Not only does Chautauqua County hold a special place for singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant as a Jamestown native – Chautauqua Institution was the first exposure she had to orchestral music.
She said it is a “thrill” to be able to perform again on the same stage, for the first time in 10 years, that she admired as a child.
“My mother would take me to the symphony all the time,” Merchant said. “Just sitting on those yellow benches, my little heart exploding with emotion … from the time I was 7 ‘til probably 20.”
Under the baton of Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz, Merchant will join the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amp.
Released in April, Merchant’s newest album, Keep Your Courage, features many songs with orchestral arrangements. And Merchant is no stranger to orchestras. She played her first show like this back in 2008 with the Boston Symphony and has since performed nearly 80 shows with orchestras.
Merchant said she wants to be “faithful to the record” and perform with symphonies as much as possible. And when she’s not doing that, she’s performing with her own string quartet.
When she was 17 and a student at Jamestown Community College, Merchant joined a band that went on to become 10,000 Maniacs. The group released four top 50 albums before Merchant left in 1995 to begin a solo career, which has included numerous accolades and awards including Billboard Hot 100 hits and multiple platinum records. But she said it has all led up to this moment and, Keep Your Courage, her eighth studio album, might be the best work she’s done yet.
“I feel like this album and this tour is the culmination of 40 years of experience as a songwriter, as a recording artist, as a performer,” Merchant said. “I feel like I’m kind of at the height of my skills. … I still have lots of energy and vitality.”
Saturday’s performance will feature new songs from Keep Your Courage and “gorgeous arrangements” played by the CSO. Merchant hopes the audience will be inspired by the program.
“Even if people are familiar with the material, I think the way that the arrangements are constructed, there are just many passages that are just achingly beautiful,” Merchant said. “If you do know the music, then the combination of the words and the music will be very moving.”
Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer at Chautauqua, said Merchant’s cerebral approach to songwriting should appeal to Chautauquans.
“She’s just a perfect match for Chautauqua: A really sensitive songwriter, a beautiful musician and someone that’s also very committed to social justice, making the world a better place,” Moore said. “Hearing that all on stage is going to be spectacular.”
While the set list for the performance is a surprise, Moore said songs from Keep Your Courage, such as “Sister Tilly,” showcases the singer-songwriter’s thoughtful approach, encouraging concertgoers to “think beyond ourselves, to think about what they went through for us and how we live that out and how we can celebrate their lives.”
In 2018, while Merchant was in London, she was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal disease and needed to have emergency surgery. The six-hour operation involved making an incision below her throat and shunting her vocal cords to the side while surgeons removed three bones from her spine. Once Merchant was awake from the surgery, she discovered she could no longer sing.
“It took me to a place of panic,” Merchant told The Guardian in an interview in April. “It made me wish I had made more records.”
Luckily for Merchant, singing has become just one of many passions in her life. She has also worked for more than three years fighting fracking across New York State and made a protest film about it. Merchant also spent a full year working on domestic violence issues in the Hudson Valley, producing and directing a film about that as well. She also curated a 10-disc box set and recorded a collection of songs based on old poems.
Through it all, she has been raising her teenage daughter as a single mother. Writing new music and touring was not necessarily at the top of her to-do list.
“The reason I didn’t do a lot of original writing was I require a lot of solitude and usually in a very foul mood,” Merchant said. “When I have to write, it takes just a lot of focus, and I have to put myself into a self-induced trance to really do the kind of writing that I want to do. Once my daughter was off to college, I had the time and space to both write the record and record it and now tour.”
During the pandemic, when Merchant wasn’t able to sing, a close friend gave her a book of narrative poetry called The Long Take by Scottish poet Robin Robertson.
“I remember opening the book, reading the first chapter and writing to him immediately,” Merchant told The Guardian. “I then sent him a copy of my box set, he sent me some of his other books, and I just fell in love with language again.”
Soon after, Merchant regained her voice, and she began to write again, penning songs inspired by those conversations with Robertson.
Focused on love in many forms, the songs on Keep Your Courage combine traditional folk with chamber pop, orchestration and soul.
“It’s almost as if I have to invent a new word to describe the music on this album,” Merchant told The Guardian. “I don’t even know what to call it.”
Moore said Saturday’s performance will impart a valuable message, particularly during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting people, who may still be processing its emotional effects.
“When I think of Keep Your Courage, I think it’s a message of strength and courage,” she said. “ … It is a message of love.”
The universal language of music, paired with Merchant’s lyrics, allow her to speak volumes, Moore said. Merchant’s songs are something to be cherished and listened to with a close ear and open mind.
“With artists like Natalie, she draws us to really look … and own where we are broken, and own where we are hurt and encourages us to lift ourselves out of that,” Moore said. “So many of her songs are about acknowledging where we are and encouraging us to meet each other there, and then encouraging us to lift each other out of that with love and connection.”
While Merchant is visiting her native Chautauqua County, she will also be meeting nominees for the YWCA’s Women of Achievement awards, which recognize women who have demonstrated extraordinary achievements throughout their career and community involvement.