Music

Weaver of Dreams and Nightmares

Natalie Merchant mixes children’s music and political action

It was an eventful week for Natalie Merchant politically, which isn’t surprising. For 30 years she has been an activist and written environmental songs such as “Poison in the Well” for her old rock band 10,000 Maniacs.

Merchant had just returned from an anti-fracking rally with 2,000 protesters—among them legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. They attended New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address to make their voices heard on the issue of shale gas drilling.

But Merchant is quick to stress a connection between her activism and her music.

“When I was in a band, I had an opportunity to speak to people about the things that were happening to communities all over America,” she says. “I grew up in a small, industrial, dying town called Jamestown, [New York], and when the recession of the ’70s hit and continued through the ’80s, I felt like a witness to a part of life most people ignored.”

Merchant, 49, wrote what she knew. She examined power, the way it was wielded in the world. Her priorities changed slightly when she had a daughter 10 years ago. She enjoyed a “conversation” with her child through poetry. It inspired Merchant to explore the history of children’s verse.

The result was 2010’s Leave Your Sleep, a collection of songs based on 19th- and 20th-century British and American poetry written for kids. The studio album was so successful it developed into last year’s Barbara McClintock-illustrated book of the same name. But the newly minted author doesn’t think her audience is changing that much.

“I always attracted a diverse audience, even at the height of Tigerlily’s popularity—fans of soft rock, folk music, pop, public-radio listeners. What’s interesting now is that I’m multi-generational. It happens when you stick around long enough.”

Merchant says many of the college kids for whom she sang are now administrators in schools and universities. (She herself served on the New York State Council on the Arts for five years.) She sees her current work as evolved, matured, kid-friendlier.

There’s still darkness in the songs—for instance, the little boy-devouring giantess in “The Sleepy Giant.”

“Many fables and fairy tales contain darkness,” Merchant says. “A little girl or boy overcomes obstacles by their own wits or magic. Children love to suspend reality; their imaginations are open. They delight in the idea of a giantess eating boys. They come up with motivations and logic to account for something so absurd. I’ve been offered detailed instructions on the best way to pick up a boy to eat him.”

The New York public-school system’s adoption of Leave Your Sleep is evidence of Merchant’s success with the project. In 2011, 3,500 students between kindergarten and third grade were taught a unit based on Sleep’s music.

“It proved a useful tool for teachers who like a multisensory or multidisciplinary approach,” Merchant says. “From the start I wanted the project to focus on educating children and involve everything—history, biography, poetry, music. For many children, one of the few ways they can be reached is through the arts.”

In addition to bringing a handful of musician friends to town, Merchant has enlisted Vegas symphonic musicians to play selections from Sleep, as well as Maniacs and solo material.

“Performing with orchestras opened up a new way of performing and writing,” she says. “These days, instead of guitars and drums, I’m thinking of bassoons and harps and brass sections. The palette is so much broader.”

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