This Top 10 Natalie Merchant Songs presents the best Natalie Merchant Songs including “Carnival,” ” Wonder,” “Jealousy,” and more. Born in October 1963, New Yorker Natalie Merchant grew up listening to the Beatles, Al Green, Aretha Franklin and her mother’s favorite, Petula Clark. Her grandfather was an immigrant from Sicily whose original surname was Mercante but it was changed to Merchant once he arrived on North American soil. He knew how to play the accordion, guitar, and mandolin, which played an influential factor on his daughter’s love for classical music and the encouragement Natalie and her three siblings received to study music.
They often accompanied their mother to the symphony as she was a big fan of classical music. When Natalie was twelve years old, she was taken to a Styx concert that had her thrown up on and surrounded by fans who were smoking marijuana. If it wasn’t for the impressionable stage performance by Styx, the concert would have been a complete disaster for Natalie. However, the piano that rose out onto the stage, plus the music, was something she commented had her in awe and inspired.
When Natalie’s mother remarried, it was to a jazz musician. Between her mother’s love for classical music and her stepfather’s jazzy musical style, this served as a key influence for Natalie as she grew up in a household that had little interest in the news, regardless if it was by paper or television. When Natalie was a pre-teen, the family did not have a TV unit. For her, instead of listening to the news she’d listen to music. From childhood until adulthood, Natalie lived mostly as an introvert, listening to music that differed from most of the children and teens that grew up in the 1980s. It wasn’t until she began working in a health food store at sixteen years old did she learn more about music that wasn’t primarily classical or jazz. In interview, she admitted she had no clue who Bob Dylan was until she was eighteen years old. This was the timeframe she began to sing for a band that would center her career goal as a professional artist in the music industry.
Starting in 1981, Natalie Merchant became the lead vocalist and primary lyricist for 10,000 Maniacs. At the time, they were originally known as Still Life. She was a college student when she first hooked up with the band and remained with the group until 1993. In that twelve-year run, she was the group’s main singing voice who also played piano. When 1993 came around, she announced she decided to embark on a solo career so she could have more creative control over her music.
Although she and the rest of the group were very successful and well recognized nationwide, Merchant felt it was time to move on and use her singing voice and creative talent how she saw fit. Her final recording before her departure from 10,000 Maniacs was “Because the Night,” which was a cover from Bruce Springsteen’s and Patti Smith’s original. For the 10,000 Maniacs, it was the highest charted single in the twelve years they performed together as a band. It peaked at number eleven on the US Billboard Hot 100 in February, 1994.
With 10,000 Maniacs now a part of her past as Natalie Merchant moved forward as a soloist, put together the song, “I May Know the Word,” which was supposed to be on the Philadelphia soundtrack for the movie that began to run in theaters in 1993. Unfortunately, this song was not included in the soundtrack but did appear on Merchant’s debut album, Tigerlily. Through the Electra label in 1995, the album was released with a title Merchant represented a chapter in her life that felt symbolic. From that same album, “Beloved Wife” became the first song for the trailer of Message in a Bottle, a film that was released in 1999 starring Kevin Costner.
Merchant’s debut album allowed her to have the creative control she never had with 10,000 Maniacs. In order to maintain that control it was an album she funded on her own. She was also responsible for putting together a core group of musicians that included Peter Yanowitz of Wallflower fame. Eventually, Merchant and Yanowitz became a couple until splitting abruptly in 2000. For Merchant, the success of Tigerlily was the needed commercial and critical success to keep her solo career going, as well as voice her opinion on matters that were of importance to her in song form. One such example of this was “River” as she voiced her disapproval of the media’s decision to rip apart the reputation of River Phoenix after he died.
In reference to Shakespeare’s Ophelia was Natalie Merchant’s second studio album, which was released on May 19, 1998, three years after Tigerlily. Between these two albums, the tracks on Ophelia featured considerably more instrumentation than Merchant’s debut album as the influence of classical and jazz from her childhood made its mark here. The work involved with this album saw Merchant collaborate with different musicians through a series of workshops from her home studio. Impressed with Merchant’s work and talent, Sarah McLachlan invited her to headline with her in the Lilith Fair Music Festival. This tour spiked Natalie Merchant’s popularity, ultimately playing a factor to Ophelia’s platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The tour ended in 1999 that featured performances and recordings on Broadway. This resulted in the release of the album, Natalie Merchant: Live in Concert.
