A Short Interview with Natalie Merchant

Looking back at “In My Tribe,” nearly four decades after its release

A Short Interview with Natalie Merchant

Looking back at “In My Tribe,” nearly four decades after its release

A Short Interview with Natalie Merchant

Lauren LeBlanc
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“All is memory taken home with me,” sings Natalie Merchant at the close of 10,000 Maniacs’ 1987 album, In My Tribe. The song, “Verdi Cries,” captures a young person’s experience of listening to an opera recording through the walls of a hotel, eavesdropping on lives rich with culture and years, aching to share their passions. That plaintive yearning for worldly wisdom juxtaposed with poignant self-awareness—a contradictory mark of young adulthood—shines through every song on this record. Of all the music that best captures that golden moment of my own life, it’s this complete album, song by song, that I go back to the most, without skipping.

Listening to In My Tribe on a beautiful summer drive in 2022, I realized the album had been released thirty-five years ago. Merchant herself was only twenty-two when it was recorded. Given the long and rich career that she has enjoyed as a solo artist and activist in the decades since, and her time as the lead singer and songwriter for 10,000 Maniacs, I wondered how she remembered this seminal album. To me, it’s vivid with songs that build on one another like an eclectic analog archive of Technicolor postcards, bittersweet snapshots, or handwritten letters home, each note sparking memories. Did she feel the same? I reached out to request to speak with Natalie Merchant about the album, and much to my delight, she accepted. During our conversation, Merchant traced her sentimental education and offered a glimpse into the motivations of an artist who continues to not only create vital art (like her new album, Keep Your Courage, released in spring 2023) but also tour and perform in support of causes as much as for her music.

—Lauren LeBlanc

THE BELIEVER: You grew up in the small city of Jamestown, New York: it had to be a shock to tour nationwide as a musician. What was that like?

NATALIE MERCHANT: I’d been to Buffalo once. [Laughs] I went to Manhattan on a school trip once. I’d been nowhere. I believe the second time I was ever in an airplane, I was flying to England to make The Wishing Chair [Merchant’s first album for Elektra Records, released in 1985]. The first time was on a brief tour in England before recording that album. The band really opened up the world for me. And I traveled and met so many interesting people. And found a way to express myself.

BLVR: You were a community college student when you joined the band 10,000 Maniacs. For financial reasons, you opted to postpone an undergraduate education in New York City in order to avoid debt. Could you talk about that?

NM: Get on the tour bus, or go to college and go into debt. I thought, Well, I’ll just get on the tour bus and travel. It was kind of my equivalent of a gap year, because by the time I was eighteen, I had an associate’s degree because of Advanced Placement classes. So I thought, Well, you know, I did two years of college already, I’m only eighteen. Let’s see what traveling is like and meeting people and playing music. And then I never went back to college.

BLVR: At age twenty-two, when you should have been a fresh college graduate, you wrote and composed In My Tribe. How did it feel to be aware of that?

NM: I was talking to my daughter recently about how I’ve been on every major college campus in this country, but I was working. I was the same age as the people at the colleges. And at the time, I don’t know if I really recognized that, because I felt like college just wasn’t an option for me because I had chosen my career and I was doing it. But I felt intimidated. We’d play at Harvard or Stanford or Berkeley or UCLA. We played all the colleges because we were college-radio darlings, but I didn’t feel like college could ever be possible for me.

BLVR: But you never stopped learning and being inquisitive. How did you stay engaged on the road?

NM: I was a voracious reader. I was self-educating. So I’d be reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and I read all the Henry Miller novels and Anaïs Nin, and I remember reading all those Jack Kerouac books when I was eighteen or nineteen years old: The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, On the Road. I remember I liked Jane and Paul Bowles a lot, Flannery O’Connor, Kafka, Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the Alexandria Quartet. I was reading history, a lot of current-events books to educate myself in every way I could. I had a subscription to The Nation and The Progressive. I was such a dedicated reader when I was younger, I was like a sponge. I was always reading in the back of the bus, in the dressing room or cafés, wherever. All my friends had gone to college or were going to college; they would just tell me what to read.

BLVR: In My Tribe is such a beautiful album about recognizing your place in the world and learning to use your voice to speak out. What was it like writing that album?

NM: I wrote that record when I was twenty years old, and my daughter is in her twenties now. Her level of sophistication is much greater than mine was at that age. I think kids today are a lot more sophisticated because there’s a lot more information that’s available to them. At that time, the world was opening up to me. I wrote songs about Jack Kerouac and the Painted Desert—I had just been to the West for the first time—because I was writing about what I knew. “Cherry Tree” was a song about my grandfather’s illiteracy. He had been an immigrant and his father was an invalid. And at the age of eight or nine, my grandfather went to work in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Because his father was bedridden, he and his siblings had to go to work, so he never learned to read or write—yet he was a very proud man. “City of Angels” was about being in Los Angeles. Coming from a very small town in the Northeast, I was always shocked by going to Los Angeles. It was like going to Babylon. My guitar player—I remember we went for a hike one day in LA and he got up above the Hollywood Hills, and as he looked down he said, “Front-row seat to the apocalypse.” And then he said, “This looks like a good place for a crucifix.” “Don’t Talk” was about alcoholism, “Gun Shy” was about my brother. My poor brother! I actually named him, and he was still in the military, obviously. He got so much flak for that song. ​​He was stationed in Germany. People would hear the song and they would torture him over it: “So good at making soldiers, but they’re not as good at making men.” I was really disappointed with him for joining the military. “My Sister Rose” is about my aunt Rose and her husband, Rocky. It’s about growing up in a second-generation Italian American family and those weddings that I remember from my childhood in the ’60s and ’70s, which were huge affairs and big family events, where you got to see your grandmother and her sisters, you know, drinking and dancing. It was really uncharacteristic! There was “A Campfire Song,” which was about waking up to power dynamics in the world, and resources.

