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Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant blended the softer melodic aspects of jangle pop with an understanding of folk tradition and a bent for humanitarianism, qualities that first flowered during her stint as the lead singer for college rock staples 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s, and then came to bloom in a solo career she launched in 1995 with the release of Tigerlily. With her clear, keening voice and idiosyncratic phrasing, Merchant commanded attention in the gentle environs of 10,000 Maniacs, helping the band move from the underground and into the mainstream. By the time their Unplugged cover of Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" nearly reached the Billboard Top Ten in 1993, Merchant had already left the group, her fame having eclipsed her bandmates years earlier. With its hits "Carnival" and "Wonder," Tigerlily sustained Merchant's stardom through the remainder of the '90s, a period of time where she stood at the forefront of socially progressive pop. After releasing Motherland in 2001, Merchant retreated from the spotlight to focus on motherhood, returning to recording original material with an eponymous album in 2014. From that point forward, new albums came slowly: it took her nearly a decade to deliver Keep Your Courage, the 2023 album that was her first collection of new songs since Natalie Merchant. A native of Jamestown, New York, Natalie Merchant was raised by a mother who banished television from the household but emphasized music as well as a connection to nature. As a teenager, she became interested in folk music, checking out a copy of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music from the library. Soon afterward, she started singing, joining a group called Still Life in 1981 while she was attending Jamestown Community College. In short order, the band renamed themselves 10,000 Maniacs after Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 exploitation film Two Thousand Maniacs! Guitarist Robert Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steven Gustafson, drummer Chet Cardinale, and vocalist Terri Newhouse formed Still Life in early 1981. Not long after their inception, vocalist Natalie Merchant started to sit in with the band, as did guitarist John Lombardo. By the time the group became 10,000 Maniacs, it featured Merchant, Buck, Drew, Gustafson, Lombardo, and drummer Tim Edborg; the latter would be replaced by Jim Foti when they cut their debut EP, Human Conflict Number 5. Following its release, 10,000 Maniacs relocated to Atlanta, Georgia in hopes of breaking into the city's music scene, a venture that proved unsuccessful. Once they moved back to Jamestown, they added drummer Jerry Augustyniak and recorded Secrets of the I Ching, a full-length album released on Mark Records in 1983. Secrets of the I Ching helped secure the interest of Elektra Records, which signed the band in 1984 and sent them to London to record their major-label debut with Joe Boyd, the Fairport Convention producer who would also work with R.E.M. on Fables of the Reconstruction during this same period. The resulting The Wishing Chair appeared in September 1985 and helped the group gain a foothold in college radio. Lombardo left shortly after its release -- he'd form John & Mary with Mary Ramsey in 1989 -- and 10,000 Maniacs headed to Los Angeles to record with British Invasion survivor Peter Asher on their next album, In My Tribe. Asher helped bring out the sweeter, tuneful side of 10,000 Maniacs, which was evident on the singles "Like the Weather" and "What's the Matter Here?" which kept the group on radio through 1988. 10,000 Maniacs reunited with Peter Asher for Blind Man's Zoo, the 1989 album that featured "Trouble Me," a gentle, reassuring song that cracked the Top Ten on both the Billboard Modern Rock and Adult Contemporary charts, an unusual combination that signaled how the band found a new niche: adult alternative rock. Instead of capitalizing on their burgeoning fame, though, 10,000 Maniacs stayed off the road in 1991, a decision spurred by Merchant contracting spinal meningitis during their '90s tour; the vocalist spent her hiatus helping the homeless in Harlem. Once they regrouped, they recorded Our Time in Eden with producer Paul Fox, a record that brightened and expanded their palette. Released in September 1992, Our Time in Eden gave the group a number one Modern Rock hit in "These Are Days" while its successor, "Candy Everybody Wants," reached five. During its supporting tour, 10,000 Maniacs recorded an installment of MTV Unplugged in April 1993 but before it could be released as an album in October, Merchant announced she was leaving the band, stating she "didn't want art by committee anymore." Elektra retained her as a recording artist but dropped 10,000 Maniacs; the group carried on with John & Mary as Merchant's replacement. As she launched her solo career, Merchant hired Jon Landau as her manager, then set about financing and producing her first post-10,000 Maniacs project. The resulting Tigerlily was an immediate hit upon its release in June of 1995, reaching 13 on the Billboard Top 200 while generating the Top Ten hit "Carnival," along with subsequent singles "Wonder" and "Jealousy." By the end of 1996, it was certified triple-platinum and it would subsequently be certified platinum five times. Tigerlily's success helped Ophelia debut in the Top Ten upon its release in 1998. "Kind & Generous," the album's first single, received significant airplay and reached number three on the Billboard Adult Pop chart. Merchant began the supporting tour by joining Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair Festival, then concluded it with an appearance at New York City's Neil Simon Theatre; the show was released as Live in Concert in November 1999. T-Bone Burnett co-produced Motherland, an album released in November 2001 that peaked at 30 on the Billboard Top 200, the same position its lead single, "Just Can't Leave," reached on the Adult Pop charts. Motherland concluded Merchant's stint at Elektra. She produced and self-released The House Carpenter's Daugther, a collection of folk covers, in 2003, the same year that she gave birth to her daughter Lucia. She dedicated much of her 2000s to raising her child, returning to music in 2010 with Leave Your Sleep, a double album about childhood released on Nonesuch. Nonesuch also issued 2004's Natalie Merchant, the singer's first collection of original material in 13 years. After its release, she revisited her solo debut on its 20th anniversary, recording new arrangements of the songs for Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings in 1995. In 2017, she released the ten-CD The Natalie Merchant Collection, featuring all eight of her solo albums, plus a disc of rarities, and Butterfly, an album where she revisits six older songs and unveils four new ones. Merchant underwent emergency spinal surgery in 2018, an operation where they had to move her vocal cords; she'd regain her voice during a prolonged convalescence. Merchant was appointed to the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center Board of Trustees for a six-year term by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in November 2022. Featuring a set of songs written during her recovery from spinal surgery, Keep Your Courage appeared in April 2023.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo


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