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  • Robison Wells

An Open Fan Letter to Natalie Merchant

Dear Natalie,


I’m writing this as an open letter because I haven’t found a good way to send fan mail to you, and I thought that a letter like this might draw more fans to your music.


To put it frankly, I am an unabashed, absolute fan of your work. You are my favorite musical artist. (For a long time, I used to say that you were my favorite aside from The Beatles—because, I mean, they’re the Beatles—but I’ve found that I listen to your music ten times as much as I listen to theirs.) So, let’s just get that out of the way right upfront: you’re my favorite.


I first became acquainted with your music in 1999, with the song “Life is Sweet.” I had a girlfriend at the time who had depression caused, in part, by a bad relationship with her father, and she connected with your song deeply and personally, and, when you’re young and infatuated, you listen to your favorite song dozens and dozens of times. She connected with lyrics like


“I’ve tried to comfort you, tried to tell you to be patient;

they are blind, they can’t see.

Fortune’s gonna come one day.

They’re all gonna fade away:

your daddy, the war machine,

nd your mama, the long and suffering

prisoner of what she cannot see.”

To her, great comfort came from the idea that it was all going to fade away. To me, it was the chorus that hit home.


I’d just come home from a Mormon mission (two years of fulltime missionary service) that was grueling and not at all what I had expected. I felt disillusioned and broken. I saw my peers coming home from their missions having had enormous spiritual experiences, and I had just tried to survive. Your poetic words (“They told you life is hard, it’s misery from the start; it’s dull and slow and painful—but I tell you life is sweet, in spite of the misery there’s so much more, be grateful”) touched me in a way that I find hard to describe. To me life was hard, and I felt like I should be miserable, and your lyrics helped turn me around.

I bought the album—Ophelia—and even after I broke up with my girlfriend, I listened to it constantly. At the time, I wasn’t even aware of Tigerlily, even though that was a much more famous album. For me, it was Ophelia, through and through, over and over. “Kind and Generous” was of course the most popular on the radio, but I was enamored with the softer, more lyrical “King of May”, and “Break Your Heart.”


I was given your Live in Concert album as a gift, and that introduced me to not only your previous work (my first introduction to music from Tigerlily) but also to your personality as a performer. I read into the words—perhaps more than I should—and tried to understand you. There was so much you were saying: "San Andreas Fault" moved me, as you shifted from “Go west, paradise is there” to “San Andreas fault moved its fingers through the ground. . . Oh, promised land, what a wicked ground. Build a dream, tear it down.” "Beloved Wife", a song I listened to shortly after my grandfather lost his wife, broke my heart. And your covers were no less than brilliant: "After The Gold Rush" and "Space Oddity" were throwbacks I knew (but with amazing personal twists as you made them your own). And "The Gulf of Araby": amazing and devastating. I know it’s not your poem, but I fell in love with the music first. It took years of listening to unpack the lyrics, and while I can’t say I’ve finally cracked them all, I am in love with that song. It remains my favorite song in all of your work (and that’s saying something).


Motherland brought out a new side, as you experimented with new styles: blues and soul and folk rock. "Saint Judas" is brutal and genius, a song I knew I had to find the lyrics to and dissect. It is a harsh indictment of society’s hypocrisy that, I think, transcends its Southern lynch-mob setting: “Saddle up the horses and wear your Sunday best, sing your Sacred Harp, you be holier than the rest. Fill up the room with a grand and a thunderous song. Let it rattle out the windows, let it spill out on the lawn. Shout, shout your praises to the man who kissed the Lord, to the back-stabbing brother that betrayed all of this world, your Judas!” Even Motherland’s most experimental song, the strange "Henry Darger" is wondrous and eye-opening, and made me search out the story that accompanied the song. And now, as the father of a teenage girl, I appreciate "Tell Yourself" so much. It’s a beautiful song anyway, but the message it conveys is so important.


