Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant brings her “Keep Your Courage” tour to NJPAC in Newark on June 25 as part of the North to Shore Festival. The Festival is taking place three cities (Atlantic City, Asbury Park and Newark).
Merchant is one of the headliners for the Newark part of North2Shore (June 21-25).
The award-winning solo performer and former lead singer of the popular group 10,000 Maniacs spoke with WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle about her new album “Keep Your Courage” (Nonesuch Records) and her four-decade career.
Her new album, which has already received critical acclaim, is layered with her unmistakable voice, loved-filled lyrics and melodies that range from Gaelic to Middle Eastern, horn-driven soul, melancholy ballads, pure pop and self-described defiant sisterhood anthems.
“I never thought my voice was that distinctive. I think a lot of the new singers are coming out and coming up, I’m a very unadorned singer. I’m more like a folk singer. I don’t do a lot of acrobatics with my voice, probably because I can’t. I’m more interested in conveying the meaning of my words and the emotional content of the words. It’s kind of ‘plain-Jane’ but it’s honest. When I was at Lincoln Center, I probably cried eight times. I cried to a point where I could not sing because the songs are very close to my heart, written about people that I’ve known and loved, or they’re about our society and how many ways that people hurt each other and the way institutions injure people. They are just so raw to me some nights.”
Merchant’s ninth solo album was written during the COVID pandemic. She stresses that why matters of the heart and craving human connection mean so much to her.
“The title of the album “Keep Your Courage” comes from the ultimate song on the record which is “The Feast of St. Valentine”. I always try to find some thing within the lyrics to extract to use as a title. It seemed appropriate because so many of the songs really have to do with risking intimacy in connection with other people and how that plays out, whether it’s beneficial or the opposite, which is always possible adn that’s whether courage comes in.”
Merchant has written many songs with orchestral accompaniment, and this album, in many ways, takes that practice to a new level. She says the St. Luke’s Orchestra will be with her on stage at NJPAC on June 25.
“I’ve been doing orchestral shows since 2008. I was invited by the Boston Symphony to do an orchestral show and that started me off. Since then I’ve done 75 of these shows. I really love orchestral instruments, the woodwinds, the brass and the harp. They’re so many different textures, just the emotional range you can create with these instruments is phenomenal.”
One of your featured contributors on “Keep Your Courage” is jazz trombonist Steve Davis. His wife Abena Koomson-Davis had met Merchant at a prior event years ago. Abena and Natalie perform duets on “Big Girls and “Come On, Aphrodite”, the first two tracks of the album.
“I was just blown away by her presence and her voice. She has this very open and loving approach to performance. We became friends and have done several things together. During the pandemic I told her that I was writing songs with her in mind. And then when I was looking for horn arrangers she told me about her husband. So I started communicating with Steve and then he came up to Vermont and put the horn tracks.”
Another one of the special songs on the album is titled “Sister Tilly” which is all about love and appreciation for the older women in Merchant’s life. It’s a beautiful tribute to those who made significant contributions and have passed away.
If you were wondering why it’s been nearly a decade since Merchant has put out a solo album, the answer is she just had enough time to do it. The social justice and environmental activist has been raising her daughter, directing Shelter, a documentary on domestic violence, curating the 10-disc box The Natalie Merchant Collection, and somehow, for two years, finding time three days a week to work with children
as an artist-in-residence with a local non-profit pre-school.
The “Keep Your Courage” tour major cities in the United States and the European venture includes cities like London, Dublin, Amsterdam and Brussels.
Merchant says one thing she wants to stress is that just because she’s with an orchestra on stage, concert-goers people can still get up, dance and express themselves while they connect with the music. She admits, however, some tunes do require more restraint and contemplation from your seat.
For ticket information about Natalie Merchant’s performance and other North2Shore events in Newark, you can go to njpac.org.