“Maybe there is something kooky about analog but then again, I still like homemade clothing too,” commented Natalie Merchant.
Refreshingly, Merchant”s down-home, organic take on recording also transfers over to her ideals about touring, her new album and, it appears, her life as well. Merchant, who will be playing at the Hill Auditorium tonight, said she thoroughly enjoys touring and is quite excited about playing a tour that focuses on college venues.
“Colleges are important. They are not primary media venues and I feel that they provide a really relaxed atmosphere,” said Merchant.
The tour comes in promotion of the upcoming release of her new album, Motherland. The album was originally supposed to be a concept album, paying tribute to great American non-conformists, with each song tackling different personalities ranging in diversity from Al Capone to folk singer Henry Darger. However, Merchant scrapped many of the songs for others, as she considered this original idea for the album to be “too topical.” After all, her previous record Ophelia was a concept album that vaguely focused on the multiple personalities of a fictitious Merchant character, so perhaps it is in her best interest that Merchant has decided to avoid this with her new release.
Musically, Merchant describes Motherland as “loose” due largely to her new producer, T. Bone Burnett, who has also produced the critically acclaimed soundtrack to “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and the latest Joseph Arthur album. Also, Merchant assures that a “new energy” has been infused into her established band with the addition of long time Tori Amos/Fiona Apple drummer, Matt Chamberlain.
Merchant claims that her approach to recording music is “old fashioned,” and “not antiseptic,” in comparison to what is running rampant in pop music today. Of the current trend to sterilize sound with mechanical beats and keyboard scapes, Merchant commented that she is “not intimidated as much as annoyed,” and that she feels the urge to “resist the machinery.” She explained that she has a personal revulsion to quantization, the process of computerizing and measuring beats, and that she favors a less clean but more genuine sound when it comes to recording.
“That”s how life is. It”s not a sound vacuum. It”s organic sound,” she commented.
As for touring, Merchant strives to do her best to remain genuine while also retaining high sound and technical quality. She says she knows when the band is “cookin”” and does her best to capture that as much as possible.
“I find it gratifying to reduce things to their essence,” said Merchant of her live show philosophy. She cited Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman as some of her favorite live performers because of the simplicity of their acts.
Additionally, Merchant”s concern is not only for her fans” enjoyment but more importantly for their connection to the music. This has only become a heightened focus, she explained, in the midst of a national crisis.
“People want to connect right now. It”s very easy for people to cry.” said Merchant.
“We”re mourning the death of innocence. I think people need to celebrate the things that are left. Also, our daily life doesn”t give us a chance to scream. Often over the past month or so, I”ve felt like screaming,” she went on to explain.
For Merchant, touring provides her with this opportunity. She explained that the World Trade Center crisis was particularly touching for her, being a New Yorker, and that she even sang at a funeral for one of the victims. The current mood of the country has made the need for emotion, expression and fundamental human connection even more important. As this seems to be a natural personal concern of Merchant”s, it only makes sense that this would endure and carry over into her musicianship on this upcoming tour.
“Music is an expression of our humanity,” said Merchant, who clearly has aspirations to keep that expression and that humanity as sacred and uncorrupted as possible.