Natalie Merchant never got a suntan when she was a kid, she said. “I spent all my free time at the library,” she told her host, Nick Forster, Sunday night at the Boulder Theater, where she headlined the sold-out taping for the 19th anniversary of eTown, a syndicated public radio radio show.
On April 13, Merchant released “Leave Your Sleep,” her dreamy two-CD set titled after a Mother Goose rhyme. Poetry inspired the project, complete with Merchant’s 80-page book.
Merchant took the stage wearing a schoolmarmish get-up: a prim, charcoal gray suit with a just-below-the-knee skirt, a chaste blouse, black Mary Janes with chunky heels, her raven tresses pinned up on her head. However, her hula hips, sorceress’s hands and whirling dance moves were anything but prudish. And Merchant eventually let her hair down. Literally.
“It’s good to be home,” Merchant told the adulating audience, and commented on Boulder’s “insane altitude.” She said, “I can’t breathe, and my head is pounding. I’m gasping for air.”
You’d never know it. Merchant flooded the cozy venue with her powerful voice, an inimitable alto. She also had the crowd in stitches as she mimed for an oxygen mask, quipped between tunes, and after a rendition of “Calico Pie” at what she called “breakneck speed,” moved across the stage in super-slow-motion to change the tempo.
She conceived “Leave Your Sleep” in 2003, after giving birth to her daughter Lúcia, her ultimate muse for this literary undertaking. Seeking themes of motherhood and childhood, Merchant wrote music for poems from a cadre including E.E. Cummings, Christina Rossetti and Robert Louis Stevenson.
“This is a gift for my child,” she said of her new record that involved more than 100 musicians and took seven years to complete. Designed to introduce her daughter to various musical traditions, the global sampler include harps and hammer dulcimers, a Chinese ensemble, Wynton Marsalis jazz, Blues, bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, reggae and swells from a 26-piece orchestra.
“We really broke the bank on this one. I funded this myself, so I’m fully aware of whose bank has been broken,” Merchant said. “So don’t steal my record; I can feel it, deep in my heart.”
In two sets, she belted out selections from “Leave Your Sleep,” which swings from joyfully uplifting sea shanties and fanciful ditties about witches and giants to a hauntingly melancholy Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about death. Her set list also included “Motherland” and the achingly lovely “Carnival,” her first top-10 hit song.
Merchant plays piano, but for the eTown performance stuck with vocals, backed by a sparse band that included at times a pair of acoustic guitarists, a cellist, a violinist. On a pair of songs, as well as the finale and the encore, members of the Horse Flies — eTown’s other guests — joined Merchant.
With her intelligent talent, her integrity, and this anthology, Merchant gently awakens us to a life more poetic, more harmonic, more global — lovingly cradling the child in us all.
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Joshua Elioseff is a Boulder-based freelance photographer and regular Reverb contributor. Check out his website.