Natalie Merchant Biography

26 October 1963, Jamestown, New York, USA. Having originally sung in a church choir, Merchant joined the highly regarded 10, 000 Maniacs in 1981 while studying at Jamestown Community College in New York. She would eventually leave that band over a decade later in 1992, three years before she made her solo bow. Merchant self-evidently relished the control afforded her by this enterprise, writing all the lyrics and music for her debut album, Tigerlily, which she also produced. She had made her intentions to leave known to her former band as early as 1990, but only jumped ship after their label, Elektra Records, offered her a solo contract. When she took it up they promptly dropped 10, 000 Maniacs. Her reflections on her time in the band were revisited on Tigerlily’s ‘I May Know The Word’, which amplified some of the frustration she felt in the later stages of their career (though the break-up was generally amicable). However, she still felt the need to recruit a core backing band, with Jennifer Turner (lead guitar), Peter Yanowitz (drums) and Barry Maguire (bass/guitar) as her accomplices. The most obvious change from her 10, 000 Maniacs days signalled by Tigerlily was the vocal emphasis. Always a distinctive, affecting singer, her vocals were now mixed much higher and were less prone to smothering by her former band’s multi-layered musicianship. The album was also a commercial success, reaching the US Top 20 in July 1995, and established her as one of the leading female pop artists of the 90s.

Merchant’s ambitious follow-up, Ophelia, was a semi-successful attempt by the singer to broaden her musical and lyrical horizons. The album was another commercial success, however, reaching the US Top 10 in June 1998. An enjoyable live album was released the following year. Merchant teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett on Motherland, mining a grittier folk rock seam than the over-produced Ophelia. The album proved to be Merchant’s final release for Elektra, her long-term label. She returned in 2003 with a fine collection of traditional and contemporary folk songs, The House Carpenter’s Daughter.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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