Natalie Merchant: Little Sister Syndrome

MOJO: YOU’VE BEEN described as “interminably serious”. Is that accurate?

NM: No, but there are definitely things to be serious about. If I’m going to sit and do an interview with you, and people are going to read what have to say, I’d rather talk about something that’s important than something frivolous. It’s the same attitude I have towards songwriting. I decided I would use my time wisely, because I feel there’s a limited time I’ll have a voice, and a limited time I’ll be on the platform, and just feel like I don’t want to waste that time.

You’ve become synonymous with political activism. Are there any causes you’ve left unespoused?

Oh, plenty. There are times when my management complained that they felt like a charitable foundation, because there are at least two solicitations a day for some kind of benefit performance or public-speaking engagement: a lot of environmental groups, children’s rights groups, pro-choice groups lately – which at times I was uncomfortable with, but it came to the point where I felt I just had to get off the fence. The National Toxics Campaign, Greenpeace, River Keeper Foundation, Aids organisations…the list goes on and on and on.

You’ve changed your style recently; you used to wear hippie clothes, now you look very Milan, Paris, London, New York.

[Laughs]. That’s pretty funny. I never wore hippie clothing, I wore depression-era clothing. I modelled my entire style after a book of Dorothea Lange photographs. For me, the height of style would be farm boots and an authentic cotton day dress from 1934 – that to me was style. And I could get the entire outfit for less than five dollars, which was all I could afford. My aesthetic was grounded in the depression era: everything in my home was depression era, if I could find it. I never owned batik or tie-dyed anything, but because I wore long hair and thrift-shop clothing, I was considered a hippie. Now they call it grunge.

You don’t drink or smoke or anything. Do you have any indulgences, or do you live ascetically?

Mostly it’s because I’m just really sensitive, and things that are poisons poison my body and I become sick. lf I could drink and it made me feel good I’d probably do it, but I drink and it makes me feel sick. If I stand anywhere near a cigarette, it makes me feel dizzy. I’m hypoglycaemic, so I can’t even eat sugar or chocolate! I’m one of those people that’s going to end up living in a bubble by the year 2020! But I’m not a fascist about it, except for cigarettes – I can’t work with them anywhere near me. Nobody’s allowed to smoke cigarettes on our tour bus, our rehearsal space, our dressing rooms, even in the corridors backstage.

Why leave the group now? Have you outgrown it?

I wanted, by my 30th birthday, to have a severe change in my life. I just felt very confined. The reasons for my leaving are so complicated, and so deep – I just felt there was a lack of passion, and a lack of commitment, almost a laziness, an inertia, that I couldn’t tolerate any more. In any band, there are ego issues, especially when the most powerful member is a little girl that’s grown up into a woman who’s becoming more and more outspoken and demanding – I think that was threatening. When, two years ago, I gave notice I was leaving, I obligated myself to a certain amount of work, because there were children to consider, and everyone has mortgages: it wasn’t like we were a young band who said, Well, this isn’t working, I’m walking out of the door, I don’t care about any of you, it’s just me for myself from now on. I felt a lot of loyalty and responsibility. I felt, they have children who are two years old now, do I have to stay in the band for another 16 years – and then do I have to pay for their college education as well?

Do you feel you’ve been growing up in public?

Definitely. It’s almost like the teen actress syndrome at times. In the band, it was the little sister syndrome – when am I going to be allowed to be an adult, be treated by my peers as a peer, by my record company and by my manager as if I am an adult? I thought this was a way I could draw a clear line. I’ve parted company with my management, with my band, with the lawyer who’d been working with us for five years – who I’d only spoken with twice, even though he’d been responsible for every contract I’d signed. It wasn’t that I was angry with anyone, I just wanted to enter into relationships as an adult.

Most of the band still live back in Jamestown. Did you find that provincialism restrictive?

You just hit the nail on the head! 1 still have a lot of friends and family in Jamestown; but when I was 17 my life’s goal was to get out and never have to come back. And because the majority of the band live in Jamestown, I would have to go back whenever it came time to rehearse for a tour or an album. I kept revisiting my past, wondering when I would be able to move on.

What was Jamestown like?

It’s very depressing, there’s a bleak outlook on life, a fatalism: everyone thought they weren’t in control of their own destinies. It rains all the time, and it’s cold and dark, and then it snows and snows and snows and you can’t leave your house for days on end. I can barely remember a time when I asked someone in Jamestown how they were and they said “Great”.

Did the rest of the Maniacs resent the fact that you were largely responsible for the “meaning” of the band?

No, we were a band that operated on the principle of specialisation: I did all the graphics for the artwork, posters, T-shirt designs – anything visual; I chose all the directors for videos, and I wrote all the lyrics, so I did determine the content of the band’s message. If there was a message, I was the messenger. There wasn’t very much involvement on their side in any of the interview-giving or the imaging of the band, other than photo-sessions. They didn’t even want to do the videos, they weren’t interested in that at all.

Do you think the normally available range of roles for women in rock’n’roll is restrictive?

No, I think there’s quite a distance between Courtney Love and Whitney Houston and Nina Simone and Tracy Chapman. There’s a pretty wide spectrum: Joni Mitchell has very little in common with Madonna, I think.

But the closer to the mainstream bullseye, the more similar the roles get.

There are so many great women, and I just feel it’s wrong to waste your time talking about the mainstream, over-produced, over-funded sort of artists, Who’s the woman with the belly-button, her brother’s really famous…? Janet Jackson. I’m not at all interested in what she’s doing or what she has to say.

© Andy GillMOJO, December 1993

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