I came to Natalie Merchant late. I missed 10,000 Maniacs, for instance. But once I got out of the cloister of ashram life, I picked up on her pretty quick and even bought Motherland (I say “even bought” because I have an age-old poverty-related tic that makes it hard to buy records/tapes/CD's) – an album that I have consistently loved now for years.
I was excited to see her perform in person last night at the women’s conference at Omega.
Natalie is a small woman in person, petite, dressed in black, long dark hair and I’d be surprised if there was any make-up.
She opened up her book of music murmuring something offhand like, “I write them and then I forget them,” then something like “Not sure if I can get through this one without crying.” She began with “Tell Yourself” – perhaps my favorite of the songs I know -- a version of the song perhaps slower than I am used to, every word clear and aching. The tears did not come until perhaps the last line “And there’s just no gettin’ round the fact that you’re thirteen right now” -- when I heard her voice crack just a little. The tears came right into my eyes too. In that moment especially I was the girl in that song.
Then came about 3 more songs, all of them pensive, exploring, searching for meaning. They didn’t have regular rhythms of verse-verse-chorus. None of that. All of them moving like rivers of piano and lyrics. You knew, listening to this music, that Natalie was singing about herself every minute, that this was an inner exploration of a life.
One song she began and then quickly stopped and laughed and said, “Oh, I know this one,” and she took down the book and played by memory.
“It’s wonderful and terrible to be here,” she said at one point. “Wonderful because of this great gathering, and terrible because it has been a long time since I have been out.” She noticed someone holding up a camera – “Oh,” she pleaded. “Are you filming me? Please don’t film me. This is just for us.” And went back to playing.
She played a new song, one of those meanderings of words and music and when it ended at perhaps an uncertain point she said, “That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”
“It’s good to come out of the forest sometimes,” she said later almost as if talking to herself.
And after the final song she simply, gracefully, walked out. There was no standing before the audience either when she came in or when she departed, no standing and taking in what would have been a long standing ovation, a great wave of appreciation.
I am left with the belief that Natalie is even more complicated and interesting than I already suspected. I said to my husband later that night (he’d been there too), “I felt that Natalie was so completely herself tonight on stage.” She wasn’t trying to please anyone. She was living her life. Unexpected and wonderful. She didn’t make it look easy.