New Century, New Music
Starting in 2000, Natalie Merchant performed in a United States folk music tour. In 2001, she released her third studio album, Motherland, which was cited as a grittier style of music Merchant had otherwise been known for. It became certified gold by the RIAA, making it another commercially successful project by Merchant. The promotional tour of the album began in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 17, 2001 that stretched across the United States before heading into Europe. By the summer of 2002, she teamed up with Chris Isaak as the two played at various concert venues.
When Natalie Merchant’s contract with Elektra expired in August 2002, she opted not to continue with any major labels, preferring to go through her own label, Myth America Records. Her first studio album from it was released in September 2003, titled The House Carpenter’s Daughter. It was the only album ever released from her own label as 2010’s album, Leave Your Sleep, was a Nonesuch Records released. It was a compilation album featuring five years’ worth of inspirational material that came from Merchant and her daughter, Lucia. It was followed with the 2014 release of her eponymous album, then 2015’s Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. 2017’s Butterfly featured a collection of new songs and orchestral alternatives from some of Merchant’s previous recordings.
Natalie Merchant Legacy
Since going solo in 1993, Natalie Merchant has recorded and released a total of seven studio albums so far, as well as two compilations, an extended play (EP), and eleven singles. As a featured artist or collaborator, she has eight songs to her credit. She has also made several television appearances, mainly in interviews and televised specials that saw her part of the musical roster.
Top 10 Natalie Merchant Songs
#10 – I May Know the Word
Originally, “I May Know the Word” was supposed to find its place on the soundtrack of Philadelphia, a 1993 film starring Tom Hanks. When that didn’t happen, this soul-sharing ballad became one of the tracks on Natalie Merchant’s debut album, Tigerlily. It, along with the rest of the songs in the album, was instrumental to the album’s commercial success as it became a five-time RIAA-certified platinum seller. In the song, the offer to provide comfort during a difficult time was beautifully played by a minimalistic composition of instrumental music that took a back seat to Merchant’s heart-tugging lyrics.
#9 – River
“River” served as a song designed as a defending statement by Natalie Merchant in favor of River Phoenix, who died on October 31, 1993 due to a drug overdose from the mix of cocaine and heroin. His death sparked the media to have a field-day at his expense in a manner that was disrespectful enough in Merchant’s eyes to give a piece of her mind in song form. Although “River” didn’t chart it was Merchant at her best as an activist that used her music as a means to bring her point across. The start of the piano, beautifully played by Merchant, was soon accompanied by an acoustic collection of instruments and her lyrical performance. All of it, from start to finish, was a musically insightful piece that gave River Phoenix, as well as the family he left behind, a level of respect that was well deserved.
#8 – Beloved Wife
“Beloved Wife” was featured in the trailer of Kevin Costner’s film, Message in a Bottle, which was in theaters in 1999, nearly four years after its recording on Natalie Merchant’s debut album, Tigerlily. The entire album, song for song, was mostly performed with acoustic instrumentation that was minimal and powerful at the same time. The piano was the dramatic highlight, combined with Merchant’s vocals, which made “Beloved Wife” one of the most beautiful songs the artist has ever recorded. Among some of the fans that are familiar with Natalie Merchant’s music, “Beloved Wife” has become a favorite song of choice to play during weddings, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, and funerals due to the deepness behind the lyrics.
#7 – Topsyturvey-World
“Topsyturvey-World” was Natalie Merchant’s final single to chart as a solo artist. It came from her fourth studio album, Leave Your Sleep, which was released in 2000 and has since sold approximately 200,000 copies worldwide. As an album, it was her best-selling work since her 2001 departure from Elektra. “Tospyturvey-World” became a number twenty-six hit on the US Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart, mainly appeasing fans of folk music as this jazzy song featured a mildly Celtic approach to Merchant’s version of describing the world and how a series of events has made it what it is now.
