The Queen of Nostalgia Gets Real : 10,000 Maniacs' Natalie Merchant puts focus on the here and now

When Natalie Merchant completes the lyrics to a song, she types them up and goes to the neighborhood copy shop where she enlarges them five times. She puts an illustration on the page, then tacks it up on the wall in 10,000 Maniacs' rehearsal room.

"That's kind of a notice to the band that it's finished and they can look at it and make whatever comments," says the singer. "It's such a great feeling. It was so good to see the whole part of the wall filling up as the album was becoming more complete."

The writing on the wall facing the four musicians as the new "Blind Man's Zoo" album took shape was something a little different. The group had touched on social commentary on its first two LPs, "The Wishing Chair" and "In My Tribe," but now Merchant was posting an activist's agenda: Unwanted teen pregnancy. Iran-contra treachery. Vietnam's unhealed wounds. Drug damage. Toxic chemical damage. The poverty cycle. Tyranny in the Third World. Religious intolerance of a fatal degree.

Merchant calls herself the queen of nostalgia, and she writes down her dreams every morning, but the news-headline nature of "Zoo's" songs suggests that she's tuning in to the present and the future in the real world.

That's not the only change brewing. Merchant describes herself as "sensitive," but says she's becoming more thick-skinned to criticism. While she used to explore museums and other windows into the past during her spare time on the road, she's been visiting centers for poor children and homeless teens on the band's current tour (which includes shows tonight at Santa Barbara County Bowl, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Greek Theatre, Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and Saturday at San Diego's Open Air Theatre).

In addition, she's finally ready to leave her lifelong home of Jamestown, in western New York state. And she's looking forward to recording an album with a different set of musicians after eight years with 10,000 Maniacs.

At 25, Merchant is clearly a woman in transition.

At the start of a recent interview, she was also a woman with an itch.

"My nose keeps itching from the makeup they put on me for the TV interview," she complained after completing a brief on-camera appearance at Elektra Records' West Hollywood offices. "I never wear makeup. I wear lipstick. Makes me feel like a lady. But never this powdery stuff. I really don't see any purpose to it."

Spoken like the neo-hippie pop princess she has become to a love-struck following. But Merchant was all down-to-earth as she considered the social/political slant of "Blind Man's Zoo."

One aspect was purely musical.

"There is a darker side to the band that never had been completely, thoroughly shown," Merchant said. "It was something that had to be in a way exorcised and then we could go on to something else. On 'In My Tribe,' there was that separation of lyrics going in one direction and the music going in another direction, one being very jovial and the other one being in some points very violent, other points very melancholy. I wanted to bring them together."

But the main impetus was external to the band.

"I think the fact that most of the songs were written during the campaigning and the elections last year has a lot to do with it," Merchant said, her fiery sentiments offered in gentle tones and precise diction. "It seemed like a continuation of that veneer over this festering nation that's kind of rotting from the inside out.

"All this rhetoric about the blessed country and the great American values and the traditional family. I felt like saying, 'Wake up, the traditional family is disintegrating.' It seemed like not too many people were telling the truth and I just became more and more furious.

"In the past two years I've been reading more books and paying more attention to newspapers and magazine articles that are more factual and deal with a lot of social issues. . . .

"In the new songs, I was concentrating more on the problems of our culture, but trying to put that into a language that people understand. People definitely understand when you use the structure of narrative and create characters to live out a drama within the song. I think that's a lot easier to grasp than writing about issues and making it more abstract."

Does she think that music can change things?

"Well, people have always been affected by music, even if it's just on an unspoken emotional level. It's a start to write music that inspires people to maybe think or feel something about the world around them, and that's definitely where my strength is. Otherwise I would quit this and I would go back to college and become an environmentalist or something. Which may still happen.

"Everyone has a role, and this is mine. And maybe it won't always be writing lyrics of this content. Maybe it will just be bringing people happiness through music.

