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Natalie Merchant on album 'Keep Your Courage'

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER TILLY")

NATALIE MERCHANT: (Singing) Oh, Miss Tilly, I think you should know everyone's missing you here.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

That lush, layered contralto voice can belong to only one person - Natalie Merchant, the one-time lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, the multi-platinum creator of "Tigerlily," the environmentalist, film director, mother and artist in residence at a preschool. She does it all. She's out with her ninth solo album, "Keep Your Courage," and joins us now. Welcome to the show.

MERCHANT: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

RASCOE: Let's dive into that tune, "Sister Tilly." You're singing about a character who wears Joan Didion sunglasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER TILLY")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Tinctures, teas and your secret remedies and your voice like Buffy Sainte-Marie...

RASCOE: Who is Sister Tilly, and what were you getting at by writing the song?

MERCHANT: Sister Tilly is an amalgam of women I've known in my life of my mother's generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER TILLY")

MERCHANT: (Singing) You've gone so far away, and you're gone.

And I've combined them all into one person to kind of pay tribute to that generation and everything they mean to me. Through the first part of the song, it's in 3/4, and I'm talking about, you know, remembering all the aspects of her, even the color of her walls and her tinctures, her teas, her secret remedies and her voice like Buffy Sainte-Marie. And I keep saying she's gone away. But it isn't until the time signature changes - we go into 4/4.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER TILLY")

MERCHANT: (Singing) You've gone away.

And then it becomes this series of lyrics that just talk about releasing her, letting her go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER TILLY")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Oh, you're gone. You've gone away.

And you realize she's passed on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER TILLY")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Sister Tilly, you go on without us. Sister Tilly, you don't think about us.

RASCOE: A lot of this album is about love. You know, when you have to protect yourself, like, love is where you're most vulnerable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON, APHRODITE")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Come on, Aphrodite, you goddess of love. Come on, Aphrodite, from that mountain above.

RASCOE: You were at a point where people could really hurt you when you love them, right? That's the deepest hurt, right?

MERCHANT: And they can hurt you unintentionally.

RASCOE: Unintentionally, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON, APHRODITE")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Come on, Aphrodite. Can't you see that I've been patient? Come on, Aphrodite. Can't you see how long I've waited?

And, yeah, on this album, every time I used love, I was describing love in a different form, whether it was platonic or romantic or this kind of expansive, inclusive love. And then the song "Come On, Aphrodite," it's an invocation to the goddess of love and passion saying, bring it on, right? And then the song "Big Girls," it said, ooh, it hurts.

RASCOE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG GIRLS")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Always thought the game came easy. You never thought about it twice. You never thought about it twice.

RASCOE: That really - you know, that got me in my feelings, when I said - you know, it kind of made me tear up, you know, because it's talking about, you know, how you hold all this pain inside and never show them that you cry. Where were you coming from with that?

MERCHANT: I think when people recognize your pain, that's usually when you can break down.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

MERCHANT: And it's not just a song about loss in love. It's loss in life and just difficulties in life.

RASCOE: Yeah.

MERCHANT: It's a powerful thing that's called empathy. And when you feel that someone's empathizing with you and feeling your pain, it is a remarkable thing that happens to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG GIRLS")

MERCHANT: (Singing) There's only one way to survive. You got to hold on to your pride. Big girls, they don't cry.

And at the end, Abena Koomson-Davis, who's singing with me, we're addressing the audience the whole time. We're addressing everyone and saying, just hold on. And there are all these images at the end of ships wrecking and storms and floods and wrecking balls and - but we keep saying, hold on, hold on, hold on.

RASCOE: How did you meet her, and how did you come to collaborate with her?

MERCHANT: Abena Koomson-Davis is the musical director of the Resistance Revival Chorus, and I met her through doing a Get Out the Vote event in the Hudson Valley. We actually staged the largest political event in the history of our area. And I just fell in love with her voice and her energy and told her that I would love to collaborate someday. And once I had these songs written, we went in the studio and put them together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG GIRLS")

MERCHANT: (Singing) Hard as stone, gone cold as ice. Close the door.

RASCOE: One of NPR's music reviewers said back in 2014 about you that you have a subdued yet unmistakable air of a woman who finds pop stardom rather distasteful. And he meant that as a compliment. Like...

MERCHANT: (Laughter) That's a great compliment.

RASCOE: Is that true? Like, is that - what is your relationship to fame? Because you've had, like, massive hits. And, I don't know, like, you are a star, right? So what is your relationship to fame?

MERCHANT: I've had massive hits and sold lots of records, but I can walk into a store and hand someone my credit card and they can say, oh, you have the same name as a famous singer.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MERCHANT: And I say, yeah, I know.

RASCOE: And you don't go, I'm her.

MERCHANT: And the best was when I was in the hospital and the emergency room was just packed with people. And I was - so I was on a gurney in the hallway. And this woman walks by me with a picture of me on her phone, and she points to it and goes, you look just like Natalie Merchant. I went, I am, and she just laughed at me...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MERCHANT: ...And kept walking. I thought, this is going to get me in a room. And it didn't. I stayed in the hallway for another two hours.

RASCOE: So - but - and, like, is that OK with you, you know, being able to go to the grocery store?

MERCHANT: Oh, I prefer it.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

MERCHANT: I prefer it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MERCHANT: (Singing) By transcendent rays of light.

And mostly, my encounters with people if they do recognize me is just, Ms. Merchant, I really appreciate your work or it's very meaningful to me. And that's really a lovely exchange to have, and to meet people who feel like we already have some kind of relationship established.

RASCOE: 'Cause you started out in your early years with 10,000 Maniacs and other - is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now?

MERCHANT: How to eat properly. And the strange thing is, when I started with 10,000 Maniacs, I met them when I was 16. I think we formed the band when I was 17. We made our first record when I was 18. I remember we were in rehearsal one day and the bass player said, let's go to the bridge. And I was like, what's a bridge? I didn't even know the nomenclature. I didn't know how to even name the parts of a song. So I really learned everything through doing. I hope that people don't hold those records from the early '80s up to the work that I'm doing now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MERCHANT: (Singing) And prayer in a mother tongue so long, a song unsang (ph).

RASCOE: As a part of your upcoming tour, you're supposed to be performing with an orchestra at the Lincoln Center in New York and Disney Hall in LA and the National Symphony. Did young Natalie ever envision this for herself?

MERCHANT: No.

RASCOE: Yeah.

MERCHANT: Never.

RASCOE: Yeah.

MERCHANT: But my mother was a massive fan of classical music, and she was a single mom with four kids, so no money. And we lived near Chautauqua Institution, which had orchestra concerts in the summer every Tuesday and Saturday night. And we would sneak in a hole in the fence and go to the symphony. So from the time I was really young, I really have a great appreciation for symphonic music. And to be standing in front of an orchestra, it's such a privilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MERCHANT: (Singing) Come lay them.

RASCOE: That's singer songwriter Natalie Merchant. Her latest album, "Keep Your Courage," is coming out this week. Thank you for joining us.

MERCHANT: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MERCHANT: (Singing) Don't stop your search now. Go by the grace of God. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.