think when I do that, when people ask me, “Where’s your optimism?”, when I’m being very honest, it puts me in a really foul mood. It really does. It puts me in a nihilistic frame of mind, because just the climate crisis alone is really desperate, and it’s grim, and I feel very worried about the next generation and what they’ll have to endure. But less so for my daughter, because of the place in the world where we live. It’s upstate New York, a more temperate region. But anyone who lives in an arid region of the world? There are already so many brown, arid, desert areas of the world that there are already just streams of migrants, looking for any chance of a better life. But that’s not anything that anyone’s gonna want to read.

Listen to an exclusive Natalie Merchant performance from our archives, June 12, 1999, at the Neil Simon Theater:

Paste: Can music, or maybe one of your songs, actually change things?

Merchant: Probably not. On the last album, I wrote a song called “It’s Comin,’” wildfires, dying lakes, landslides, hurricanes, Apocalypse in store, like nothing ever seen before — it’s a-comin.’ Revolution, civil war, like nothing ever seen before. So there ya go.

Paste: “Big Girls” and “Song of Aphrodite” are your duets with Abena Koomson-Davis, right? But they prove a remarkable thing—you’re a great old-school soul singer.

Merchant: It’s funny, isn’t it? I’ve been straight with that music, and it’s in my fibers, and in my blood.

Paste: Yet in “Hunting the Wren,” you bounce back over to classic English folk in a heartbeat.

Merchant: And you know that song was written by an Irishman, right? Ian Lynch, from the band Lankum. And speaking of dark, it’s written about a chapter of Irish history that’s very dark, about these women who lived outside the barracks, on this stretch of open plain called the curragh, and many of the women had lost their families in the famine, and some of them were common-law wives, because these were British soldiers and they were Irish women. So some of them were prostitutes, but some of them were just homeless and looking for a place to live. But local people of the community and the authorities wouldn’t allow them to build any structures, so they built holes in the ground and in the sides of hills and lived there, with rags and sticks as the roofs of their shelters. And if they went into the villages to get food, they would be spat on and beaten, so they were outcasts. And I think Ian wrote a phenomenal song, and it was just written in, I think, 2018. And the first time I heard it, I thought it was a traditional song, but then I read an interview with him and he explained that it wasn’t.

Paste: But in this lush piano ballad “The feast of St. Valentine,” the word ‘soldiers’ pop up again on the album, this time as “soldiers of the heart.”

Merchant: Uh-huh. Yeah. By doing that, I was imagining a small army of broken-hearted people coming to console another of their ranks. Every song except “Tower of Babel” looks at love from a different perspective, as a different form of love, whether it’s platonic or romantic, and the positive and the negative aspects of love. It can be the curse or the charm, the bruising or the balm.

Paste: Given that, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask—did you find love during the pandemic, or before or after? I don’t even know if you would want to talk about it, but it would be nice to think that maybe Yes, you did.

Merchant: Did I find love during the pandemic/ hmm. Well, I make a specific point of never talking about my personal life, because I just don’t think I would gain anything from it. So I don’t do it. But I am happy. I’m very happy, happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I think I appreciate life in a different way now that I’m older, and I have a quiet confidence now that I didn’t use to have, when I had more insecurity and fear. So I guess….wisdom, it might be called?

Paste: Did you learn anything about yourself looking at the documentary, Paradise is There? Or when you directed your own documentary, Shelter?

Merchant: Um, well it’s interesting, because I deflected. When I did Paradise is There, I mostly made a film about how my music had affected other people instead of myself. And I think through doing those interviews—I mean, I didn’t do them, personally—but when the footage came back to me, I was truly moved by it. Moved by the degree to which the music had really impacted people’s lives. I felt really touched by it, and it was pretty wonderful to know that I had comforted people. And I think consolation and comfort is something that my music has given a lot of people, and that’s a good gift to give.

Paste: Going back to almost inexplicable individual aesthetics, and how it’s probably difficult to pinpoint just why a Joan of Arc image captured your imagination so long ago… Visuals play a big part in your work. But you basically grew up without a TV. Do you have one now for all the streaming services?

