Natalie Merchant‘s newest release, “Leave Your Sleep,” is her most ambitious effort to date — a double CD featuring wildly divergent musical adaptations of poems showcasing over one hundred musicians. Yet it was the work of one poet that inspired the ex-10,000 Maniacs singer to launch the project and record her first album in six years.
“I was really drawn to the Christina Rossetti material from ‘Sing-Song,’ which was the only collection of poetry she wrote for children,” says Merchant, who will perform selections from the album with an eight-piece band at a family-oriented concert at Strathmore Sunday.
“Initially, I thought that that was the album I was making. But I started to be curious about the other Victorian poets who wrote for children, and then it was going to be a collection of 19th-century British poets.”
“And then,” she says, “I kind of opened the floodgates when I discovered maybe I should have some Americans — and some 20th-century Americans. Then I had to place some parameters around the project, because then it went from being this small, controllable, containable project to just possibilities that were limitless.”
Merchant eventually decided she wanted to keep the album focused on poems that were “by, for or about children,” a decision largely prompted by the fact that she’d been teaching her 7-year-old daughter about poetry. The collection, released in April, showcases works by Rossetti as well as Ogden Nash, E.E. Cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Graves.
The music Merchant composed to accompany the verses is markedly different than the Maniacs’ folk rock, or the type of poetic pop she showcased in solo hits like “Jealousy” and “Wonder.” “Leave Your Sleep” finds Merchant working in styles ranging from Cajun to jazz to chamber music. It’s a child-friendly record, partially conceived to encourage children to pursue reading poetry, but it also works as music for adults.
“Sometimes, the character in the poem would inspire a musical setting or the emotional content,” Merchant explains. “(Hopkins’) ‘Spring and Fall: To a Young Child’ to me just sounded like a chamber piece because it was such a profound poem. There’s nothing more tragic than the realization that a child has that everything dies — including the child.”
“There are a lot of nautical-themed poems that I chose,” she continues. “I love Celtic music, (so I thought) maybe these would sound great as Celtic pieces, because we associate the pennywhistle and the fiddle and the accordion or uilleann pipes with the sea. So I thought this would immediately transport people to the deck of the ship.”
Getting musicians together to perform on the album was a project in itself. Guest artists include the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, the Ditty Bops, classical musicians from the New York Philharmonic, the Klezmatics and the Wynton Marsalis Quartet. For the most part, Merchant invited people to upstate New York, where she felt like she could best capture the pastoral mood of many of the tracks.
“I like to bring people to me and put them in my setting,” she says. “There’s a rural residential studio upstate that I like to work in, and it feels like my home. And I like to take people out of urban environments, put them in the country, take their cell phones away, make them stand in a field full of fireflies and then ask them to play music. For the most part, everybody went to my home and we had catered family-style meals in the dining area and people took walks in the country.”
For the live shows, Merchant says, her band will be composed of strings, woodwinds, piano accordion, banjo, fiddle and guitars. Besides performing songs from the new effort, Merchant and company will play some of her older songs.
“The first half is the poetry project and the second half is my catalog, but reinterpreted,” she says. “I picked songs that adapted well. People will be pleasantly surprised with what they hear.”
So far, response to the album has been positive. It hit the Top 20 on the Billboard album chart and topped the folk chart. The estates — and heirs — of the poets whose work Merchant has revived have been elated with the new attention she’s bringing their poems; some have even bestowed gifts on her.
But since Merchant conceived “Leave Your Sleep” for her daughter, how has the critical response been from her best-known young listener?
“She loves it, she’s very proud,” Merchant says. “And it really is the soundtrack of her childhood, so it’s very familiar. She feels part of it.”
» Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda; Sun. July 18, 8 p.m., adults, $55; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)
Written by Express contributor Tony Sclafani
Photo by Mark Seigler