As soon as she could string words together the depth of the questions that Natalie Merchant’s daughter — now 7 — asked her took the musician by surprise. It started the ex-10,000 Maniacs lead singer on a quest.
She spent the seven years since her last album was released poring through the works of Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, Robert Graves, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Louis Stevenson and more in an effort to answer those questions.
The results can be seen on Merchant’s latest record, “Leave Your Sleep.” The album’s lyrics come from the poems, nursery rhymes and lullabies she dug up for her daughter.
Q: Your last album came out in 2003 when your daughter was born. Now she is 7. Does “Leave Your Sleep” reflect life in the interim, if so, how?
A: The poetry that I selected for inclusion in this musical poetry anthology reflects the various stages of my daughter’s life from infancy to primary school. These are the poems and songs that I used to introduce her to the language arts.
Q: This seems like an especially good record for parents and children to enjoy together. Is that what you were aiming for? Did you give any thought to what appeals to kids about music and how that compares to what adults like about music?
A: Although my daughter was the inspiration for this project, I see the end result as a thematic work about many different aspects of childhood and motherhood. I used music to illustrate the poetry and further bring it to life. The music may be spirited at times or melancholic in order to describe the themes, characters or language found in the poems. The audience for this music (whether children or adults) is responding to the music and words very emotionally. I didn’t write and release the album with a specific age group in mind, I think both the music and the poetry have pretty universal appeal.
Q: As you’ve been introducing your daughter to music, has it affected the way you see and enjoy music?
A: I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to rediscover pop music that I have loved but neglected to listen to for years. I enjoy playing her David Bowie’s “Kooks” or the Kink’s “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” or “Can’ Hurry Love” by the Supremes and registering her excitement. I’ve taught her how to use the house stereo system and she has free access to my entire CD collection with only one rule, that she return the discs to their cases.
Q: A lot of this material came from trying to answer questions your daughter has asked you…what kind of things did you, yourself, learn during that process?
A: At a very young age my daughter began to ask probing existential questions like, “Mama, why are their human beings on earth?” or the typical and unavoidable question, “What happens when we die?” I realized that her capacity for feeling was great, much greater than I had expected. I think adults need to be more sensitive to the concerns of children. If they are exposed to images of violence, it’s our role to guide them through the confusion that follows (even if the explanation is there is random and unprovoked cruelty in the word that can’t be explained, we at least acknowledge it).
Q: What question that you’ve been asked as a mom has surprised you the most?
A: “Mama, are we almost there?” I’m surprised by the frequency.
Q: What question touched you most deeply?
A: “Mama, will you die before me?”