Page 2 of 3
Her newfound cachet at Elektra enabled her to record 1998’s ambitious follow-up, Ophelia, a lavish conceptual album with symphonic arrangements by British composer Gavin Bryars and guest work by smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and other star players. The disc went platinum as she co-headlined that year’s colossal Lilith Fair tour with Sarah McLachlan, and she capped the tour off with a run of her own shows at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater, which were taped for 1999’s Live in Concert (Elektra). In 2000 she revisited 10,000 Maniacs’ folk influences, doing a tour performing traditional material backed by revisionist band the Horse Flies, and with Wilco, the tour’s opening act, and Billy Bragg, appearing on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II (Elektra), the second such project to set unearthed Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. She made one more album for Elektra, 2001’s stripped-down, T-Bone Burnett-produced Motherland, which was supported by arena shows with Chris Isaak, before leaving the label and starting her own Myth America imprint to release 2003’s acclaimed The House Carpenter’s Daughter, a record that saw her digging even deeper into the folk canon. And then…silence.
Until April 6, when Merchant will release Leave Your Sleep, her first album in seven years and her debut for Nonesuch Records. Why the long wait? Two solid reasons. The first is the raising of her daughter, now six, something any young mother will no doubt relate to. The second can only become obvious upon hearing the album. Available as either a deluxe two-CD package or an abridged single disc, Leave Your Sleep has Merchant taking on the Herculean exercise of setting 26 poems by as many poets to original music played by a cast of over 130 musicians, a lineup that includes Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Hazmat Modine, the Klezmatics, the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, and others. Musically it plays like a voyage around the world, stopping at exotic ports to take in everything from blues to sea chanteys, Dixieland to Celtic folk, reggae to bluegrass, rock to chamber and early music, plus a boatload of other sounds. (Outtake tracks will be available for download on iTunes.)
Merchant’s co-producer on the album was the Brazilian-born Andres Levin, who worked on the successful Red Hot album series; with David Byrne, k.d. lang, and Tina Turner; and with Caetano Veloso and other high-profile Latin acts. “It was a huge project—there was an endless stream of people coming in an out of the place,” says Levin of the sessions that took place at Rhinebeck’s Clubhouse studio. “It was challenging to keep the flow, but watching it come to life was great. Working with Natalie was wonderful. She’d done a lot of pre-production, and she always has a very clear idea of what she wants.”
The program’s genius is in how Merchant pairs the poems with just the right accompaniment: Albert Bigelow Paine’s “The Dancing Bear” works perfectly as a sly klezmer tune; Jack Prelutsky’s “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” becomes a Randy Newman-esque New Orleans R&B stroll. Writing and arranging music that adequately evokes the feel of someone else’s words would seem no easy art, but on Leave Your Sleep Merchant somehow visits the brains of her de facto lyricists, most of whom are long dead, and gets them to tell her exactly what they’d like to hear. “Actually, I find it far easier than writing a song from scratch,” says Merchant. “Having to write melodies and chord progressions and then trying to come up with words that fit is almost a form of tyranny to me. By doing it the other way around—getting the mood of a poem and then using the structure as a skeleton makes me the tyrant; a tyrant informed by the lyrics.”
But while her fascination with roots music is obviously well documented, her love of poetry hasn’t been. Did she read a lot of poetry growing up? Merchant shakes her head. “No, I came late to poetry,” she says. “I was pretty much just a magazine/newspaper article reader, someone who mainly read for information, not entertainment. But I became friends with Allen Ginsberg before he died, so I got into his work, and he also turned me onto Anne Waldman and other poets. And then, about seven or eight year ago, I had this epiphany that became a fervor, especially for the Victorian poets. That’s why there are so many of them on the album. [The two-disc version features works by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Lear, Christina Rossetti, and several of their contemporaries.] It just really resonated with me, that even though these people lived so long ago the themes and emotions they were dealing with have never gone away.”