#6 – Break Your Heart
1998’s “Break Your Heart” was from Natalie Merchant’s second album, Ophelia. On the US Billboard Adult Top 40 Airplay chart it was a number twenty-four hit. The heartbreaking tale of social injustices inflicting damage upon the world and its people came from the viewpoint of an activist who felt it’s simply human nature to remain stuck in a cycle that continues to see heartache and pain as a condition that will never go away.
#5 – Life Is Sweet
On the US Billboard Adult Top 40 Airplay chart, “Life Is Sweet” peaked at number twelve. From Natalie Merchant’s album, Ophelia, it was the third and final single released from it in 1998. In a world that often feels too dark to bear, remembering what makes life worth living is what made “Life Is Sweet” a subtle favorite.
#4 – Jealousy
“Jealousy” was the third single released from Natalie Merchant’s 1995 album, Tigerlily. On the US Billboard Adult Top 40 Airplay chart it was a number five hit and it peaked at number eight on the US Billboard Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart. It was one of three songs selected in by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) as the Most Performed Song. Sung as a woman scorned, Merchant, asked her former lover about the woman he has replaced her with, wondering if she has met all his needs. As a mid-tempo song, Merchant’s lyrical inquiry was a refreshing step from ballad versions performed by other artists about the topic of “Jealousy” without heading into a range of heavy beats.
#3 – Kind and Generous
From the 1998 album, Ophelia, “Kind and Generous” served as the first single in Natalie Merchant’s solo career that made it perfectly clear her time with 10,000 Maniacs is over and she was more than capable of succeeding on her own. It became a number one hit on the US Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart, a number three hit on the US Billboard Adult Top 40, and a number nineteen hit on RPM Canada’s Top Singles chart.
With the song focused on the kindness and generosity that has seen humanity at its best, it was the song of choice performed by the Orchestra of the Bronx for a 2020 Montefiore Health System commercial to pay tribute to the brave healthcare workers that were in the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic as it ravaged its course across the nation, as well as the rest of the world. “King and Generous” also became the fourth song from Natalie Merchant to be cited as the Most Performed Song by ASCAP in 1999.
#2 – Wonder
Released in 1995 as the second single from her album, Tigerlily, “Wonder” became a number twenty hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and a number ten hit on the Canadian RPM Top Singles chart. Throughout Natalie Merchant’s career, she often poured her singing and songwriting talent into material expressing her political and social beliefs. “Wonder” was a lyrical story based on a set of twins she personally knew that had epidermolysis bullosa.
This is a rare genetic condition that is a dermatology nightmare as it blisters the skin and mucous membranes. The range of seriousness of this medical condition can range from mild to fatal due to complications such as amputations, esophageal narrowing and cellular skin cancer. Mechant’s “Wonder” was recognized enough to peak as high as number two on the US Billboard Adult Top 40, as well as earn a number thirty chart rank on Iceland’s official music chart.
In Australia, “Wonder” charted at number seventy-one and in the UK at number eighty-four. In 1997, ASCAP credited “Wonder” with Most Performed Song, along with two others credited to Merchant, namely “Jealousy” and “Carnival.”
#1 – Carnival
The lead single from Tigerlily was “Carnival,” a single that compared the sights and sounds of New York City’s daily life routine to a carnival. For Natalie Merchant, the inspiration behind this song came to her when she was sixteen years old, visiting the big city for the first time. She was so fascinated with the contrast of the city’s lifestyle compared to her country-style upbringing that she decided to write about it in song. On the US Billboard Hot 100, “Carnival” peaked as high as number ten, making it the highest-charting single from her as a solo artist.
In Canada, it peaked at number seventeen and was a number twenty-four hit in Australia. On the US Billboard Mainstream Top 40, “Carnival” was a number six hit and it peaked at number eight on the US Billboard Adult Top 40 and the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. “Carnival” also earned Natalie Merchant her first ASCAP recognition as one of her three Most Performed Song in 1997.
Photo: Bryan Ledgard, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Natalie Merchant Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
Classicrockhistory.com claims ownership of all its original content and Intellectual property under United States Copyright laws and those of all other foreign countries. No one person, business or any organizations is allowed to re-publish any of our original content anywhere on the web or in print without our permission. All photos used are either public domain creative commons photos or licensed officially from Shutterstock under license with ClassicRockHistory.com. All photo credits have been placed at end of article.