Natalie Merchant Biography
Natalie was born the third of four children of Anthony and Ann Merchant. Her paternal surname Merchant is of Sicilian origin and was originally "Mercante" before being Anglicised. The name O'Shea is on her maternal side; they are of Irish extraction.
As a child, her mother listened to music (Beatles, Al Green, Aretha Franklin) and encouraged her children to study music, but she wouldn't allow TV after Natalie was 12. "I was taken to the symphony a lot because my mother loved classical music. But I was dragged to see Styx when I was 12. We had to drive 100 miles to Buffalo, New York. Someone threw up next to me and people were smoking pot. It was terrifying. I remember Styx had a white piano which rose out of the stage. It was awe-inspiring and inspirational." "She [her mother] had show tunes, she had the soundtrack from West Side Story and South Pacific. And then eventually... she'd always liked classical music and then she married a jazz musician, so that's the kind of music I was into. I never really had friends who sat around and listened to the stereo and said 'hey, listen to this one', so I'd never even heard of who Bob Dylan was until I was 18." During 1988–1989, Natalie claimed she still didn't have a TV: "I grew up in a house where no one watched the news on television and no one read the paper. I've been discovering these things as I get older, and the news has affected me more than it ever has before." Her mother raised Natalie and her siblings alone, as Natalie's parents divorced in 1972. Her mother later remarried.
Natalie is married to Daniel de la Calle and has a daughter. She likes gardening and painting. Some paintings can be seen at her official website.
She has been a vegetarian since 1980, save for the duration of her pregnancy when she temporarily resumed eating meat. She once said: "The '60s aesthetic has never really appealed to me, the tie-dyed Deadhead running barefoot through the forest on LSD. I don't think that's really me. But I've been a vegetarian for 17 years and I consider myself an environmentalist inasmuch as I can be, considering the job that I have. I prefer living in the countryside rather than the city; I find it more sane and sustaining for myself."
Merchant has said in interviews that after her split with 10,000 Maniacs she was so eager to begin writing her own material that she went home that very day and composed the song “I May Know The Word,” which was originally meant to appear on the soundtrack to the Tom Hanks movie, Philadelphia. The song was eventually cut from the soundtrack, but it would go on to appear on Merchant’s debut solo album, Tigerlily, which was released on the Elektra label in 1995. Merchant chose to name the album Tigerlily as she felt it captured the feel of the album, which she described as both “fierce” and “delicate.”
Seeking creative control, Merchant chose to fund Tigerlily herself, refusing the advance from the record company. She also wanted to work with a core-group of young musicians who she felt would be enthusiastic about the music. The group would consist of guitarist Jennifer Turner, bassist Barrie Maguire, and former-Wallflower and eventual boyfriend to Merchant, Peter Yanowitz, who played drums on the album and who continued to do so with Merchant until their abrupt split in 2000.
Tigerlily was a critical and commercial success, spawning her first top-ten hit in the single "Carnival", and achieving top-forty success with subsequent singles "Wonder" and "Jealousy". The album would go on to sell over 5 million copies, and continues to be Merchant’s most successful album to date. Merchant did extensive touring for the album and made numerous television appearances, including performances on SNL, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all late-night talk shows. The media's immediate and critical impact on culture and cultural icons was of particular interest to Merchant. In "River", a song from Tigerlily, Merchant defends River Phoenix as she castigates the media for systematically dissecting the child actor after his death. Much of their emphasis was on Phoenix' suspected drug-using lifestyle. In "River," Merchant asks, “Why don’t you let him be / Give his mother and father peace.” Merchant’s anger is later replaced with quiet reflection, asking, “It was such a nightmare raving, ‘How could we save him from himself?’”
