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Natalie Merchant
Natalie Merchant
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Q & A: Natalie Merchant, musician

Matilda Lee

24th November, 2009

Former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs and now solo musician, Natalie Merchant, talks about campaigning against cement plants and leafletting her gigs

What environmental causes do you most actively support?

I tend to support my local environmentalist groups like Scenic Hudson, Clearwater and Riverkeeper or designated environmental campaigns surrounding particular issues like the struggle against the building of a mammoth cement factory in a small nearby town that would have had a sprawling strip mine and factory complex with a smoke stack three times the size of the Statue of Liberty.

Citizens' groups and environmentalists had an astounding victory against Saint Lawrence Cement after a seven-year-long fight. A dear friend of mine, Barbara Ettinger, made an inspiring film documentary called Two Square Miles about it.

How did you become involved with Riverkeeper & Greenpeace?

I have lived in the Hudson River Valley for 20 years where John Cronin and Robert Kennedy Jr. founded Riverkeeper. I was so impressed by their work (especially the campaign against General Electric for its PCB contamination of the river) that I offered to donate the proceeds of a show. This led to more donations and fund-raisers.

The association with Greenpeace was strong back in the 1980s and ‘90s when I was actively touring and would carry Greenpeace volunteers to pamphlet my gigs. Something I would do to keep up their morale was encourage everyone to make a donation on the way out of the concert. Some nights I would go to the table and help flatten wadded-up dollar bills thrown into the collection box; tens of thousands of dollars were collected in that way.

In terms of supporting campaigns, what achievement are you most proud of?

In 1995, a plan to allow commercial logging within the New York State Parks system was exposed. The first park targeted for logging happened to be near my hometown and very familiar to me, Allegany State Park. It is a 65,000 acre second growth forest that had been clear-cut in the 19th century, replanted and conserved since. It addition to the destruction 'selective harvesting' would have done to the forests, scattered resource rights were still privately held and it was discovered that the proposed logging paths would cleverly make a network of roads connecting these claims.

It was a well-documented fact that the area is rich with natural gas deposits but access for drilling was restricted on public lands. The logging plan would have removed these barriers.

I organised a press conference in the state capitol to publicise opposition to the plan along with a concert tour to all the major cities in the state where legislators and environmentalist spoke and we gathered thousands of signatures. On the final date of the tour we presented our petition to the governor. Within a week of receiving it, the governor announced that there would be no logging in Allegany or any other state park.

What is the most rewarding part of being a musician?

I feel so privileged to have been able to live an artist's life, since I began singing professionally at the age of 16, it's the only life I have ever known. My work involves taking my emotional experiences and sharing them with others. I help people feel less alone with their sadness, fear, anger and I connect people in celebration. I love to hear a room of people singing a chorus of a song I've written and see them smiling, it makes me feel like I've created something useful.


What book or film would you recommend all politicians read or see?

Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio with an astounding soundtrack by Philip Glass is the film I would suggest everyone see. I saw Koyaanisqatsi in a theatre when it was first released in 1982 and the impact that it had upon me is still felt.

This film is a prophetic vision of a world gone mad, out of scale and out of control. Without a single word spoken, this film hints at the vastness and beauty of the world and then explains that we, tiny and insignificant creatures, have swarmed together to do irreparable damage to it.

What is your favorite meal, made by whom?

This year I put in a huge vegetable garden and every morning I would find myself drawn to it. I would be in my nightgown weeding and grazing on whatever was ready to harvest (snap peas, basil, cherry tomatoes, dill, carrots or blueberries). It is so gratifying to eat from your own garden.

Where do you live and why?

I live in rural New York. I need to live where there are more trees than people.

Can you describe a typical day?

Until I had a child there really was no 'typical' day for me but now they all seem to revolve around sensible meal times and early bedtimes. I'd say the one thing that hasn't changed over the years is the frenzied pace of activity in my day. I was made with only an 'on/off' switch. There is no relaxing during my day, only collapsing at the end of it.

What's on your Christmas wish list?
I don't have one of those.

Natalie Merchant's new album, Leave Your Sleep, is out in March 2010 on Nonesuch Records. She plays Celtic Connections in Glasgow on January 28. www.nataliemerchant.com

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