My perception of Natalie Merchant is locked in the early ’90s. As one of the early stars of so-called alternative rock, Merchant gave off something of a precious vibe in the music press, and the press was all too willing to play up Merchant’s heavy hand in the creative direction of her former band, 10,000 Maniacs.
The younger Merchant had a propensity for dourness that pushed against with her bandmates’ eagerness to rock. Fans ended up with songs such as “What’s the Matter Here?”, a bouncy tune about child abuse.
I didn’t follow Merchant’s solo career because I was a big fan of that tension. I also liked the chemistry among the Maniacs, something Mary Ramsey nicely keyed into when she assumed singing duties after Merchant’s departure.
In 2010, Merchant emerged from a 7-year hiatus with an ambitious double album setting poems to music titled Leave Your Sleep. Guests on the album included the Klezmatics and Wynton Marsalis, and the songs ranged in style from orchestral to folk.
I liked Leave Your Sleep enough to catch Merchant with the Seattle Symphony.