In 1994, Natalie Merchant — recently removed
from a 12-year stint fronting folk-rock icons 10,000 Maniacs — described her solo debut album, "Tigerlily," as both "fierce and delicate." The quotation has endured, primarily because it accurately portrayed Merchant in the early '80s, when her crystalline voice, conscientious lyrics and intoxicating stage presence helped bring alt-rock into the mainstream. And it accurately portrays her today, at age 50, her voice still light as air yet substantial and self-assured, her vulnerability still mixed with the goddess-like intensity that endeared her to millions of fans yearning for a female voice of their generation.
Merchant's career has followed that fault line since 2003, when she started a family and gave up the itinerant life of a touring and recording musician. But the domestic experience shaped her work in unexpected ways. 2010's "Leave Your Sleep," which she worked on for seven years, was an ambitious double album full of songs adapted from 19th- and 20th-century poetry pertaining to childhood. Lush orchestral arrangements punctuated tunes inspired by Chinese folk, Cajun blues and old-time string band traditions.
"The record was all over the place," she says. "It was about as broad as I could spread myself."
The free-flowing explorations also led Merchant to the novel idea of performing live with a symphony orchestra rather than with a traditional rock band. She'll be accompanied by a symphony orchestra Jan. 11 at The Florida Theatre.
"Over five years, I've slowly built a repertoire of about 33 songs," she says. "We ship the scores [to each orchestra involved] a couple of weeks in advance, but the main contact I have with them is a three-hour rehearsal before the show. I'm always amazed at how well the shows go with so little rehearsal, which is a testament to the skill levels of the players."
The selected cuts will cover a wide range of her discography, Merchant says, from 10,000 Maniacs material released in the mid-'80s to new songs from a forthcoming album, due out in May — her first set of completely original music in 12 years.
"I love the art form of album creation; it's just harder and harder to do it the way that I would like to," she admits. "It's taken the wind out of my sails knowing that people don't respect the album as a piece of work anymore." "Leave Your Sleep" sold 250,000 copies; Nonesuch Records described it as a great success. A decade ago, she says with a laugh, "That would have been grounds to kick me off the label."
Merchant has always been adept at navigating the music industry's tumultuous waters, though. 10,000 Maniacs started its own label in the early 1980s before signing to Elektra; Merchant self-financed 1994's "Tigerlily" long before the idea of crowdfunding existed; and several of her solo albums have been independently released.
"When I asked to leave Elektra, I was contractually obligated to one more record," she says. "But they let me go, along with half their staff and roster. I saw that the sky was falling, so it felt fine to step back. It also coincided with when I got pregnant and stepped away from spending eight months a year on a tour bus. I'm grateful I was able to have success at the time I had it."
Luck has had little to do with Merchant's success, though. Carving her own niche as an articulate, politically minded poetess of the early indie-rock movement allowed her to embrace a solo career on her terms. That independence led to immense respect from the critical musical establishment, which in turn allowed her to follow her muse wherever it led — double albums in the mp3 age, symphonic collaborations in the electro era.
Through it all, Merchant has never lost her particular talent for balancing the fierce and the delicate to devastating effect. While enjoying the work-life balance of weekend symphonic shows like the upcoming show in Jacksonville, she says that once her new album drops in May, she'll embark on a full-band tour ("drum kits — even amplifiers!") for the first time in a decade.
"I have a fierce temperament but a frail body," she says. "That's always been my nature, so I've just always worked with that combination I have inside of me."