ASK NATALIE MERCHANT where shes been and she will joke that shes just coming out of hibernation.
Really, I just decided to join civilian life for a while, says the 46-year-old singer, who took a long professional hiatus after giving birth in 2003 to Lucia, her daughter with husband Daniel de la Calle.
Now, after seven years, the 10,000 Maniacs singer-turned-solo-artist is back with a new album an LP that adapts the work of classic and contemporary poets called Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch Records, $25).
After I had my child, I wanted to remain creatively engaged as a songwriter, but my usual process of songwriting required complete isolation and driving myself to the brink of insanity to finish anything, she says, laughing. And I thought, Thats going to make me a terrible mother.
Merchant soon began to consider the idea of setting the words of other writers to her original tunes. The idea of breathing new life into past works wasnt entirely new to her: Shed already worked with Billy Bragg and Wilco to complete the unfinished lyrics of Woody Guthrie and had helped British composer Gavin Bryars turn Shakespearean sonnets into song. And I found it all very challenging but actually quite fun as well, Merchant says.
The genesis of Leave Your Sleep came to Merchant as she was entertaining Lucia. I started with lullabies and nursery rhymes. Then I started teaching her how to speak and introduced her to more sophisticated and complex poetry, she says. So I started to conceive of a project more about the time period of childhood and what you experience the innocence and the loss of that innocence.
Merchant completed more than 50 songs for the project (half of which made the final cut), and her muses range from popular poets such as E.E. Cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins to lesser-known literary figures such as Nathalia Crane. Musically, she developed an ambitious plan to make the album a journey into a variety of cultures. I started to explore all these different types of music from different regions and periods of time and began to make it more and more layered, she says. I would collaborate with bluegrass musicians one day, the next day it would be an early music consort, the next day a Celtic folk group, the next day Chinese musicians. It was an incredible experience.
The final roster of collaborators includes respected veteran talents such as Wynton Marsalis, the Klezmatics and the Fairfield Four, among many others. There are hundreds and hundreds of years of musical experience inside these people, Merchant says. Theyre some of the best players in their respective fields, so it was hard not to be inspired by that.
The elaborate Leave Your Sleep which includes two discs and an 80-page booklet that documents the poets behind the songs should attract both Merchants longtime fans and those drawn to the larger literary concept. But after being away from the biz for so long, Merchant is simply eager for the album to be heard. What I found in the seven years that I wasnt putting records out is that I kept producing music and had no audience, she says. Ive started to really crave the experience of sharing what was in my head with other people. Im very eager to feel that again.