BLVR: What is it like to listen to the album now?

NM: Anytime I hear anything recorded before Tigerlily, I just say, “Oh, little Natalie” [laughs] because I sound like a little cartoon animal. I just sound so young and high-pitched and tentative in my delivery. They’re like embarrassing journals. My voice has gotten deeper and richer and I’m less hurried in my delivery. But I was just learning how to write songs and make records at the time, and the production on those early records, especially In My Tribe, is a little brittle for my ear, because it was the early days for digital recording. And these are the things that really are killjoys when you talk to a musician about their work, because you probably never paid attention to the production. But the first thing I hear is this kind of sizzly early digital production. To its credit, I thought it was a very ambitious record, lyrically, and I’m proud of a lot of the phrases on the record and the variety of subject matter, and it did stand out. Time has really changed the way people look at me. At the time, I was an oddball, because I was writing socially conscious lyrics and I was a vegetarian. I did as many benefit concerts as I did paying concerts, and it was just—I had a lot of concerns. And it was a time when I think everyone just expected something more frivolous from musicians. Now, you know, all that is pretty much accepted as a given: you’re supposed to have concerns and you’re supposed to be a vegan.

BLVR: What was it like to be a young working musician traveling to Los Angeles to record this album? Did you have an apartment there? Where did the studio put you up?

NM: So the label put us up in a place called Oakwood Apartments. There’s several of them around LA and they have cottage cheese ceilings. Single room, wall-to-wall carpet, mildewy. Yeah, everything was concrete and mildew and wall-to-wall carpeting. And I felt very alienated by the whole environment. And I remember walking to the studio one day and when I got there, they had to give me oxygen. They told me no one walks in LA. I remember Peter Asher [legendary record producer who worked with the Beatles, James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt, among other artists] had a couple of young children. And his wife and his kids lived out in Malibu, and I remember they had a guest house. And he felt sorry for me, I think, after that incident, and started taking me home with him at night. And I would sleep in the guest house and I could get up in the morning and walk on the beach. And then we would come back to the studio together. My only experience of a Malibu beach house up till that point had been my friend’s Barbie’s house.

So it was pretty crazy. And I remember the fee that Asher received was three times my mother’s annual salary. And I remember calling Jefferson Holt, who managed R.E.M., and I was in tears. I was like, “I don’t understand anything.” And he said, “Believe me, Peter Asher is going to earn that money.” And he said, “And your mother makes minimum wage.” You know, my mother was a secretary. I didn’t understand—the scale of things was unclear to me. Now it makes perfect sense. I’ve paid producers the same or more since, but it was shocking at that moment.

BLVR: Who were you hanging out with? And what was that kind of time like socially? Were you just writing a ton of letters and reading and taking in the view in Los Angeles? Or how much of the city did you see if you were spending most of your time in the studio?

NM: The main question is: What do you do in Los Angeles if you don’t have a car? [Laughs] We were working pretty steadily. And I remember R.E.M. was there for some of that time because I remember hanging out. Michael [Stipe] came to the studio to sing on “A Campfire Song.” We had a mutual friend, Michael Meister, who owns Texas Records in Santa Monica. And we had met Michael—both of us had met him—because Texas was this cool independent record store, and he would have shows there. And he was tied in with KCRW. I would go to Santa Monica and Michael [Stipe] would come pick me up. And then I’d go hang out with him. [Michael Meister] was a big collector of folk art. So he and Stipe introduced me to folk art. The first time I ever went to New Orleans was with R.E.M. on tour for In My Tribe, and Michael [Stipe] took me to a folk art gallery and the dealer had just acquired a stack of about fifty Henry Darger paintings. And Michael [Stipe] wouldn’t buy any, because he thought they were creepy and had bad juju. I remember he and I stayed up all night after the show, wandering around. And we got a temporary fish tattoo and cut it in half. He got the tail and I got the head. I just remember it was so hot, one of those hot New Orleans nights where there’s no way to sleep after the show. We were just so full of adrenaline. I have such vivid memories of that.

BLVR: What were you listening to at the time that you recorded In My Tribe?

NM: It was probably a lot of Anglo and Celtic folk music. I had just spent a year living in London. Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, Dolores Keane, June Tabor, Maddy Prior, the Bothy Band, Shirley Collins and the Albion Band, Steeleye Span, Anne Briggs. I loved the Strawbs and Nick Drake. As far as contemporaries: Talking Heads, the Smiths, Billy Bragg, the Cure, Cocteau Twins, Peter Gabriel, Sinéad O’Connor, Tom Waits. I think that was around the time I discovered Nina Simone and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

BLVR: Did you feel encouraged or pushed to consider other directions regarding your music and songwriting?

NM: I don’t remember anyone trying to push me anywhere. I was upset when the label put out “Peace Train” as the first single. “Peace Train” was a song that Peter Asher came to see us play in Buffalo when he was considering whether to produce us or not, and it was New Year’s Eve, I think. And we played “Peace Train” as a New Year’s song. Something optimistic. And he just latched on to it. Like, That’s your first single! And we all said, “But we wrote all these other songs!”

I always felt like I was more cynical than “Peace Train.” The message of “Peace Train,” although sweet, was naive and unrealistic and, I felt, not that nuanced. I really felt like the songs I was writing were more grounded in reality and just meant more to me. So I was disappointed. We made a stupid video for it. It got buried.

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