Tag Archives: Natalie Merchant

“Like Friendly Wine”: California Stars – Wilco

Sometime around 1996, Nora Guthrie contacted Barking-born singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and asked him if he’d be interested in going through her father Woody’s archive of unused lyrics to see if any could be turned into completed songs. Despite initial reservations (this is Bob Dylan’s gig, thought Bragg, or Steve Earle’s or Springsteen’s or someone), Bragg agreed to take on the challenge.

However, he felt that as an Englishman, he couldn’t do the work of creating new Woody Guthrie songs on his own, and he contacted Wilco to ask if they wanted to collaborate with him. Wilco were hot off the success of Being There, and were still principally an alt. country band, with occasional West Coast influences. Not Okies, admittedly, but undoubtedly with more American soil on their boots than Bragg, however long he had been touring the US and making connections.

As documented in Kim Hopkins’s feature-length documentary, Man in the Sand, the sessions for Mermaid Avenue became fractious towards the end. There were some disputes over writing credits, and Jeff Tweedy wanted final say over the mix of the record, which Bragg felt was a bit much given Tweedy’s status as invitee to the project. A quote Tweedy gave to Greg Kot is revealing:

“I enjoyed working with Billy. He had a good sense of humor, the ability to laugh at himself. And at the same time, I was always suspect of him, as being somewhat full of [expletive]. I never did understand why we were recording songs about brown-shirted fascists clobbering people in the streets of Italy during the ’30s. […] For Jay [Bennett], it was an atrocity that some of Billy’s mixes would make the record. Instead of balancing instruments and allowing it to be an environment where it sounds like a singer and a band, his was very much a vocal solo mix, with a very far-away, easily palatable band. So squishy and soft and perfect. To me, the recordings we did for Volume 1 were very raw, almost crappy sounding. Whereas his didn’t sound crappy, they sounded chintzy. This faux glitz was on them, and to us that was antithetical to the idea behind the record.”

Bragg and Tweedy’s uneasy compromise was that Bragg would give Wilco the tapes to produce their own mixes, and Bragg and his long-term producer, who glories in the name Grant Showbiz, would mix it too. If Bragg preferred their own mixes of Bragg’s songs, those would be the mixes used on the record.

Once both parties had created their mixes, Bragg felt that he and Grant Showbiz had put together a great mix of Wilco’s California Stars, too, and he wanted that to be used on the album, rather than Wilco’s. The finished record does not indicate which mix was used for California Stars, but whichever it was, the song still stands as a highlight, along with Bragg’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Ingrid Bergman, Birds & Ships (for which Bragg brought in Natalie Merchant to sing the lead vocal) and Another Man’s Done Gone, which Bragg wrote, Bennett arranged for piano and Tweedy sang. If the songs written by Tweedy and Jay Bennett aren’t quite up to the level of Bragg’s (which could just be a personal-taste thing, or perhaps Wilco had bled themselves a bit dry working on Being There), California Stars stands up alongside any of Tweedy’s work, and quickly became a fan favourite that they still play at just about every gig.

It’s a lovely song, with a weary lope. At the same time that it gains a spring in its step from the idea of being home in California, it contains in its heart a sadness that the singer is not there but must keep working, keep moving, keep staying away. It may be a song about California by an Okie, but it’s a song for anyone, anywhere, who is not where they most want to be.

River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the album with new arrangements and is performing the whole thing on this tour. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

natalie-merchant

* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice. The kinship between the two and the influence of Stipe on Merchant is plain as day though.