Natalie Merchant was among the most popular college radio artists of the 80s and 90s.
Back in the day, a certain set of softer yet edgy songs got airplay on college radio stations. Free to be more rebellious than commercial radio, college deejays had room to take risks. Consequently, the bands they played would quickly become the next big thing.
Natalie Merchant is a prime example of an under-the-radar artist with pop cult status. Join us as we dive into five of her greatest songs.
Let’s get going!
About Natalie Merchant
Natalie Merchant is an adult contemporary singer best known for her socially conscious lyrics and gentle vocal style. She was both the singer of the great pop band 10,000 Maniacs and a solo artist. In addition, Merchant also happened to be a 90s feminist cult hero.
The singer grew up in upstate New York, where she joined 10,000 Maniacs in 1981. Merchant impressed her bandmates at barely seventeen and quickly became their lead singer. But after seven albums and commercial success, she left the band. It was time to strike out on her own.
Her first solo record Tigerlilly, released in 1995, quickly topped the charts. After that, Merchant spent much of the 90s touring and guest starring on shows like MTV Unplugged. Tigerlily remains her best-selling album to this day.
Natalie Merchant is also a social activist, aiming much of her work at ending domestic violence against women. She’s performed at benefit concerts throughout her career, such as Every Mother Counts and Tibet House Benefit.
The ASCAP Foundation gave Merchant their highly lauded Champion Award in 2019. ASCAP grants this honor to musicians whose contributions extend beyond music to significant philanthropic causes.
Merchant’s ninth solo record, Keep Your Courage, will be released on April 14th, 2023.
Let’s take a look at five of Natalie Merchant’s best songs.
#1 Break Your Heart
About the Song: Natalie Merchant often wrote about social justice issues and the struggle to do the right thing. Break Your Heart calls out to young people not to give up hope. We all reach an age where the weight of the world can bring us down. To Merchant, this dissolution is universal. But she tells us we’re not alone and to keep going.
Violins and vocal harmonies lift the song up while the lyrics speak of heartache.
People ruthless, people cruel The damage that some people do Full of hatred, full of pride It's enough to make you lose your mind
First Appearance: Break Your Heart appears on Merchant’s second solo album Ophelia. Elektra records released it as a single in 1998.
About the Song: Carnival is the most well-known song by Natalie Merchant. It played all over the radio in the mid-90s on college and contemporary stations.
The song has a somewhat casual rhythm featuring hand drums. As global vibes were hip at the time, the tune had mass appeal. It’s also one of those great happy-sad songs. The lyrics might be a little doubtful, but the music is chill and upbeat.
This number describes a street scene. It’s both a carnival and any city street in America. Merchant grew up in a small town, so visiting New York City as a teenager blew her mind. She was scared but also excited.
The city forces you to interact with people. You can’t ignore others like you can in a car-heavy town. The song invites the listener to take a second look around and be curious about the lives of others.
Have I been blind? Have I been lost? Inside myself and my own mind? Hypnotized, mesmerized By what my eyes have seen
First Appearance: This track is the first single from Natalie Merchant’s 1995 debut album Tigerlily.
About the Song: Merchant wrote Ladybird after a lapse in songwriting. She fell in love, got married, had a child, and then divorced. As a result, she learned some hard lessons about falling in and out of love.
Ladybird takes her personal experience and expands on it. The lyrics describe someone in a loveless relationship. But, like many of Merchant’s songs, she uses it as a call out to women in trouble. Do you really need to stay? Are your children benefitting from seeing you so sad?
You know the sweetest wine It’s a witches’ brew Pours like honey down And then burns a hole in you
First Appearance: Ladybird is the first track on Merchant’s 2014 self-titled album. Piano and orchestral strings weave softly throughout this melancholic melody.
#4 Kind and Generous
About the Song: This tune is a celebration. But in a soft, adult contemporary kind of way. You first hear the sound of a gentle acoustic guitar. Then the song picks up with Natalie Merchant’s breathy, soothing voice simply singing la la la.
Nothing is challenging about this tune – but there doesn’t need to be. A quick kick-stop from the drums just before the chorus lets you know it’s time to throw your hands up with gratitude.
You've been so kind and generous I don't know how you keep on giving For your kindness, I'm in debt to you And I never could have come this far without you
First Appearance: Elektra records released this song in 1998, only on Merchant’s second album Ophelia. Although it was a radio hit in the US and Canada, Elektra refrained from releasing it as a single. This was a common business tactic at the time to boost album sales.
About the Song: Natalie Merchant spent many teenage years around special needs children. Two of the kids she knew personally suffered from a very rare and painful skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa. Although these two thrived under the loving care of family and friends, others she worked with were abandoned and institutionalized.
Merchant wanted the best for these kids, even though she was a little afraid to be around them at times. Her takeaway was that young people with disabilities have gifts beyond measure. Their existence on earth is a blessing for all of us. Mothers with special needs children may just need a little extra help to raise these children of wonder.
The accompanying video shows women and children of multiple nationalities singing the lyrics while Merchant dances and sings. She leads us through her story of a disabled woman who grows to love herself in the face of insurmountable challenges.
Fate smiled and destiny Laughed as she came to my cradle Know this child will be able Laughed as my body she lifted
First Appearance: Wonder debuted on Merchant’s 1995 album Tigerlily.
A Songwriter With a Message
Natalie Merchant is an unassuming singer-songwriter with a focus on social justice, love, and helping those less fortunate. Her folky, contemporary style reminds us that not everything about the 90s was grungy.
Undoubtedly, she spoke directly to listeners through her lyrics about things that matter. And she did it with a certain soft delivery.
Which of these great Natalie Merchant songs makes you want to hear more? Tell us about it in the comments below.