Art Works Blog

Art Works Podcast: Natalie Merchant

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that  singer/songwriter  Natalie Merchant began her musical career as the lead vocalist and lyricist for 10,000 Maniacs. Her solo career has been remarkably successful both popularly and critically. She’s known as a wonderful interpreter of song and as a composer whose lyrics demand attention. So perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Merchant has a passion for poetry. Indeed, she served as a judge for the New York State Poetry Out Loud competition in 2009, and performed at the Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington, DC that same year.

She also spent six years working on a project that set 19th- and  20th-century American and British childhood poems to music. Using text from poets as disparate as Edward Lear, Mother Goose, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, and Robert Louis Stevenson (to name a few), Merchant composed music that transformed the poetry into songs. The result was a two-CD set called Leave Your Sleep. Leave Your Sleep is an ambitious project: not only do the poems encompass nursery rhymes, lullabies, elegies, fantasies, and so on, but Merchant composed music that moves through more than a dozen genres. Eventually more than 100 musicians took part in performing songs that ranged from bluegrass, klezmer, chamber music, Chinese traditional ensemble, American Indian chant, and Irish music. It was a gamble that paid off; it’s a dream of a project that made many “best of” lists for 2010.

Here’s Natalie Merchant explaining her decision to compose music for other poets’ work and how the process affected her own relationship with poetry. [2:05]

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