10 Best Natalie Merchant Songs

Despite a dozen years with the 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant was still in her twenties when she departed for a solo career. She told Entertainment Weekly that she “didn’t want art by committee anymore,” and opted for a simpler sound for her solo debut. She met with immediate success – her 1995 solo debut Tigerlily, with its singles ‘Carnival’, ‘Wonder’, and ‘Jealousy’, was all over the radio and almost made the top ten of the Billboard 200.

Merchant followed Tigerlily with a pair of less commercially successful, but more artistically interesting, albums. She retreated from the spotlight and her fourth album of original songs didn’t emerge until 2014. Merchant’s rich voice is comforting and her accent is distinctive – it’s not explained by her origins in upstate New York. Here are ten of Natalie Merchant’s best songs from her solo career.

#10 Where I Go

from Tigerlily, 1995
After working with the 10,000 Maniacs for more than a decade, Merchant opted for stripped-back arrangements on her solo debut Tigerlily. Lead guitarist Jen Turner is often spotlighted, and she has room to shine on this gentle and pastoral track. ‘Where I Go’ was never a single, but it’s one of my favourite Tigerlily songs.


#9 King of May

from Ophelia, 1998
Ophelia was a more insular sequel to the smash hit Tigerlily, with Merchant indulging her literary pretensions. The album is named after the tragic female character in Hamlet, while ‘King of May’ is about poet Alan Ginsberg. Merchant earlier referenced Ginsberg on her tribute to the beat poets ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’, a song she recorded with 10,000 Maniacs.


#8 Giving Up Everything

from Natalie Merchant, 2014
The artist’s first album of original songs in more than a decade, Natalie Merchant confronts grown-up issues. Most startling is ‘Giving Up Everything’. It’s stark, with little more than cold strings backing Merchant’s anguished voice. It’s like a mantra, Merchant singing lines like “I mercy-killed my craving”.


#7 Tell Yourself

from Motherland, 2001
Merchant often writes social conscience songs, but ‘Tell Yourself’ is particularly effective. Instead of a wide-screen issue, it focuses on an individual. It reads like a letter of encouragement to Merchant’s teenage self – like a celebration of womanhood despite “ever since Eden/we’re built for pleasing”. The pair of middle eights is an unexpected songwriting twist.


#6 Ladybird

from Natalie Merchant, 2014
The wordless chorus of ‘Ladybird’ recalls Merchant’s 1998 song ‘Kind & Generous’, and it works as the counterpoint to the earlier hit. There are plenty of pop songs like ‘Kind and Generous’ that capture the excitement of new love. There are fewer pop songs like ‘Ladybird’ – it’s about a woman deciding whether to leave a dying relationship when there are children involved. It uses the metaphor of a ladybird – “You don’t know how to leave/and you don’t know where to fly.”


#5 House Carpenter

from The House Carpenter’s Daughter, 2005
Fairport Convention’s dark, traditional ballads like ‘Matty Groves’ are an inspiration for Merchant’s version of the traditional ‘House Carpenter’. She also tackles Fairport’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’ on her folk covers album The House Carpenter’s Daughter. Like Dave Swarbrick in Fairport Convention, Judy Hyman’s fiddle is prominent. ‘House Carpenter’ is sometimes known as ‘The Daemon Lover’ – it dates back to around 1685, but it’s been covered by an array of rock-era artists including Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.


#4 Saint Judas

from Motherland, 2001
2001’s Motherland is my favourite solo disc from Merchant – producer T Bone Burnett provides an earthy sound. On ‘Saint Judas’, Merchant is supported by gospel legend Mavis Staples on backing vocals. Merchant wrote ‘Saint Judas’ after viewing an exhibition about lynching – it calls out the states of the American south, accusing them of letting the devil take the wheel.


#3 Just Can’t Last

from Motherland, 2001
‘Just Can’t Last’ feels like a sequel to the 10,000 Maniacs’ ‘Trouble Me’ – another song of encouragement for a friend in pain, although this time it’s for a fan that Merchant hasn’t met. I love the introduction – a couple of percussive guitars run through the chord sequence before the drums hit as Merchant exclaims “well I know now”.

I know you have the weight of the world today
It’s on your back.


#2 Wonder

from Tigerlily, 1995
Natalie Merchant’s second single as a solo artist starts with a great Jen Turner guitar lead, before delivering an amazingly ambitious opening line. “Doctors have come from distant cities/Just to see me”. I assumed it was a bizarre piece of self-publicity, but it’s actually written from the perspective of a child born with a congenital disease. Turner’s guitar is a great foil for Merchant’s voice, resulting in a wonderfully evocative piece.


#1 Kind & Generous

from Ophelia, 1998
Merchant’s songs are often specific and personal – ‘Kind & Generous’ is an uncluttered song of joy. Merchant later stated that “I’m proud of the song because I always wanted to write a song that had an extremely universal, simple sentiment. And just gratitude, that’s all this song is about and really I feel like I accomplished my mission: simple, to the point. And everyone knows what I’m talking about the first time they hear the song, and they can sing along.” Session musician Greg Laks plays the Wurlitzer electric piano part that gives ‘Kind & Generous’ a hint of R&B.

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13 Comments

  1. Your first two would be mine also in that order. Ladybird would be my third but I cannot argue with the order or the rest of the songs. Terrific representation of her best.

    I always say she has a distinctive voice but that is understating it. Her voice and phrasing is like no other..at least to me. I can only say that about a few others like Tom Waits, Freddie Mercury, and very few others.

    • Cool – I didn’t realise you were into her solo career. Carnival is the song I probably could have included – I like it how she rhymes a whole lot of long words in it.

      • When I saw her in the 80s she stuck with me and I’ve kept up with her. Did you like the Paradise Is Here album? The original Tigerlily is just embedded in my brain with those arrangements.

        • I’ve never actually heard Paradise is Here – I went through most of her stuff but skipped the recent remakes/rarities stuff.

  2. thanks for this one. i’m a huge natalie fan. i somehow would’ve squeezed in ‘life is sweet’. not sure what to take out to make room for it though. good list.

    • I don’t actually know Ophelia very well – I own Tigerlily and Motherland on CD, but borrowed Ophelia from a friend to review it 20 years ago.

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