NEW YORK -- Natalie Merchant was a major star in the late 1980s and 1990s, first with 10,000 Maniacs and then with a solo career where her debut went platinum times five. She dropped off the pop music map after her 2001 album, "Motherland," and last week released her first disc of new compositions since then.
Those years weren't spent lounging on the couch. Merchant is a divorced single mom of a 10-year-old. She financed and recorded, with some 130 musicians, a double album that put children's poetry to music. She recorded folk covers and curated retrospectives on 10,000 Maniacs and her solo music. She's worked and done benefits for causes, particularly the anti-fracking movement. She served on the New York State Council on the Arts.
"Natalie Merchant," her first album in 13 years, reveals an earthier, even soulful Merchant, particularly on the lead track "Ladybird." She sings about divorce, aging, Hurricane Katrina, people displaced by war and old-time Hollywood on the album, released last Tuesday. She's also on tour right now. She headlines the Chicago Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 24.
The 50-year-old sat in a New York record company office to talk about where she's been and where she's going.
Q. Did you lose the desire to make music?
A. I kept writing. There was this excruciating point about three years ago when I had a friend come over. She was having a difficult time because of some tragedy in her family. She was lying on the couch and she just asked me to play. I started playing the piano and she said, 'What are you working on?' And I pulled out this giant book of chord progressions and lyrics that I'd been working on for 10 years. I spent the whole afternoon playing for her and she was weeping at points. It was an audience of one. She said, 'Why aren't you recording any of these songs?' I realized it was overdue.
Q. Did you lose interest in being in the business of music?
A. I wasn't interested in being a part of the music industry after digital downloading happened. My record company, Elektra, just vanished and was revived recently. I signed at my label at 19 and by the time I left at 39, I recognized a handful of people. There was turnover, but then there were just massive executions. Everyone was fired. I just thought it was the appropriate time in my life to step back and start a family, reassess why I dig music and what music I wanted to do, but also get away from the 'sky is falling' mentality.
Q. How does it feel to be back?
A. Well, I've given up all ambition and all expectations. All that I can do is make the most satisfying recordings of my music as I possibly can, and then it's in God's hands. ... I live a pretty humble existence. I really try not to live above the means of a successful, small-town dentist. I have one house; I own that house, one car. Because I was fiscally conservative, I have this incredible luxury of not having to worry about it. So my motivation can be that I just want to make music that moves me and hopefully can move other people. If nobody hears it, I have a wonderful life. I love gardening as much as I love music. The thing that keeps me competitive, or stay engaged, is that I look at popular culture in America and I feel that there's room for my voice and there's a need for my voice.
Q. Do you ever get nostalgic for 10,000 Maniacs and their music and do you think you'll ever play with them again?
A. It was 21 years ago, and so much has happened since. I play some of that music, sometimes. Like most artists, I'm so much more interested in what I'm doing now.
Q. So many musicians of a certain age feel they have to color their hair to hide any sign of aging. Did you get any pressure to cover up your gray hair?
A. I've been hearing the opposite. I've been hearing mostly from women how refreshing it is to see someone with gray hair who is comfortable with it.