Natalie Merchant’s most recent album Leave Your Sleep is entirely different from her multiple successes realized over a 28-year-long career as lyricist and performer. A collection of children’s poems by 19th- and 20th-century English and American writers put to music, the playlist of 26 songs diverts in both content and style, as the artist reimagines the poetry’s potential effect on ears then and now. Merchant let her own imagination run wild to set pieces like the Victorian English fancy “Topsyturvey-World” to reggae, for example, and to have a Chinese traditional ensemble accompany “The King of China’s Daughter.”
Musical stylists who contributed to the album represent a broad spectrum, including the Klezmatics, the Irish band Lunasa, Wynton Marsalis, the Fairfield Four gospel singers, the jazz/funk jam-band Medeski, Martin & Wood and members of the New York Philharmonic – ultimately involving 130 musicians in total. The project was in the works for six years as the singer/songwriter researched and adapted the poetry of e. e. cummings, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and many others.
The poems seem to hearken back to another era, giving a sort of nostalgic glimpse of life in another timeframe. When asked about this attraction to the past, Merchant says that in reading poetry, she discovered that the most vital aspects of the human experience haven’t changed in hundreds of thousands of years. “The things we need essentially – food, shelter, warmth, human interaction – those things haven’t changed. Those are the things poets write about. They might write about how our contemporary culture – our post-industrial digital culture, global culture – impacts our lives, but they are still talking about our essential spiritual and physical selves.”
Merchant says that having and caring for a child gave her the realization that these needs and this act has not changed for thousands of years. “When an infant cries in the night and you wake up and pull them close to you and nurse them, that hasn’t changed. We might think we live in this modern era and share nothing in common with people who came before, but I don’t think it’s true. I think we share more than we know.”
The promotion of Leave Your Sleep has differed somewhat from other albums, too. “People are finding interesting uses from the project,” she says. “I’m enjoying getting letters from teachers and little films of classes singing and reciting poems. Other kids have been sending me illustrations of the poems. That’s been something unique about this project. Also, I’ve partnered with a lot of poetry organizations throughout the country and in the UK, and I’ve performed on the same bill as seven poets laureate at Cooper Union, at the opening of Poets’ House in New York, at an event with the National Poetry Foundation in Chicago, at the National Poetry Out Loud finals in DC. It’s taking me to many different venues and introducing me to many different people, especially people in the literary and poetry world.” Merchant has also been invited to do a residency with the Aspen Institute for a seminar focused on literary arts and music.
“The program I’m doing with Bard is one [for which] I’ve been gathering material for almost 27 years; it’s material from every album I’ve recorded that had orchestral elements. This has been really fun, because pulling all these arrangements together, hiring a copyist who’s become my librarian and developing this repertoire that can be played with a standard 26-piece orchestra – I’ve learned a lot in this project. It’s a direction I’m interested in going. We’ve played this program eight times now, and we’ll be doing it with the Conservatory Orchestra; it will be lots of fun. I’ve seen the students performing on several occasions, and they’re really gifted. I’m hoping that doing this event will remind people that these student concerts exist. They’re highly ambitious, and they do these concerts that are free or virtually free several Sundays a month. It’s a great resource in the Valley.”
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts presents Merchant in concert with the Bard College Conservatory of Music Orchestra on Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. The concert will feature music from Leave Your Sleep as well as other orchestral selections from her extensive catalogue. The orchestra will be conducted by James Bagwell and will feature more than 35 student musicians, as well as special guests Uri Sharlin on piano and accordion and Erik Della Penna on guitar and background vocals.
As a benefit for the scholarship fund of the Bard College Conservatory of Music and students enrolled in the Conservatory Preparatory Division, the event fulfills Merchant’s ongoing commitment to supporting the arts in the Hudson Valley region. Indeed, throughout her career, she has supported a wide array of nonprofit organizations like Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper and WAMC locally, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, the Association to Benefit Children, Planned Parenthood and the Southern Center for Human Rights. Appointed to serve a five-year term as a member of the New York State Council on the Arts, Merchant reflects, “I don’t think I’ve done a paying gig in the Hudson Valley in 20 years. It’s a philosophy that other musicians have that I’ve met: At home you do pro bono work; you give in the way that you can to your community.”
When asked if working with the talented music students at Bard is in any way humbling, Merchant says, “Making this record was humbling, because I worked with 130 musicians from all different walks of musical life. I was blown away by their talent and their skills. I didn’t have much formal training – took piano lessons as a child, but that was it. I’m not even that great a singer.” She muses, “I’m a songwriter; I think that’s my strength. It’s not in technique as a vocalist, and it certainly isn’t in my ability to orchestrate, even though I’ve done that. I’m a soul musician, more than a trained…But there’s a lot of give and take, because when I worked with so many of these classically trained musicians, they told me that if music isn’t written on the page, it doesn’t seem to exist for them, and that they cannot improvise. That to me is unfathomable. I admire what they do, but I don’t know that I’d trade being able to play the repertoire for being able to create music from my own experience and my own imagination.”
Tickets are $60 or $100, with a $200 benefit ticket option that includes priority seating and a post-concert reception with the artists. For tickets and information call the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or go to www.fishercenter.bard.edu.
Founded in 2005, the mission of the Bard College Conservatory of Music is to prepare young musicians in the creation and performance of music, featuring a unique double-degree program in which all undergraduate conservatory students receive a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Arts in another field. In addition, the conservatory offers graduate programs in vocal arts and in conducting, as well as a Postgraduate Collaborative Piano Fellowship. The Bard College Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division is a Saturday program of study for students aged 5 to18, with instruction offered in piano, violin, cello, double bass, flute and voice. For more information, visit www.bard.edu/conservatory.