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POP MUSIC : Natalie Merchant's 10,000-to-1 Shot

November 21, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

Natalie Merchant is so eager to begin a new chapter in her musical life that you could sense during an interview that she was counting the hours before she would enter what she jokingly calls her winter hibernation.

In New York after three weeks in Europe to promote the 10,000 Maniacs' new "Unplugged" album, Merchant--a symbol of intelligence and integrity in rock for nearly a decade--had only an MTV promotional visit left this day before she could seal herself off from the pop world.

"The winter is a great time to be sequestered, which is what I do when I write," she says. "I need to be by myself, isolated. . . . That's always been the way I've done my best work."

Unlike previous retreats that resulted in the songs that made 10,000 Maniacs one of the most original and affecting rock groups of the '80s, this winter's material will be the basis of Merchant's first solo album.

The "Unplugged" collection is the farewell album from 10,000 Maniacs, which also included bassist Steven Gustafson, drummer Jerome Augustyniak, guitarist Rob Buck and keyboardist Dennis Drew. The album, which is in the national Top 20, showcases the group's graceful, folk-accented sound and socially conscious lyrics. (See review, Page 70).

Despite the acclaim over the years, Merchant felt creatively restless by the time of the Maniacs' 1989 album "Blind Man's Zoo" and took a year off from touring at the time to regain her creative focus.

While the band did get back together, she continued to long for the freedom of a solo career. She told the band privately in 1991 of the break that was formally announced this fall. During an interview, Merchant, 30, reflected on the reasons she wanted her creative freedom, and the influences--musical and social--that shaped her artistic vision.

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Question: How do you feel about the breakup? Is this a liberating time for you or a melancholy one?

Answer: I don't feel melancholic at all--no regrets. In fact, I feel extremely optimistic . . . excited about writing songs with other people, collaborating with other instrumentalists, trying new things. I felt I was expending too much effort in trying to participate by committee when I really wanted to be a little tyrant and have my own way (laughs).

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Q: If you decided to leave in 1991, why did you stay in the group for two more years?

A: The band was like an extended family, and we had been together over 10 years by the time I made the decision in 1991. Three of the members had wives, two of them with children. I felt I had an obligation to make my plans clear and give everyone plenty of time to adjust. It wouldn't be fair just to walk out.

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Q: Did it boil down to a question of loyalty to them versus being true to your own artistic vision?

A: There obviously was a chemistry between us that created the 10,000 Maniacs' sound, but I wasn't totally enamored by that sound all the time. I was always gravitating toward inviting other instrumentalists to play with us . . . toward trying other arrangements. I think we made very good records, but I think we could have been a lot more adventurous at times. The way we worked was by consensus voting, and sometimes one vote was enough to block us from trying something.

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Q: What was the first music or record that meant anything to you?

A: My mother listened to the Beatles records, so I'd have to say "Revolver." I must have been around 4 or 5 when that came out, but even at that age I remember how magical it sounded--the way the voices harmonized.

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Q: What about when you got older?

A: Brian Eno's "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)." I bought an eight-track in a discount bin at K mart because I liked the cover. I didn't know who he was, but the lyrics were so thought-provoking and he was creating sounds I had never heard before--almost like sound landscapes.

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Q: What about Dylan? His work seems to have been an influence, given your poetic style and the social observation.

A: I heard the singles on the radio, but I didn't hear a Dylan album until I was 19. I had a boyfriend who played me the "Times They Are A-Changin' " album.

At the time, I was listening to a lot of British folk music and then American folk music. I sort of heard everything in the order that Dylan did. . . . The most primary sources, then Woody Guthrie, then Dylan.

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Q: Did you find elements that were common to all those artists?

A: Storytelling. Those folk songs had a beginning and an end, and they instructed you about yourself, your condition as a female or an American.

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Q: What appealed to you first, singing or writing?

A: I didn't expect to be either. My goal was to draw. I was planning to go to art school, but I met the guys in the band at a party and they heard me sing and invited me to rehearsals. But even after two or three years in the band, my plan was still to go back to college. I thought the band was a cheap way to travel around the country, but it never seemed like it would have any real future.

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