Natalie Merchant has never been one to follow a predictable path.
When her ’80s college-rock outfit 10,000 Maniacs began experiencing mainstream success in the early ’90s, she followed her muse toward a solo career. By the time the band scored its biggest hit – an “MTV Unplugged” cover of the Patti Smith Group’s “Because the Night” – Merchant was long gone.
After a successful solo pop career that included several Adult Top 40 hits like “Wonder” and “Carnival,” Merchant embarked on the biggest, most unique project of her career. The double album “Leave Your Sleep” took nearly a decade to make and found Merchant collaborating with 130 musicians while combining literary works and poems with an eclectic array of musical styles.
“I wanted to collaborate with as many musicians as I could and used poetry as a bridge for different styles,” she says. “It would’ve been hard to justify working with a Chinese music ensemble, and a Celtic band, and a Cajun ensemble just for the sake of being eclectic.”
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For the album, she often paired the literary work with music and instruments that matched the era or region in which the piece was written. Others were less attached to a place and time and developed in Merchant’s imagination.
The project was originally inspired by her young daughter (now age 10).
“Many female artists, when they have children, either stop or there’s a pause in their creativity, or they end up hiring someone to take care of their child so they can work,” she says. “I found a way to do both through this literature I was introducing my daughter to. Her entire childhood, I was consumed with this project.”
Since releasing that album in 2010, she’s performed both reworked 10,000 Maniacs classics, solo material, and much of “Leave Your Sleep” exclusively with orchestras – a process she’s enjoyed so much that her next album is an orchestral record.
Merchant will reveal new material from that upcoming album when she performs Saturday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
“It adds an extra level of excitement to me because it seemed really unattainable when I started out that I would sing with an orchestra,” she says.
Although Merchant grew up in a musically eclectic family – her mother listened to pop music but took her children to the symphony, ballet, and opera; her stepfather was a jazz musician – she wasn’t formally trained. That hasn’t necessarily worked against her.
“I didn’t study composition in a conservatory, but the arrangers that I worked with have said I arrive at interesting results because I don’t have the training,” she explains.
Instead, she goes with her gut and what she hears in her head, which has served her well thus far. Even those once “underground” 10,000 Maniacs songs that were only played on college radio stations and late-night MTV in the ’80s have made their way into popular culture. You can hear them piped in over satellite radio at Whole Foods.
“I always wanted to be part of the culture,” Merchant says. “Pop music becomes so familiar, it feels like folk music. You might not know who wrote the song, but everybody knows it.”