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An outspoken progressive, the 46-year-old Merchant is known almost as much for her activism as her music, and frequently performs at benefit events. “Yeah, I guess I’m pretty ‘causey,’” she says with a smirk. “But that’s always been part of what I do. Even back in the 10,000 Maniacs days we’d have people from Greenpeace set up tables at our shows to collect signatures and donations. The first show that that band ever played was a Hirsohima Remembrance Day concert. But these days I like to do it in quieter, more under-the-radar ways. For instance, a few years back I was taking Pilates in [Kingston neighborhood] the Rondout and I noticed the playground equipment at the school there was falling apart. I made some calls, found out how much it would cost to replace it, and then donated the money from a show I did. It feels good to do those things.” Among the worldwide and area causes Merchant cites as favorites are Doctors Without Borders, Scenic Hudson, Family of Woodstock, Clearwater, Riverkeeper, and the local Head Start and Planned Parenthood chapters. She was recently appointed by Governor David Patterson to serve a five-year term as a member of the New York State Council on the Arts.
Also an avid painter and gardener, Merchant has been a Hudson Valley resident since 1990. “It looks really similar to the Jamestown area, actually. There’s more snow there, but the Catskills remind me of the Alleghenies,” she says. “I really love that this area is just far enough from New York and still so culturally rich. Everyone I know here is here because they want to be here, and they’re doing really interesting work.”
When asked about her return to the limelight and the state of the contemporary music industry, Merchant likens herself to another famous Catskillian. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to a totally different world,” she says, visibly overwhelmed. “When I left Elektra in 2002 the record people were just beginning to run around like the sky was falling, because it was becoming clear that with the Internet artists would no longer be powerless without them. Things really hit home when The House Carpenter’s Daughter was released online—the same day my daughter was born—and it sold 75,000 copies with no touring or press interviews at all. Since then I’ve launched a new website, and it’s very exciting as an artist to see the way the old business model is being replaced.”
As the determined Merchant arises from her lengthy hibernation, the lines of one of Leave Your Sleep’s standout tracks, her adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Nod,” come floating into view:
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do—
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams
Natalie Merchant will perform at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on March 13 to benefit WAMC/Northeast Public Radio. www.nataliemerchant.com. Leave Your Sleep will be released by Nonesuch Records on April 13.
- Photo by Marion Ettlinger.