“I think a lot of the material that I’ve written have been ridiculed for its sensitivity had it been written by a man”
The ironically named outfit 10,000 Maniacs was one of a number of thoughtful, folk‑influenced rock bands that parlayed a strong college following into mainstream success in the '80s. As front Maniac, Natalie Merchant, who joined the band while still a student at Jamestown Community College, in upstate New York, nurtured an image that was earthily, unabashedly feminine, from her caressing, tangy‑sweet vocals and evocative, albeit somewhat bookish, lyrics to her penchant for dancing around onstage like a ballet student taking part in some exotic fertility rite. During her tenure with the Maniacs, the band scored such alternative‑ and college‑radio hits as "Like the Weather," from the 1987 album "In My Tribe," and "These Are Days," from 1992's "Our Time in Eden." In 1993, Merchant left the Maniacs after 12 years with the band; her solo debut, 1995's "Tigerlily," and its lead single, "Carnival," outperformed even the Maniacs' most successful releases on the pop charts. Now 34, the singer is clearly enjoying being a woman on her own ‑professionally, that is (sorry, guys, she has a boyfriend) ‑ and she still does the best pirouettes in the business.
What were the assumptions about women in rock when you started out?
Well, by the time I started, we were already five or 10 years into New Wave. People had already seen Tina Weymouth playing bass with Talking Heads; they'd already seen Patti Smith spontaneously erupting into amazing poetry. I think a lot of the barriers and stereotypes had been broken. You didn't have to be a Carole King‑type singer/songwriter or in some girl group like the kind Phil Spector produced in the '60s.
Why did you want to be in rock & roll in the first place?
I think it's among the most popular fantasies of American kids of my generation, to be in a rock band ‑ but I really didn't have that fantasy. In my mind, my destiny was to become a visual artist. But then I went to a party and started singing, and people liked it, so I sort of fell into it.
Were your musical influences largely male or largely female?
They were both, and I had a lot of them. The earliest would have been my family, my music teachers in school and the hymns we learned in church, which were awe‑inspiring. Also, my grandmother was from Sicily, and she would sing Italian songs to me. And at summer camp, hippie girls would teach us sea chanteys and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Those were my goddesses ‑ the hippie folk singers at Girl Scout camp.
What was the first album or song that rocked your world?
My mother bought me an 8‑track player for my 13th birthday, and I bought Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), and that record truly blew my mind. Also, I smoked pot for the first time at 13, so everything kind of coalesced at once.
Do you think rock roll is more or less sexist than society at large?
Can you recall any moment at all when you felt alienated or intimidated because you're female?
I once had a somewhat deranged A&R person poke me in the chest at a board meeting and tell me I had to get busy writing lyrics for my record. But I think that was because I was young. I guess I just haven't had a lot of personal experience with discrimination. I'm of a generation of women who are post-revolution ‑ post‑feminist revolution, post‑youth revolution. And I don't take this for granted ‑ I know where the advances came from and who fought for them, and I'm thankful.
So in terms of behavior, you think you have the same latitude as male artists do, onstage and off?
I may run the risk of sounding prudish here, but I think a lot of rock musicians get more latitude than they deserve. You know, the perpetual adolescence ... I sometimes get a little disheartened when I see women who feel that they have to express themselves as aggressively or distastefully as men have in the past. Women have traditionally been able to contribute so much beauty to the culture with their voices and movements. In many ways, I guess I'm a traditionalist.
Have you noticed an increase in the number of women working in the music business?
Definitely. My management team is half female, and my lawyer, my A&R person and the president of my record company are all women. And on my last tour, I had a soundwoman and a female tour manager, light rigger and guitarist.
Have you found that being a woman has afforded you any advantages?
I think our culture still accepts women more as vulnerable and sensitive. I think a lot of the material that I've written would have been ridiculed for its sensitivity had it been written by a man.
Do you respond positively or negatively to the term "feminist"?
It's a difficult word to discuss, because it has so many connotations and interpretations. I respond positively to the advances that women in our country in this century have made.
Who would you call your most important female role model?
My mother. I was raised by a strong working mom, so I always assumed that it was possible to be a woman and make your way in the world.
Do you feel you're a female role model?
I get asked to contribute to a lot of books for teenage girls, and I've been given the Parent‑Teacher Award for three of my records. I guess it's strange, 'cause in this industry a lot of people are proud to get a PARENTS' ADVISORY stamp on their records, but I think it's really great that people think my music is great for their kids. And I see a lot of kids come to my shows with their parents: "And my mom likes you, too!"
Nothing gives me more satisfaction than looking out into the audience at one of my concerts and seeing that the first three rows are full of young girls, all dancing and singing along. 'Cause I remember what it was like to be 13, looking for something that appealed to me and made me feel included.
What advice would you give to female artists who are just starting out?
I would tell them to remain engaged in as many aspects of their career as possible.
How has being a rock musician affected your personal relationships?
When you have a certain amount of success, your life becomes easier in many ways, but you still have to deal with some of the same problems and frustrations other people do: Are you healthy? Is your family content and secure? Crime, pollution, urban blight. It's strange when I meet people I don't know and they've already formed an impression of me based on some article they read or a video they saw. It's made my relationship with people in the world complicated.
Do you think there's a different sexual vibe for men and women on the road ‑ and do you have any groupie experiences you'd like to relay to us as evidence?
I've never met a groupie [laughs]. I think I have a totally asexual aura. I tend to attract earnest poetry majors who just want to tell me they really appreciate my work. I also have a large gay following. And I think there's a very respectful relationship between myself and my audience, so I never have been approached sexually.
How do you express your sexuality when you're onstage?
I express it by being natural and comfortable with my body, by moving my body in ways that feel good to me. A while ago, I was listening and dancing to a lot of Afro‑Latin music, and I learned to free my hips ‑ which I think takes a lot of white, middle‑class people a little time to learn.
How do you deal with the demands that the music business puts on you to maintain an image of youth and beauty?
Well, I don't think those demands are exclusive to women. A lot of jokes are poked at middle‑aged male rockers who are getting hair weaves and working out mercilessly. I think we're still living in the legacy of the youth culture of the '60s. But I'm always more attracted to men and women who age gracefully, who just accept that time is passing and their bodies are changing.
How does one age gracefully in rock?
I think that you make room for the next generation. And you dress your age or sit down at the piano instead of dancing around. I look at someone like Joni Mitchell. She's a completely graceful performer, and she's writing songs that are just as good as, if not better than, those she wrote at 25. And she's so wise. Patti Smith is so wise .... I hope that when I'm 55, I won't have to dance around onstage in order to feel comfortable.
Speaking of which: What's your choice of footwear when you perform?
[Laughs] Not very sensible ‑ I've got bunions on my feet from dancing. I tried wearing Capezio dance shoes, but they weren't any better. That's my biggest complaint about touring: sore feet.