Natalie Merchant

Reinventing herself

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By Holly Crenshaw  

Quitting a band is a risky proposition, especially when the band is one as well-known as 10,000 Maniacs. But when she decided to strike out on her own, lead singer and principal songwriter Natalie Merchant successfully recast herself as an inventive solo artist whose work would build on 10,000 Maniac's characteristic sound, while exploring new musical terrain.

Any doubts about Merchant's ability to move forward on her own were quickly dispelled by her triple-platinum solo debut, Tigerlily, which rose to the top of the charts almost as soon as it was released.

On her follow up recording, Ophelia, Merchant embellished her previous album's stripped-down sound to create a lusher, more fully orchestrated sonic landscape, with more than thirty guest artists brought in for the project. Horn and keyboard players supplied multi-textured instrumental layers, studio whiz Daniel Lanois summoned forth a psychedelic-drenched guitar solo, and Merchant performed vocal duets with N'Dea Davenport (formerly of Brand New Heavies), Tibetan devotional singer Yunchen Llamo, and Karen Peris of Innocence Mission.

"I wanted to approach the recording of Ophelia as a series of workshops," she says. "Rather than using a band and rehearsing it, I hand-picked musicians for specific songs and invited them into the studio. There was a refreshing amount of freedom and spontaneity in this method."

The album's twelve songs feature an imaginative cast of fictional personas who convey a wide range of emotions and viewpoints, which are not necessarily those of the artist herself.

"Many people will read the first person pronouns in the lyrics of Ophelia and assume that these songs are autobiographical," she says. "Not true. I am a storyteller and I simply use the first person voice because I find it the most intimate."

Whether expressing fragility ("My Skin"), cynicism ("Thick As Thieves") or joyfulness ("Life Is Sweet"), Merchant's poetic powers are fully evident, as is the quirky beauty of her distinctive voice. On Ophelia, Natalie Merchant proves yet again that she is one of pop's most intelligent and creative practitioners, an artist capable of conjuring spellbinding work that both challenges and soothes her listeners.

Holly Crenshaw, a long-time staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writes frequently about music and the arts.