Some have called her the contemporary Joan Baez. Twenty-two years ago, the New York Times described her as “largely responsible for the [10,000] Maniacs’ reputation as the world’s most politically correct band.”
She prefers “socially conscious.”
Natalie Merchant — the acclaimed folk artist who, for 12 years, was the lead singer of the 10,000 Maniacs — has long been inspired by her surroundings. When she joined the band in 1981, she was just 17 years old. At the time she was like a “sponge,” she said, “taking in everything I saw and heard.”
Born in Jamestown, New York, Merchant grew up in a small town. She came of age protesting the Love Canal, the infamous New York neighborhood that became a toxic wasteland and major public health hazard. Women had miscarriages. Hundreds of schoolchildren were displaced.
She was also involved in Greenpeace. One of the Maniacs’ first shows was on Hiroshima Remembrance Day at City Hall. She has long been a vegetarian. When she was on tour, she would “live for a college town” with a vegetarian restaurant and small movie theater. “I think we were really earnest but committed to making music that would make a positive impression,” she said.
It worked. A woman from Pakistan recently approached her and said, “Your music was a huge part of my adolescence. I just can’t believe I’m standing next you!” Merchant was stunned the music she created in the privacy of her home made it all the way to Pakistan. “I told her,” Merchant relayed, “I can’t believe I’m standing next to you!”
Ahead of her July 15 show at the Santa Barbara Bowl, Merchant chatted on the phone with The Santa Barbara Independent while outside the Cleveland Museum of Art. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Where did the name of the band — 10,000 Maniacs — come from? It was a [reference] to Two Thousand Maniacs! [the 1964 splatter film about New Englander travelers who are murdered in the South]. It was a stupid name. I figured it was largely responsible for a lot of people never coming to our music. In Berlin, in the early ‘90s, all these punks were coming to the show. [They wondered] Where are those 10,000 Maniacs? Where are the punks? It was kind of embarrassing.
What influenced your music? The things that frightened me are the things I thought other people needed to know about: child abuse, literacy, toxic waste, the water supply. There are some people that it appealed to and other people who kind of ridiculed it. They thought rock and roll was supposed to be about stratification.
But you never thought of yourself as a rock-and-roll musician. [We were] blues based. More of a reggae-folk-kind-of-influence band, more of a folk-pop band.
You recently released a 10-CD box set, The Natalie Merchant Collection. Did you always plan to do that? No, it was something I started to plan to do last year. It felt like a good moment to try to consolidate everything in one package. I don’t think people will be buying CDs much longer. We’re reaching the end of an era. I really feel like it is the punctuation on a period of my life.
So what’s next? I don’t know what I’m going to do professionally. I’m really interested in visual art. I’ve always wanted to work with children, especially since working with my own. My daughter is going into high school. I have four more years with her. This wonderful bond we’ve created will never be the same.
What does she listen to? She’s obsessed with Hamilton. She also listens to The Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men.
You continue to be politically active. You protested at Trump Tower on the day of the Inauguration. What did you make of the Women’s March? It was the best antidote to the Inauguration, which was borderline suicide-inducing experience for most of us, most people I know. To go from the extreme of Obama to Trump was schizophrenic.
Do you think the resistance movement will last? It has to.
Natalie Merchant will be playing Saturday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., at the S.B. Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). Call (805) 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.