Not long ago, while talking to Natalie Merchant about Paradise Is There – The New Tigerlily Recordings, her brilliantly imaginative re-recording and re-arranging of songs from her multi-platinum solo debut Tigerlily, I raised the possibility that the project could be perceived as a line under her career to date. She didn’t agree with me.
However, she did observe that “it is possible to be a musician, but you can’t be a pop musician and be a woman and continue in this forever. There’s so much lived experience and some wisdom I’ve gained in my life, and there must be room for that.
“So I’m trying to find a way to mature in this field called pop music, which really loathes the ageing process and loves youth. I just feel like I don’t want to do the same thing I did when I was 25 or 35. The songs have endurance and have retained a lot of validity. But I am focusing on how to make the experience appropriate for the way I feel now.”
That was very much the approach she brought to her sold-out show at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, which was a thrilling lesson in how to balance carefully-thought through elegance and well-wrought musicianship with an exuberant enthusiasm that might have veered on the gauche at times but was never less than endearing.
More than once, I found myself on the verge of tears at the emotionally-potent combination of her songs, her remarkable voice and her extraordinary delivery. But I would never have expected to well up at the way she, apparently spontaneously, literally embraced a woman in the front row. Her songs and unashamedly artistic aspirations (including an obvious penchant for flamenco, in posture and clothing) make a unique connection with her audience and, not surprisingly, they love her for the thoroughly adult emotions she brings to a show.
But there’s also a charmingly childlike playfulness at work, as when she offered a version of “old English folk song” Wonderwall, managing to mix up Manchester and Liverpool (quite a faux-pas in front of any less forgiving an audience), and when she indulged her legendary fondness for Fawlty Towers. It’s an aspect of Merchant completely missed by those who can, and often do, dismiss her as over-serious, even po-faced.
Framed by a string quartet of four and a drummer (all female) plus keyboards, upright bass and guitar from musicians of the male persuasion, Merchant, sporting a slightly bizarre, semi-flamenco but rather military-looking outfit, was clearly in complete control of her musicians and looked the part. Yet, as layers of clothing, even shoes, were shed, that communication between them became more and more obviously empathetic, just as the rapport with the audience grew to the point where she was casually addressing the front rows – and the occasional sheepish latecomer – as if they were at a stand-up show.
Songs and arrangements from Paradise Is There, including long-time favourites like River, Carnival, Wonder and the heartbreaking Beloved Wife (plus the rarely-performed Cowboy Romance) appeared in the set, of course, but without any hint of ‘plugging the new record’.
Merchant says: “Those songs from Tigerlily remain at the core of my live shows because they still have relevance to me. Songs have new life breathed into them every time they are sung, and time has changed them as much as it has changed me.
“By the response they receive, I can tell that they still resonate with my audience.”
All of her solo albums were well represented in Manchester and, in most cases, blissfully transformed in live performance, with the surprising exception of The House Carpenter’s Daughter unless Wonderwall was her nod to “traditional and contemporary folk music”.
But an inevitable highlight was her “sing with me” version of Motherland, a song that become something of a contemporary folk classic, sung in all sorts of places across the world far more unlikely than the Bridgewater Hall. That’s quite an extraordinary achievement for a self-described “girl from a working-class background in a pretty obscure town, somewhere in America”. Music, she says, has introduced her to the world, and now her own music and art is remarkable enough that you can easily imagine it too could transform the life of anyone who hears it with an open heart.