Natalie Merchant: the thinking man's Madonna

'You can be well known but still live under the radar,' the songwriter tells Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

But much has changed for Merchant in recent years. In 2003 she married Daniel de la Calle, a documentary film-maker from southern Spain. That same year she gave birth to their daughter, Lucia, now a boisterous two-year-old with her mother's treacle-brown eyes. The family now pass the summer months in a small mountainside village outside Malaga and spend the rest of the year in upstate New York where Merchant grew up.

Despite the constant demands of motherhood, the 42-year-old singer is, by her own admission, as relaxed as she's ever been. Over the last 25 years she has sold in excess of 14 million albums. She has managed to stay largely out of the limelight in the last decade while putting out albums at regular intervals.

Her domestic situation has brought a halt to recording for the time being and allowed her to take stock of her career. Last year she put out Campfire Songs, a compilation of classic and long-forgotten Maniacs tracks. This week sees the release of Retrospective 1995-2005, a collection of her best-known solo work including the singles "Kind and Generous", "Carnival" and "Jealousy". A limited edition disc, released later this month, has more obscure material taken from benefit records, soundtracks and assorted live recordings.

"I just wanted to get all this stuff in one place," Merchant says, taking a moment to soak up some Spanish sun while Lucia takes a siesta. "A lot of it was scattered around or out of print. There are songs here that I thought would never get heard, the ones with Billy Bragg, for instance. The lyrics are kind of embarrassing - we wrote them in the middle of the night during these song-writing marathons - but I feel they are still documents of my work and that this is the place to let people hear them."

In interviews Merchant is frequently portrayed as earnest to the point of humourlessness. Common adjectives include "bookish", "serious" and "prim"; one over-excited writer described her as "an erotic schoolmarm". In the flesh, there's a certain thoughtfulness to Merchant though she's funny too, often at her own expense. The fact is that she doesn't fit in with current notions of the female singer-songwriter - all bulging cleavages and wafty hair - which is just how she likes it. "I'd rather be called 'bookish' and 'serious' than 'waifish' and 'insipid'," she remarks. "I have never relied on my sexuality and I don't really have an image at all. If you look at film footage of me 20 years ago, I don't look much different to the way I do now. I used to say that I would never wear anything on stage that I couldn't wear out to dinner with my grandmother. It just felt more respectable. I always assumed that being a musician was a vocation and that it was something I would do throughout my life and I wanted to do it with dignity. This current pop culture is full of perversity. I've been called the Emily Dickinson of pop and the thinking man's Madonna. You sort that one out."

Musically, Merchant has proved equally hard to pin down. Far from the otherworldly offerings of Tori Amos, or the introspective angst of PJ Harvey, her songs brim with social realism and are poetic in style. When it came to marketing her music at the start of her solo career, Merchant says her record company were at a loss as to whom they should target. "I can ride the subway in New York and I'll have a woman lawyer holding a copy of the Wall Street Journal come up to me and say, 'I really appreciate your work Miss Merchant', and then I'll have some homie kid say, 'Yo! I like that song "Carnival".' So I don't appeal to one particular audience. I always felt proud of that. It feels very egalitarian."

Yet Merchant is an artist who inspires a particularly obsessive form of devotion, a fact that has contributed to her elusiveness over the years. "I guess I've learnt now that you can be well known but you can still live very much under the radar," she says, contentedly. "I've had my share of death threats and loonies parked outside my door and I don't want to experience any more of that."

Merchant hasn't been without opportunities to raise her profile, either. The director Oliver Stone has approached her three times for roles in films, though on each occasion Merchant turned him down flat. "Blind fear overwhelmed any curiosity I had," she laughs. "The weirdest film I have ever been asked to read for was Fight Club. Helena Bonham Carter ended up doing it. I would have had to chain-smoke and be really cynical. I would have really had to act." More recently, she was invited to take part in a reality TV show. The concept was a children's summer camp in which assorted musicians help put together and coach bands. Merchant, then unfamiliar with the reality genre, was initially quite taken with the idea, and sent the producers a letter outlining the song-writing assignments she would set her charges. "They came back to me and said, 'No, you have it wrong. This is all about getting these kids together, putting them into antagonistic situations and getting them to compete over a record contract.' It was horrible and mean-spirited. I couldn't believe they would want me to be involved in something like that."

The experience taught her a valuable lesson, first to stick to what she's good at and second to maintain her low profile at all costs. "I've got someone to protect now," she says. "I know it sounds like a cliché but the maternal instinct is fierce. If I can just quietly go about making my records and playing shows with the minimum fuss, that's enough for me. With that, I can be happy."

'Natalie Merchant Retrospective 1995-2005' is out now on Elektra. A limited-edition two-disc version with unreleased out-takes, rarities and B-sides is out on Monday