Seven years ago, Natalie Merchant, longtime musician, was a brand-new mother. "I thought, 'Now I'm a mother, maybe I should do a children's album, like everyone else is doing,' " she says by phone from her home in New York State. "So I began collecting lullabies."
She started by singing into a recorder while breast-feeding. "As I raised my daughter, I felt a connection to the future, and to unbroken ways of child-rearing and care that have remained unchanged for thousands of years," she says, "and that gave me a burst of energy."
A funny thing happened on the way to the album. Two funny things. First, it kept changing, taking more than five years to assemble and a year to record. The second thing was, it grew. A lot.
"It turned into an all-consuming quest for evocations of the experience of child-rearing from an adult perspective - something that will work for adults," she says, "and also of the unique world that children inhabit - something that would be useful for my daughter."
Leave Your Sleep, released in April, is a double CD with 25 tracks in a variety of styles, from reggae to klezmer, from orchestra-and-voice to bluegrass. It's yet another new direction in a career that began in the early 1980s with the band 10,000 Maniacs, branched into a successful solo stint in the 1990s, and quieted for a while for motherhood. An ambitious work that embraces fun, story, and sadness, Leave is Merchant's first studio album since The House Carpenter's Daughter in 2003.
She will be performing songs from Leave Your Sleep on Saturday at the West Chester Poetry Conference (for registered attendees only), and returns to Philadelphia on July 20 for a full-band concert at the Merriam Theater.
Most ambitious of all, the songs are settings for poems by e.e. cummings, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others. Merchant, 47 and a longtime poetry devotee, says, "I found a new connection to the possibilities of the mother tongue as I started to teach my child to speak."
Merchant's voice negotiates Hopkins' poignant sadness ("Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?"), cummings' profound playfulness ("whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it's always ourselves we find in the sea"), Field's "girl in pink on a milk-white horse," and John Godfrey Saxe's six "blind men of Indostan" groping around the elephant.
As Merchant set the poems to music, she realized the album would become "an anthology that would act as an introduction to poetry, and also an anthology of musical styles."
Galloping through the album is a horde of 130 musicians, in groups as diverse as the Irish band Lúnasa; session greats the Memphis Boys; the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York; the Klezmatics; jazz-jam band Medeski, Martin and Wood; and playful L.A. girl duo the Ditty Bops.
Few producers have an ear for so many genres, but Andrés Levin would. A musician and composer, he has worked with everything from electronica to Afro-Cuban, everyone from John Legend to David Byrne to Carlinhos Brown. Asked what it was like to coproduce Leave Your Sleep, he says, "A challenge, but even more, a treat."
None of the music is electronic, and, says Levin, "about 90 percent of it is live in the studio - that's the way we tried to do it, whenever possible." He marvels that it has such a together feeling: "That's the craft, the magic of it: How do we make all this sound like one, unified thing? Plus, it was a treat for me to record music I'd never done before, such as bluegrass, or, say, a viola da gamba - you don't see many of those in recording studios."
Merchant's appearance at the West Chester Poetry Conference grew out of another one - at the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Conference in Washington, where she played a few songs from the future album. There, she met poet and West Chester conference cofounder Dana Gioia.
Gioia, a longtime Merchant fan and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, says that "as soon as I heard about her project, I asked if she would play at the conference," which features a poetry-and-music night. Leave Your Sleep, Gioia says, is "unprecedented" in pop music: "There have been pop musicians in the past - Joni Mitchell and Loreena McKennitt, for example - who have set poems to music, but no one has ever done anything of this scale or range. What Natalie has done is to create art songs, in the old sense of taking preexisting poems and setting them to music. She's the Franz Schubert of folk-rock."
Merchant's show at the Merriam will be part of a touring summer during which she will perform tracks from the album in everything from small, acoustic settings to full-band to orchestral arrangements. "I have a repertoire now of 20 songs I can do with an orchestra," she says. "I did that with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and I really enjoyed it."
Leave Your Sleep does not shy away from the sadness of childhood. Merchant says, "There's a huge amount of insipid, cloying nonsense out there that underestimates children's sophistication." So she aimed to mix the fun and dreams with an acknowledgment of the hard parts of being little.
"By the time she was 3," she says, "Lucia was asking pretty groping, existential questions. And I, when I was little, I'd see the crying Indian on TV, and the violence and rubber bullets in Belfast, and Mother put pictures of starving children on the refrigerator. Children see all that. If you don't have an adult willing to engage in a dialogue with you, respect your feelings and the complexity of your mind, childhood can be an isolating place to be. That understanding is what I'm hoping this album gives people of every age."
Natalie Merchant in Philadelphia
Saturday, 8 p.m.: West Chester Poetry Conference, West Chester University (enrollees only; no public tickets).
July 20, 8 p.m.: Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $40-$65. Information: www.kimmelcenter.org, 215-893-1999.