This month's Curated Conversation featured musician Natalie Merchant in conversation with Boston Globe Managing Director and HubWeek co-founder Linda Henry. Over lunch, Merchant shared stories from her 30-year career in the music industry — from her debut with 10,000 Maniacs to her more recent solo projects — which has earned her a place among America's most respected musical artists. But although Merchant's music has been a persistent force in so many of our lives, we left her Curated Conversation with many completely new insights into her life and work. Read on for just a few things we learned about Merchant's storied life and career.
She went to college at 16...
Merchant began studying at Jamestown Community College in New York at the age of 16, thanks to an advanced placement program. Already deeply interested in music, her first stop was the college radio station, where she got a DJ-ing gig. "I walked into the radio station, this 16 year-old girl with wild, long hair," she told the audience. "And they had never seen anything quite like me." She recalled playing the same Joy Division song for two hours, as well as introducing the college community to other artists that were still obscure at the time, like Brian Eno, all in an effort to "create some kind of alternative culture in this small town."
...And joined 10,000 Maniacs at 17
One night in 1981, Merchant was invited to a party in an artist's loft in Jamestown, NY. The band invited her on stage to sing, and the group that would become 10,000 Maniacs was born. For Merchant, joining the band at 17 was a doorway out of her small community with a limited artistic scene: "I thought, I'll get myself out of town. Do I go into debt going to college or do I just get in the van and travel for a couple years and then go to college?" As we all know, she got in the van, a decision that has since taken her around the world and to several Platinum records.
10,000 Maniacs got their first big break on BBC 1 radio
Despite 10,000 Maniacs' eventual success, it's safe to say that the group had a rough start. During a stint in Atlanta, Georgia, the band found it so hard to get gigs that they resorted to raking leaves. Shortly after, thanks to funds provided by the keyboard player's mother, 10,000 Maniacs recorded their first studio album, and made 1,000 copies, one of which was hand delivered BBC1 radio's John Peel by a friend studying in London. "John Peel thought [the record] was the strangest thing, but when he did his 100 favorite songs of the year we were 23 with My Mother the War," explained Merchant. "So we did a vanity publishing of 1,000 copies and one of those copies ends up in the hands of John Peel, who plays it obsessively."
The best piece of advice she ever received: Don't sell your publishing rights
Over the course of her career, REM's Michael Stipe became an important friend and mentor. His best piece of advice? "Do not sell your publishing." Despite almost being forced to sign over the rights to her work, Merchant has self-funded every recording project since 10,000 Maniacs and has therefore kept a strategic distance from major record companies. This allows her full creative control over all aspects of her creative process, from lyrics to final production: "If I didn't take an advance from the record company then I could work without any interference. I could just present them a final recorded album."
She's guided by authenticity
Merchant's career has been defined by authenticity — to herself and to the causes and values she believes in. From a young age, she could recall record companies putting pressure on her to adopt a certain image: "The record company spent a fortune on stylists trying to get me into something tighter and shorter, but nobody succeeded." And this dedication to staying true to herself has guided every artistic and business decision she's made throughout her 30-year career, from maintaining control over her publishing rights to her independence from musical trends of the 1980s and 90s to even taking extended breaks from the music industry all together.
She gains her inspiration from other people
Most of Merchant's songs are inspired by the experiences of others, and she often inhabits other personas through her lyrics: "I think isolation can be the death, for me. I need feedback, I take my inspiration from other people often, and their stories and their lives." Empathy is a driving force behind much of her music, as she puts herself in the shoes of people with a wide variety of life experiences. "I felt like it would be the most powerful way to tell stories, taking on characteristics of others. Like the song "Beloved Wife," I took on the persona of a man who had lost his wife. Or I wrote a song called "Cherry Tree" years ago, written from the point of view of someone who's illiterate. I've written from the point of view of a single mother, struggling to provide for her children. The list is really long, since I use that device a lot."
She organized a protest and made a documentary that helped protect rural New York from fracking
Merchant has been an environmentalist from a young age, but did you know that she was also a key figure in the successful campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — in New York state? She organized a protest, benefit concert, and documentary film, Dear Governor, all appealing directly to Governor Andrew Cuomo to maintain the state's fracking moratorium. The film in particular had a huge impact: "It's one thing to do a consciousness-raising event and also a fundraising event for an environmental cause to 1,000 people but if you can broadcast that to 100,000 people, or 1 million people through the internet," she told the audience. "And we used it as a community organizing tool. We did screenings all over New York state and beyond over the course of six months probably 100,000 people saw the film, and I don’t even know how many people saw it online."
She's currently in residence at Head Start in Troy, New York
What is Merchant working on now? Currently, she's in the midst of a four-year residency with Head Start, a federal program offering early education, care programs, and services to low-income families. Working with 160 students in Troy, NY, Merchant brings music and dance into the classroom and exposes the students to new ways of thinking and moving. "I have a guitarist and a violinist that I bring in to every session with the kids...And when I first walked into the classroom with a violin, they'd never seen one before. They thought it was a tiny guitar you played with a stick. But now I've bought little tiny violins and I bring them in and let them handle them and they know what a bow is, they know that a violin has four strings, they know how to hold them, and they want to play violins now."