"Music is so important. If I do have any religious beliefs, it's in humanity, and I think humanity is so well expressed when people are singing together or performing together in the same frame of mind and occupy this one spiritual body. There's something so uplifting about hundreds of people singing together."

Now she was finally sounding more like the mystical dreamer of the Natalie Merchant public image: the charmed creature who spins fairy-like around the stage to 10,000 Maniacs' rich, gentle sound and exerts a spell with her effortlessly intimate, soothing vocals.

The band's name is a deliberate red herring, an attention-getting tag that contradicts its seamless, folk-rock style. After forming in 1981 around the Jamestown Community College bohemian scene, the group (the current lineup is Merchant, drummer Jerome Augustyniak, guitarist Robert Buck, bassist Steven Gustafson and keyboardist Dennis Drew) followed the classic up-from-the-grass-roots pattern, touring heavily and releasing independent records.

They signed with Elektra, and their first album, 1985's "The Wishing Chair," quickly established them as a force in the college/alternative rock world. "In My Tribe" followed two years later, and "Blind Man's Zoo" has brought the band farther into the mainstream, making the Top 15 on the national album chart and selling a half-million.

Among other things, the success has padded Merchant's "escape from Jamestown" fund, and she has her eye out for a new home that affords access to both rural peace and urban stimulation. Her hometown, a declining city of 30,000, doesn't offer her much anymore, and preserving privacy is a problem.

"It's dangerous, because it is a small town and people are starting to come from out of town to visit, people I don't know," she said, sounding hesitant for the first time during the interview. "It's not too hard to find out where we live. . . . If you had one person who would sit on your front porch every day you'd get disturbed by it. It just takes one person who doesn't really have things in the proper perspective. . . . There's never been any violence. Just uncomfortable situations."

The city's sinking morale and shrinking economy have also spurred her determination to leave.

"It was probably a great place to live in 1920," reflected Merchant, whose paternal grandfather emigrated from Sicily. Her family name is an Anglicization of his Mercante , and his accordion, mandolin and guitar playing was an early inspiration for Merchant. So was her mother's eccentric Irish father, a cartoonist, piano tuner and barbershop quartet member.

For Merchant, the city's condition is embodied in the state of its former core industry, furniture-making.

"There's still two or three factories operating, but it's really bad, veneer-coated stereo components, those kind of things. That's what they're reduced to making. It's incredible. You can go to the second-hand shops and antique stores and find specimens of this beautiful woodworking that used to be done there. The bedroom suite, when someone was first married and they bought a bedroom suite it was like for royalty it seemed, but it was something everyone could have.

"I have a ridiculous level of nostalgia for something that maybe never even existed. But growing up around my grandparents and spending a lot of time sitting around the front porch with their friends, everyone was always saying it used to be so much better.

"Maybe that's where the nostalgia comes from. And living in these houses in these old neighborhoods and watching the dying out of these old crafts.

"There was a time when any young girl in Jamestown knew how to do essential needlework, make lace and do crocheting and sew their own clothes and bake bread and all these things that now I consider almost art forms.

"To see that passing out, and to grow up around my grandmother, who knew how to do all those things. . . . I think she was one of the more skilled artists I've ever met in my life. But she'd say, 'That's just what I do. That's just what I was taught to do.' "

Now Merchant's concentration is on tempering the allure of the past with its hard truth.

"The Depression era is really my nostalgia," she said. "I think of a Dorothea Lange photograph, if I could just step inside of it and actually see what life was like then. I almost have this aching desire to see what it was like to live in 1934. . . .

"When we were in Indianapolis I went to an old library there. There were these beautiful murals painted in 1934. . . . A lot of agricultural scenes of the glorified farmer, everyone was shaped perfectly, muscular and wholesome, carving their way down through the cornfields, and God, it looked so beautiful.

"But then, they lynched black people in Indiana in the '30s. People were dying of malnutrition. I have to keep reminding myself of the realities for the people who weren't living in the murals."

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