Three years passed before Merchant would release her sophomore solo effort, Ophelia. While Tigerlily contained a lot of sparse instrumentation, the music on Ophelia featured plenty of lush symphonic arrangements composed and conducted by British composer Gavin Bryars. Merchant treated the recording of Ophelia as a series of workshops, where she would invite various musicians she had met over the years into her home studio to collaborate and record. In the end, 30 different musicians featured on the album, among them Brand New Heavies frontwoman N'Dea Davenport (with whom she duets on the song Break Your Heart), famed trumpet player Chris Botti, and the husband and wife duo, Don and Karen Perris, from the band The Innocence Mission.
While Ophelia is not a concept record in the traditional sense, the album-cycle saw Merchant flexing her creative muscles in surprising ways. The name of the album and the title track are a literary reference to Shakespeare's Ophelia, who in the play Hamlet becomes mad and eventually commits suicide when Hamlet remains non-committal and lost in himself. Merchant's Ophelia describes a series of women throughout time—women who dared question the patriarchal status quo and who were often castigated for doing so—and is a cry for women's rights and for more understanding of female archetypes beyond the scope of the "mother" and the "whore", both of which severely limit women and attempt to turn them into little more than chattel. The portrayal of the women in the song is a tribute to the non-traditional, the "too smart for her own good" type of woman who is often misunderstood by society. As a lyric to the title song cries: "Your common sense, your best defense, was wasted and in vain!" A reflection of women driven mad by social limitations, Natalie's tribute described Ophelia as being at once a "novice carmelite," a "suffragette," a "circus queen," a "demigoddess" and a "mafia courtesan." The album sleeve saw Merchant pictured in colorful and ornate costumes as each of these different characters. As a companion to the album, she also released a film where she portrays each of these different characters, with voice-overs used for the "novice carmelite," the "sweetheart" and the "courtesan" as they are Latin, German and Italian, respectively.
The first single off the album was a happy and uncharacteristically simple song called "Kind and Generous", which received massive airplay on VH1 and which solidified Merchant's role as a bona fide solo artist. That summer, Sarah Maclachlan invited Merchant to co-headline the year's biggest music festival with her, Lilith Fair. The exposure from the tour helped the album reach Platinum status in just under a year, with subsequent singles "Break Your Heart" and "Life is Sweet" receiving moderate airplay on adult contemporary stations. No video was filmed for the latter, however, with a clip from Merchant's appearance on VH1's Storytellers being used instead. She would also go on to appear on PBS' Sessions at West 54th and VH1's Hard Rock Live before the year's end.
The Ophelia tour ended in 1999 with the final few shows being performed and recorded on Broadway. The performance would be released as the album Natalie Merchant: Live in Concert with a companion video of the same name. The performance was notable in that it featured numerous covers including songs by David Bowie, Neil Young, and the Breton-Welsh singer-songwriter Katell Keineg.
American Folk Music Tour (2000)
In 2000, Merchant embarked on a folk tour in the states with many shows being supported by alt-country band Wilco.
Merchant's next studio album on the Elektra label was Motherland, released in 2001. Motherland saw Merchant at her most experimental musically. Motherland achieved Gold on the Billboard charts after debuting at No. 30 on the Billboard 200 and No. 13 on the Top Internet Albums of 2001, respectively. Rolling Stone favored this album with 3½ stars, and also noticed a difference in Merchant's voice, which was more deep and gritty than her previous albums. Singles that were released from Motherland were Just Can't Last, Build a Levee and Tell Yourself.
Merchant embarked on a year and a half world tour to promote Motherland. The first leg of the tour started in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 17, 2001, trekking all over the United States, and then heading to Europe with some special acoustic shows in Europe. Merchant also participated in the Rock am Ring Festival and Rock im Park in 2002. In the summer of 2002, she was paired with Chris Isaak and both played at stadiums and arenas.
The House Carpenter's Daughter (2003)
Merchant's next studio album, The House Carpenter's Daughter, was released in September 2003 on her own label, Myth America Records. To date this has been the only release on Myth America.
In October 2009, the official websites of Nonesuch Records and Natalie Merchant announced that she had signed with the label. In November 2009 the official Nonesuch Records website indicated that Merchant will release a two CD studio album entitled Leave Your Sleep on April, 6 2010.