Natalie Merchant is fighting the world’s battles in her songs. Mark Cooper finds out why.
WALKING across Hyde Park in bright spring sunshine, Natalie Merchant looks like a slightly older version of the schoolgirls gathered outside for a lunchtime lesson. Only the sleeve of the new album by her band, 10,000 Maniacs – Blind Man’s Zoo – clutched in one hand suggests that this demure young lady is poised to become the latest shining light in the caring rock community.
Madonna’s use of burning crosses to promote her ‘Like A Prayer’ single make Merchant shudder despite the sunshine and soon she is referring to this pop icon as her “ideological enemy.” In contrast, Merchant has chosen a disturbing collection of elephant photos for the cover of Blind Man’s Zoo. She is determined to wield her growing popularity responsibly.
Elephants are but one of the victims of human folly strewn amidst the songs on Blind Man’s Zoo. The pastoral electric talk of 10,000 Maniacs’ major label debut The Wishing Well has given way to muscular indignation and Merchant’s lyrics can now barely contain her moral outrage. Poverty, pollution, the aftermath of the Vietnam War are just some of the woes explored on Blind Man’s Zoo and while Merchant prefers stories to anthems, there is no disguising the size of her conscience.
“I hope this album will amount to a communal outcry because the things that I’m singing about are things that any thinking, feeling person would be just as upset about as I am,” says Merchant.
Many of Merchant’s songs are co-written with one or other of the four men who make up 10,000 Maniacs. Yet her sole responsibility for the lyrics gives their work what she calls “a strong feminine voice”.
“That gives me pleasure,” Merchant reflects, “knowing that so many men buy our records and maybe will come to a better understanding of how a woman feels when she’s pregnant or has money troubles or hears in ‘The Lion’s Share’ what it is to be among the lambs who’ve been abused by the lions.”
10,000 Maniacs were originally formed in Jamestown, New York, in 1981 as a response to the moody British rock of the likes of Joy Division. Merchant joined at the tender age of 16 and soon introduced the folk influences she had acquired at school and from public radio. “I always want to avoid being didactic or making my moral judgment obvious in my songs. I enjoy creating characters and leaving people to draw their own conclusions. In the song ‘Eat For Two’, as far as I’m concerned, the girl is too young to have a child, she knows it but she’s five months gone and all she can do is have the child. But the song doesn’t condemn her, it’s about her situation.”
Yet once Merchant begins talking about her songs, she can barely restrain herself from drawing their various morals. This fierce sense of social justice and her girlishly abandoned stage dancing is rapidly making Merchant an idol in young liberal America. “Part of the maturing of rock music has been the feminising of it. More groups have women in them or maybe it’s the men who’ve become more feminine. What’s lost on the way? Well, perhaps all the pandering, all, the tight leather pants, all those macho egos strutting around which I was always mixed about. When Bryan Ferry did it, it worked for me. With Rod Stewart, I just laughed at him. Maybe that’s the animal sexualism that appeals to some.
“You can express the power of the body and the power of emotion without thrusting your pelvis. Rock doesn’t have to be sex. When I dance to our song ‘Don’t Talk’, I’m expressing the anger and frustration in the song, not sexual display. I think a lot of the maleness of rock music is the carelessness of the erect penis and not having to have the responsibility of childbearing.”
Such sentiments give 10,000 Maniacs a broad appeal back home. Now in her mid-20s, Merchant is considerably younger than the rest of her band and yet manages to transcend the disappearing “generation gap” with ease. “Our audience is well divided, a lot of kids come with their parents. I’m sure it’s put a lot of people off to know that but the electric guitar has been around since the big band era – it’s nothing new anymore. The fans I get are always the sensitive poetic type who ask me how to write songs and then there are the motherly women who want to make sure I’m eating well and occasionally there’s somebody who’s very confused and there’s nothing I can really do to help them. People are very respectful, they never push or poke. My father says they ‘gently mob’ me.”
© Mark Cooper, The Guardian, 19 May 1989