Merchant: Well, my daughter staged a protest about eight months into the lockdown, and we went out and bought a Roku. I felt like an Amish woman buying a Monster Truck—it was very difficult for me. Because I’ve had no television in my house since 1974. And I’m looking at it right now—I still can’t even believe that it’s here! And I won’t watch it for weeks, but then every once in awhile…

Paste: What did you find yourself streaming, like, “This should go into the Ephemera Collection”?

Merchant: BBC dramas. What’s that network that puts out really great foreign films? I’ve been buying their DVDs for a long time..Oh yeah! Criterion! I had the Criterion channel on my computer, so we watched a lot of Criterion stuff. So it was a lot of escapism, going to a different century and watching some BBC multi-episode drama.

Paste: Did you guys get into—and there’s no shame in admitting this, because it was a lot of campy period-piece fun— Bridgerton?

Merchant: No. We just couldn’t do it. We’re purists!

Paste: But Chuck Schumer appointing you to a six-year term on the Board of Trustees of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center? It takes two minutes just to say it!

Merchant: Ha! I know! But doesn’t it sound good? And it’s fascinating, because I’m just finding out how it works. Because I’m a new appointee, I’ve gone down to Washington, twice, for several days each time, and I’m still scratching the surface of what they do. And the thing is, it was started because of folk music, and actually in 2028, their sound library will be a hundred years old. But the Folklife Center itself was not founded until 1976, and they do so many different things. I’ve been asking them for talking points to explain it, but I’ll just give you a few examples. They’ve been doing a Veterans History project for several years now, and it involves interviewing thousands of vets, and cataloguing things that they have saved—correspondence, photographs, oral histories. They’re responsible for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and all the items that have been contributed, in addition to the 50,00 individual panels. They just received the Kitchen Sisters archive, and they’re responsible for Storycorps on NPR—they catalog all that. And the Lomax Archive is huge, and that’s the largest collection that they have. But they have so many other ethnomusicologists’ work that they are responsible for storing, and many of them are women, so I’m really excited about looking into those. And they just received the Peter Welding Collection, which is a collection of over 800 reel-to-reel tapes of blues and jazz artists, from the ’50s to the ’80s, plus photographs and taped interviews. And someone else I’ve discovered through them is Candace Taylor—she’s an author and a photographer and a cultural documentarian, and she goes all over the United States and photographs, interviews, and documents particular subjects. And her most recent one is female bullfighters. And I didn’t know we had bullfights in America, but we do, and they’re called bloodless bullfights, and I think some flowers are placed on the lower neck of the bull, rather than stabbing them. So that just gives you an idea of the scope of things that the Folklife Center is doing. When I went to visit them the first time, they said, “We’re not just banjos and quilts.” So it’s fascinating. And as I said, I’m just scratching the surface and trying to represent them as well as I can.

Paste: Circling back the beginning of our interview, I have to ask; as an ephemera connoisseur, did you see anything in their collection where you went, “Aww! Can I have this?” Or were there things in your collections that they might want?

Merchant: Well, not the Folklife Center, but the Music Center has formally asked for my archive, which was overwhelming, just to hear the words coming out of their mouth. I was taken to the music department to see the head archivist there, and he laid out an entire giant table of archival material for me, and it was anything from an Italian composer in the Renaissance to Aaron Copland’s manuscript for Appalachian Spring. They had photographs of Ella Fitzgerald from the 1930s, some Nelson Riddle arrangements of her songs. It was amazing. They even had a letter that Mozart wrote home to his parents in Vienna when he was 15. So they said, “Your things will be in company!” It was just overwhelming. And on the new album, I wrote a song about Walt Whitman (a chiming “Song of Myself”), so the manuscript department laid out a whole table of Whitman archival materials, and I wept, to tell you the truth. I walked in the room, and there’s a famous photograph of him holding a paper butterfly. And they had the actual butterfly! There it was! And the whole time we were making the album, I had the photograph of him holding the butterfly on the wall while were in the studio. It was wonderful. A wonderful coincidence.

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