Natalie Merchant performs 'Leave Your Sleep' tonight at Orpheum
Natalie Merchant spent six years making “Leave Your Sleep,” a time frame more associated with writing a book than making an album. But it’s a fitting length of time for a two-disc set that adapts the poetry of e.e. cummings, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson and Gerard Manley Hopkins and touches on musical styles as far-flung as klezmer, Celtic, bluegrass, chamber music and folk.
Poetry, especially from the likes of Hopkins, a Jesuit priest obsessed with religion and nature who wrote in obscurity during his lifetime, isn’t the usual inspiration point for a musician.
“Poetry was a blind spot for me,” Merchant said during a recent trip through Los Angeles, far from her base in New York's Hudson Valley. “I just hadn’t read enough of it, but now I’ve got the zeal of a convert. I think poets are our clairvoyants, our lightning rods.”
The sprawling effort of “Leave Your Sleep,” released in April from Nonesuch, might not have seemed out of the ordinary for Merchant in the mid-1990s, when the success of her band 10,000 Maniacs paved the way for “Tiger Lily,” her 1995 solo album that went quintuple platinum. But at the time she started work on “Leave Your Sleep,” Merchant’s contract with Elektra had expired. She was somewhat rootless in the industry after taking a break to raise her daughter, Lucia.
For three years, she pored over verse from Mother Goose and other children's poetry anthologies, testing it out with her young daughter. She hired a team of grad students to research the histories of some of the lesser-known poets, including Laurence Alma-Tadema, nearly overshadowed by her prominent painter father, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Then Merchant wrote the melodies, taking a year to build demos with Garage Band on her computer. After a couple of years recording and mixing the songs, she came to Nonesuch with the finished product, into which she had funneled some $600,000 of her own money.
Merchant, 46, sought out verse that she describes as “written for children, by children and about children,” but the work resonated for reasons that had more to do with her own age and stage of her career. “I want to make art that has a dignity and maturity to it,” she said. “I don’t want to be shaking my booty at 55.”
Suitably enough, “Leave Your Sleep,” its title taken from a Mother Goose nursery rhyme, doesn’t try to capitalize on what’s currently lighting up iTunes. Instead, it’s an almost hermetic work of unusual consideration, every moment carefully wrought, even while maintaining a playful, constantly roving sensibility. Conceived as a primer for Lucia in poetry and music, Merchant found herself exploring unlikely musical roads, matching texts to forms of music that bring out the dreamlike, sometimes ghostly texts.
On “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” members of the legendary gospel group, the Fairfield Four, and local sweethearts of old-time music, the Ditty Bops, help create a sumptuously swinging boogie that could play in a dusty carnival tent. “The Janitor’s Boy,” with an arrangement and trumpet from Wynton Marsalis, would sound at home floating over New Orleans’ Garden District. The collection of 26 songs have 130 musicians contributing, including Medeski Martin & Wood, the Klezmatics and Irish band Lunasa.
Having penned some 50 songs for the record, Merchant continues to be fascinated by the project, though she doesn’t plan on releasing a sequel. Instead, she’s written a script for a multimedia production. In tonight’s performance at the Orpheum, listeners will get a taste of that vision: In a three-hour set, Merchant will present music from the album, along with thoughtfully curated notes and visuals.
It’s in keeping with the spirit of the project, which also includes a hardbound 80-page book. “I like all the layers of meaning,” Merchant said. “It’s impossible to extract the visual experience from the music.”
Natalie Merchant performs tonight at the Orpheum, 842 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. $45-$65.
Photo: Merchant, in New York. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times