Natalie Merchant was a major star in the late 1980s and '90s, first with 10,000 Maniacs and then as a solo artist whose debut disc went platinum times five. But she dropped off the pop-music map after her 2001 release, "Motherland" -- until last month which marked the release of her first disc of new compositions in 13 years.
Those years weren't spent lounging on the couch. Merchant, 50, is a divorced single mom of a 10-year-old. She financed and recorded, with some 130 musicians, a double album that put children's poetry to music. She recorded folk covers and curated retrospectives on 10,000 Maniacs and her solo music. She did benefits for causes, particularly the anti-fracking movement. She served on the New York State Council on the Arts.
Her new album, "Natalie Merchant," reveals an earthier, more soulful Merchant, particularly on the lead track, "Ladybird." She sings about divorce, aging, old-time Hollywood, Hurricane Katrina and people displaced by war.
Here are excerpts from an interview at a New York record company's offices:
Q Did you lose the desire to make music?
A I kept writing. There was this excruciating point about three years ago when I had a friend come over. She was having a difficult time because of some tragedy in her family. She was lying on the couch, and she just asked me to play. I started playing the piano, and she said, "What are you working on?" And I pulled out this giant book of chord progressions and lyrics that I'd been working on for 10 years. I spent the whole afternoon playing for her, and she was weeping at points. It was an audience of one. She said, "Why aren't you recording any of these songs?" I realized it was overdue.
Q Did you lose interest in being in the business of music?
A I wasn't interested in being a part of the music industry after digital downloading happened. My record company, Elektra, just vanished and was revived recently. I signed at my label at 19, and by the time I left at 39, I recognized a handful of people. There was turnover, but then there were just massive executions. Everyone was fired. I just thought it was the appropriate time in my life to step back and start a family, reassess why I dig music and what music I wanted to do, but also get away from the "sky is falling" mentality.
Q How does it feel to be back?
A Well, I've given up all ambition and all expectations. All that I can do is make the most satisfying recordings of my music as I possibly can, and then it's in God's hands. ... I live a pretty humble existence. I really try not to live above the means of a successful, small-town dentist. I have one house; I own that house, one car. Because I was fiscally conservative, I have this incredible luxury of not having to worry about it. So my motivation can be that I just want to make music that moves me and hopefully can move other people. If nobody hears it, I have a wonderful life. I love gardening as much as I love music. The thing that keeps me competitive, or staying engaged, is that I look at popular culture in America, and I feel that there's room for my voice, and there's a need for my voice.
Q Do you ever get nostalgic for 10,000 Maniacs and their music, and do you think you'll ever play with them again?
A It was 21 years ago, and so much has happened since. I play some of that music, sometimes. Like most artists, I'm so much more interested in what I'm doing now.
Q So many musicians of a certain age feel they have to color their hair to hide any sign of aging. Did you get any pressure to cover up your gray hair?
A I've been hearing the opposite. I've been hearing mostly from women how refreshing it is to see someone with gray hair who is comfortable with it.