I have to say: when I bought The House Carpenter’s Daughter, I was a little confused. It was such a departure—old hymns and folk songs—and I didn’t know what to make of it. But it sucked me in quickly (the liner notes helped enormously to explain the stories behind the obscurity). The first that grabbed my attention was "Which Side Are You On?", a song written by the wife of a miner in the 1930s, urging unionization in the strongest of terms: “Don’t scab for the bosses, don’t listen to their lies. Poor folks ain’t got a chance unless they organize. Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?” Other songs are gorgeous and timeless. I don’t intend to die anytime soon, but when I do I want you to sing "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" at my funeral.


And while it took me a while to “get” House Carpenter’s Daughter, the (perhaps even more esoteric) Leave Your Supper/Leave Your Sleep double album was just what I needed. My oldest was eight, my youngest one, at the time the child-themed album was released, so I had an instant connection to the fun of the children’s songs—they especially loved the "Peppery Man", "the Dancing Bear", and "Adventures of Isabel." But I was drawn to the deeper poetic songs—the ones that were not only for children ("The Land of Nod," "Autumn Lullaby," "Vain and Careless") but the songs that were about children, childhood, and growing up: "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience," "Maggie and Millie and Molly and May," and especially—so especially—"Spring and Fall." It’s this last that moved me most, and that both elates and haunts me. I have a fear, not of death, but of having lived and not accomplished anything. This song about fleeting mortality, where “no matter, child, the name: sorrows springs are all the same”: death. I have written on a note on my desk the line “It is Margaret that you mourn for” to remind me of this song and those lyrics.


It was at this point that I first saw you in concert. It was an odd experience, that has changed me as an artist (I’m a novelist). You were on tour for Leave Your Supper/Leave Your Sleep, and I saw you at Red Butte Gardens in Salt Lake City. I was in love with your music—all of it, every note—and was surrounded by fans who appeared to only know your old stuff: 10,000 Maniacs and Tigerlily. And they didn’t know what to make of your children’s songs. It took a long time for them to get with you. I felt embarrassed for my city—that we were not a good enough audience—but then you did something amazing. You sang "Dancing Bear," and it got the crowd moving. It wasn’t your old stuff, but it was fast-paced and danceable and a small group gathered in front of the stage. By the time the song was over, everyone was into it. And then you said the line that changed my view of art: you said “Let’s sing it again. My job is to make you happy.” And you sang it again, and they loved it more the second time. And I realized that an artist—me, a novelist—isn’t owed a good reception, but is being paid to entertain. You made the crowd happy, and you did it by responding to what they wanted, while still being true to your new music and vision.


Your self-titled Natalie Merchant was incredible. Every song is a masterpiece. I consider it your best album. It’s darker than most: "Giving Up Everything" is shattering, as you lay out all your possessions and dreams and visions and abandon them all—but it’s not melancholy or, dare I say, suicidal, but freeing: “Giving up everything, my hungry ghost of hopefulness. Giving up everything, not haunted by wanting this. Giving up everything, the fortune I was saving. Giving up everything, I mercy-killed my craving. Giving up everything, I’ve opened up my eyes for this. Giving up everything, see the whole magnificent emptiness. Gave what I want for how it is, for the stone inside and the bitterness, for the sweetness at the core of it.” I love the phrase of “giving up what I want for how it is”. I’ve experienced a lot of heartache and loss and adversity, and have found that when I have nothing is when I feel most free—when I get that “sweetness at the core of it.”


I have your other albums. I bought your Retrospective way back in 2005—the special edition version (which I had to find online from someone in England) which included your collaborations like "Photograph" and "Party of God" and, my favorite from that album, "Because I Could Not Stop For Death." And I was given your 10-CD Boxed Set, which included its own Rarities (which I adore, though I can only listen to it in my car, as that’s the only CD player I own anymore).


More than any other artist, your music has changed the way that I write, how I see the world, and how I work. I’m no musician—I can’t discuss instruments and styles and music theory—but I love you as a poet. I love your words. I love your meanings, and the mysteries that I have yet to unlock in some of your songs.


I look forward to hearing more from you, be it children’s songs or folk ballads or whatever "Henry Darger" was. You have a gift, and I have benefitted from that gift for twenty years now. I hope that somehow this letter finds you, but whether it does or not, I hope that it garners you a few new fans along the way.


With my deepest affection and sincerity,

Robison Wells

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