Natalie Merchant: Hearts and Minds
The multiplatinum-selling singer/songwriter turned environmental activist reflects on the freedom of nonattachment, the fight against fracking, and changing the world through music.
Photo credit: Dan Winters
After a decade-plus run as vocalist for the alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant reintroduced herself to the public as a solo artist in 1995 with the release of her five-times-platinum album Tigerlily. Since then, she has repeatedly used her music as a force for positive change: Among other things, she has given free concerts for inner city children, worked with homeless musicians on a benefit album and documentary film, and served as the director/producer of a concert film to benefit victims of domestic violence. Merchant’s new, self-titled album is her first collection of all-original songs since 2001’s Motherland.
What was going on in your life while you were writing your new album?
A lot of life passed under my little bridge in the 13, 14 years that I was writing these songs. Having my child, becoming a more devoted community member and activist, getting to an age where my friends are beginning to become sick, my mother passing away, getting married, getting divorced—there were so many experiences that I had. I would call it wisdom. I think at age 50, I can start calling it not just life experience [laughs], because I’m able to learn from all of it.
The first single from the album, “Giving Up Everything,” has been getting a lot of positive attention. What inspired the lyrics to that song?
One of my dearest friends is a Buddhist from Tibet. Just from speaking with her and from the example of how she lives and interacts with people, I’ve learned that attachment can lead to pleasure, but it also tends to lead to suffering. So I think that song is my attempt to tell myself to release the grip that I have on expectations and on notions of how things should be, and be more accepting of the way that things are. Maybe through that exercise, I’ll start to feel some freedom.
What were your reasons for becoming a vegetarian at age 16?
I remember very clearly why I started. I was out playing in the woods with my brothers, and I had an argument with some deer hunters that were on my family’s property. The week before, we had come upon the carcasses of six deer that had been decapitated—some trophy hunter had killed a whole herd of deer and taken their heads. I was really disturbed by that. So when we saw the hunters, I told them they weren’t allowed to hunt on our land. I was almost in tears: “Please don’t kill our deer!” And one of them said, “Well, you’re all worried about saving the deer, but you’ll go home tonight, and your mother will make you a big hamburger. What’s the difference?” A bolt of lightning hit me! And I’ve not eaten red meat since.
Tell me a little about your involvement in the fight against fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing has been in the forefront of the minds of New Yorkers for six years now. We’ve had a moratorium on the actual drilling while we’re studying the potential health impacts. We’re potentially sitting on lots of gas, and we’re the only state that has said, “We know the boom is on. We know everyone wants to access this, but at what cost to the environment and to our health?” The chemicals that have been found in groundwater and have been taken from some of the storage tanks where the flowback is found are carcinogenic, and they’re endocrine-disruptive. They can cause birth defects, respiratory issues, nerve damage. So we [members of New York’s anti-fracking community] have been involved in creating a multimedia event [a performance/protest featuring various scientists, musicians, actors, and activists] that became a film called “Dear Governor Cuomo,” because our previous governor, Governor [David] Patterson, put the moratorium in place, and our current governor, Andrew Cuomo, has upheld the moratorium and has the power to allow the drilling to begin or not, which is an incredible amount of power for one man to have. The event that we did and the film both appeal to him to go forward with extreme caution.
Do you feel that music is a form of activism, or that the arts in general can be used to help change the world?
I think that music is changing the world, has always changed the world. I think that music came from a desire to elevate ourselves and unify ourselves as a culture, to commemorate and celebrate the major passages of life. Whether it was a birthing ceremony, a naming ceremony, a wedding, or a funeral, music was always a part of it. I think that in the 21st century, music has drifted from its origins, but people have this kind of primal desire and need for music to nourish them emotionally. They don’t realize until they’re in a group of people and they’re singing, that they also crave it for its ability to bring together community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a song about rising up against oppression, but I think when we sing about the best aspects of ourselves or the worst aspects of ourselves, we’re asking people to become more reflective. I think sometimes the right artist with the right message can be accepted by the right person, and it can change people.