“Our Time in Rhinecliff: A Winter’s Day in Upstate New York with Natalie Merchant,” Paste, 2010

Photo © Mark Seliger.

Photo © Mark Seliger.

Natalie Merchant is holding the door for me as I enter the train station. I’ve just pulled into Rhinecliff, a quaint Hudson Valley town roughly 90 minutes outside of Manhattan, and Merchant has come to pick me up. She’s wearing the oversized sunglasses I remember from a photo of her performing at the opening of Poets House in New York last September, and she’s as tiny as I’ve read: 5 foot 1 and slight underneath her long quilted down coat. “It’s 14 degrees!” she says.

I follow her to her car, thinking about how 20 years ago, she graced MTV in her vintage dresses, her bobbed hair blue-black and her lipstick retro red, dancing through the 10,000 Maniacs hit “Like the Weather.” Now 46, she has since become a platinum-selling solo artist, a longtime resident of the Hudson Valley and, as of 2003, a mom. And now here we are, driving to a cafe in her Volvo station wagon.

It’s been a long six years since her last studio album, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, and this month she’s staging an ambitious return. Leave Your Sleep is a genre-spanning collection of poems Merchant has set to music with help from a wildly disparate cast of collaborators—some 130 artists, including Wynton Marsalis, Lúnasa and The Klezmatics, The Memphis Boys and Medeski Martin & Wood. Merchant sent the artists demos early on, but the songs—recorded in an ensemble setting with no rehearsal—often changed shape. “‘Calico Pie’ started out as a jig,” Merchant tells me after we settle in at our table. “And then it turned out to be a bluegrass song. When we did ‘Sweet and a Lullaby,’ as an experiment we played that one song in about 10 different styles.”

Merchant began the project five years ago and personally selected all of the poems. The majority are about childhood, and date from the Victorian era. She hired three research assistants to track down biographical data about the authors, anda fourth assistant to research photos. “My favorite part was the picture research,” Merchant says. “I’ve collected antique photographs for over 30 years, so I’m really fascinated by old photographs. I had a deep desire to know who these people were and what they looked like.”

She self-financed Sleep, and last fall teamed with Nonesuch Records to release it. “It just got to the point where it was too big and too much. They were the only label I considered because I knew they’d understand the project.” (She appears on another 2010 Nonesuch release—David Byrne’s Imelda Marcos-inspired opus, Here Lies Love—to be released this month.) Merchant’s own album will come in two versions: a “cheap and cheerful” 16-track CD, and a 26-song, 60-plus-page deluxe edition. She’ll tour “modestly” in support of the album, including a library tour starting in April at the New York Public Library that will be part performance and part lecture—atthis point, she knows these poets’ lives by heart.

We’re back in the Volvo now, returning to the train station. I ask about Merchant’s musical preferences. Does she like metal? Nope. “Roxy Music—that’s as hard rock as I get,” she says, and then slips in a CD from yet another Nonesuch labelmate. “Do you know Low Anthem?” There’s a pause while the car fills with Ben Knox Miller’s pillowy vocals. “This is what exurban moms listen to,” she says with a laugh. If only, Natalie. If only.