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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Natalie Merchant, an artist whose audience ranges from pipefitters to PhDs, comes to the Fox

By Ed Condran The Spokesman-Review

At the start of a recent interview I reminded Natalie Merchant it’s been 36 years since our last conversation. I’ll never forget the diminutive lead vocalist of 10,000 Maniacs grabbing my hand and leading us to a corner of a West Philadelphia hotel lobby to discuss her band’s breakthrough album, “In My Tribe.”

Just a few minutes into the chat, Merchant picked up my tape recorder and ended the session. “I’m too sick to do this interview,” Merchant said.

A few weeks later, Merchant called and finished the interview. A few months later she and her band signed the story and adorned the article with doodles. Merchant read the feature and insisted that I misquoted her when discussing her take on the band R.E.M. Merchant underlined the quote she questioned.

“Was that a lesson for you,” Merchant said while chuckling.

No. I still have the recording of the interview, which backs up the quote.

Merchant, 59, is also looking back. The earnest singer-songwriter dusted off a number of diaries during lockdown. “I found all of my old journals,” Merchant said. “The journals go back to 1979. What I’ve discovered is that the world has changed quite a bit.”

The same can be said for Merchant, who will perform with a string quartet Wednesday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The bookish philanthropist has evolved considerably since the late ’80s when, while opening for R.E.M. and headlining clubs, Merchant would perform with her eyes shut.

“I was afraid to look at people,” Merchant said while calling from her home in upstate New York.

However, Merchant’s confidence was buoyed after “In My Tribe” was embraced. The material from 10,000 Maniacs’ second album is socially conscious, yet catchy. The melodic “What’s the Matter Here” is about child abuse. The lovely “A Campfire Song,” is pro environment.

“One thing that hasn’t changed since that period is that our planet is in peril,” Merchant said. “That’s something that we have to do something about. We can argue about all of our differences in this country and the world but if something happens to Earth, nothing matters.”

Like Iceland’s Sugarcubes, who broke in 1988 as well, there was no band that sounded quite like 10,000 Maniacs. “I think that has to do with living in Jamestown, which was like the Iceland of the United States,” Merchant said of her hometown in western New York. “I grew up in a cultural hinterland. There was only one store in which you could buy the New York Times in my hometown.”

10,000 Maniacs’ follow-up albums, 1989’s “Blind Man Zoo” and 1992’s “Our Time In Eden” enjoyed commercial success but by 1993 Merchant had enough of the collective musical experience. Merchant left the group for a solo career, which started with 1995’s “Tigerlily.”

As a solo artist Merchant moved beyond 10,000 Maniacs’ jangly folk-rock in favor of a more eclectic sound, which confounded her record label.

“I remember the people that worked on my albums with Elektra and they were perplexed that I had airplay on every possible radio format,” Merchant said. “I was played on everything from NPR to Top 40 Radio to AAA to even country radio. I was all over the map. So my audience has always been diverse. The range of people that see me is from pipe fitters to PhDs.”

With eight solo albums to draw from and her 10,000 Maniacs material, Merchant’s shows are marathons. “I perform for three hours,” Merchant said. “And that’s still not enough time for me to play everything that I want to play. I get so disappointed when I think about certain songs I haven’t played in years. I think about ‘King of May,’ which I haven’t played for the longest time.”

At the Fox, Merchant will perform a number of songs from her latest album, “Keep Your Courage,” which was released in April. The latest collection of Merchant songs are warm, poignant and provocative. “Keep Your Courage” is also her best sounding solo album.

“I think I’ve finally learned the craft of production,” Merchant said. “I wanted to make a record that sounds great. This album is a mixture of addressing the view from outside my window and what’s in my own head. It comes from a place of isolation during COVID. I look back into my own past and in my heart.”

“Keep Your Courage” is consistent with Merchant’s prior albums since the content is thoughtful and bittersweet.

Merchant is not only in a good creative space, she is also healthy. Merchant discovered her spinal column was collapsing into her spinal cord in 2018. Just days before lockdown in March of 2020, Merchant had spinal surgery. Three bones were removed from her neck and an incision was made over her vocal cords. Merchant lost her voice but regained it nine months after her surgery. Her spine is fine.

Merchant doesn’t just focus on music. The single mother is raising her teenage daughter and is a very busy activist. Merchant has campaigned against fracking, and directed a documentary on domestic violence.

“After this tour I have so much to do outside of music,” Merchant said.

Merchant has evolved so much from our initial meeting but she seemed just as busy a generation ago.

Her fans are just as ardent as they were when 10,000 Maniacs broke. “What’s wonderful is that people are responding enthusiastically to the new material,” Merchant said. “When I play a new song like ‘Come On, Aphrodite,’ they sing along like it’s a hit single. It’s a hit single on my scale, not like a Beyoncé hit. It’s been fun with this album just like it’s been fun at earlier points in my career.”