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Classic Poems Turn Lyrical on Natalie Merchant’s New Album

April 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Singer and songwriter Natalie Merchant sets poetry to music in her newest studio album, looking at childhood through the works of poets such as E.E. Cummings, Robert Graves and even Mother Goose. Jeffrey Brown reports on the unusual melding of art forms on her new album, "Leave Your Sleep."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Singer and songwriter Natalie Merchant turns to poetry for an unusual musical project.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natalie Merchant has sold millions of records in her life, starting in the 1980s as singer and songwriter for the rock band 10,000 Maniacs, and later in a successful solo career.

But there she was rehearsing for a concert recently at the beautiful Music Hall in Troy, New York, singing other people’s words, including those of a Mother Goose rhyme. After a seven-year hiatus, Merchant is releasing a new studio album, a collection of 26 poems she set to music. The project began when Merchant gave birth to her daughter six years ago.

NATALIE MERCHANT, musician: I thought I was making the record that would introduce poetry and music to my child and to other children. But it just became more involved and more complex and more sophisticated as time went on.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result is a two-disk album titled “Leave Your Sleep,” using poetry about childhood, but for adults.

Now 46 and living with her family in a house overlooking the Hudson River, Merchant says it took her a long while to come to poetry, and only then through its sounds and rhythms.

NATALIE MERCHANT: Poetry comes alive to me through recitation. Even when I was working on this project, some of the poems, when I read them the first time, I couldn’t comprehend the meaning, and I couldn’t really understand the structure, the internal rhythms and rhymes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until you hear it out loud?

NATALIE MERCHANT: I would have to recite it…

JEFFREY BROWN: Or speak it out loud.

NATALIE MERCHANT: … speak it, hear the words, and — and feel the words in my mouth.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the album, Merchant included works by well-known poets like Robert Graves and E. E. Cummings and by a number of lessen-known writers, including Charles Carryl and Lydia Huntley Sigourney.

The poems range from serious meditations, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous “Spring and Fall,” explaining death to a child, to silly ditties, like “The Dancing Bear” by Albert Bigelow Paine, which evokes a gypsy camp.

NATALIE MERCHANT: It’s fun. Isn’t it?

JEFFREY BROWN: It is fun.

NATALIE MERCHANT: That’s really great. I mean, something I wanted to convey to people is that poetry doesn’t — part of the reason I was so late coming to poetry is because I thought it had to be serious… NATALIE MERCHANT: … and that I just — you know, oftentimes, I just — I don’t understand, and I lack depth. I must just lack depth. I don’t understand.

But a poet transports you to a place where you can experience what they saw or what they felt, what they smelled, what they touched.

JEFFREY BROWN: Musically, Merchant reached to many genres, trying to match each poem with an appropriate style. She also reached out to other musical stars for help, including jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis for the poem “The Janitor’s Boy” by Nathalia Crane.

NATALIE MERCHANT: I thought that, to really convey childhood through these poems, and all aspects of childhood, we had to address the loss of innocence and the passage into the next phase of life, so, innocence and experience.

The Charles Causley poem is about this boy standing on the key, talking to the sailor, offering him a silver penny and an apricot tree.

NATALIE MERCHANT: And the sailor never comes back because a war breaks out. And the boy waits and waits.

NATALIE MERCHANT: It’s about disillusionment and confrontation with the more harsh realities of life. And, as a parent…

JEFFREY BROWN: Growing up.

NATALIE MERCHANT: Growing up.

JEFFREY BROWN: While this project began for her daughter, it’s clearly also done something important for Merchant as well.

NATALIE MERCHANT: I started talking about the plan to age gracefully in this field 15 years ago, things like…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were already thinking about, how am I going…

NATALIE MERCHANT: I could see my future.

NATALIE MERCHANT: I’m going to be shaking my booty when I’m 55.

NATALIE MERCHANT: That’s not what I’m doing. I need to come up with a way. And there’s so — so much music that I have wanted to write and I have been interested in that didn’t really fit into a pop album format. And now is my time to start exploring and — and carrying through on those visions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natalie Merchant begins an international tour of her newest works later this spring.