Once a regular fixture on America’s music scene as frontwoman of ’80s rock band 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant blossomed into a thoughtful singer-songwriter in the ’90s with stately albums like Tigerlily and Ophelia, and the unlikely 1995 radio hit Carnival.

But it’s been a long seven years since her last release, a low-key collection of traditional folk songs.

In that time, she’s been busy creating Leave Your Sleep, a staggeringly detailed 26-song compendium of poems set to music. The project was a five-year labour of love for the singer.

“I feel like I’ve never been busier,” the softly-spoken Merchant told Sydney Star Observer. “People have said, what have you been doing all this time? Well, this. And of course I raised a kid.”

Merchant describes her six-year-old daughter as her ‘muse’, and the initial inspiration for Leave Your Sleep.

“My life was transformed when she was born — I was a travelling musician, and once she arrived I left my major label, stopped touring, stopped releasing records and embraced a different way of life.

“This album, in a subtle way, is about what I discovered when I did that.”

Merchant delved into the world of poetry, searching for evocative verse she could read to her daughter. Soon she started setting the poems to music.

“The problem was that I couldn’t stop myself. I got to about 55 [poems], and realised I couldn’t make a four-volume set, so I’d better stop. But the biggest challenge was the research, which went on for several years.”

Leave Your Sleep comes complete with an 80-page booklet written by Merchant, detailing the lives of the poets she chose.

“So many of the poems were written by extremely obscure poets, and all I had to work with was a name and a birthdate, maybe a country too. It wasn’t enough. I felt like I’d collaborated with these people — I wanted to know what they looked like.

“That was the initial thing, I wanted to get a photograph. And then once I got the photograph,” she laughed, “and learned a couple of facts about their life, I was hooked.”

This all sounds like the sort of expensive, time-consuming process record labels can’t afford to pay for in 2010, and it is: although it’s being distributed by Warner Records, Merchant recorded and financed Leave Your Sleep herself.

“I don’t think there’s a record label in the world who would’ve made this record. They would’ve thought I was out of my mind… and they might well be right!”

info: Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch Records) is out now.

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