Merchant Of Verses

Seven years ago, Natalie Merchant, longtime musician, was a brand-new mother.

"I thought, 'Now I'm a mother, maybe I should do a children's album, like everyone else is doing,'" she says. "So I began collecting lullabies."

She started by singing into a recorder while breast-feeding.

"As I raised my daughter, I felt a connection to the future, and to unbroken ways of child-rearing and care that have remained unchanged for thousands of years," she says, "and that gave me a burst of energy."

A funny thing happened on the way to the album. Two funny things. First, it kept changing, taking more than five years to assemble and a year to record. The second thing was, it grew. A lot.

"It turned into an all-consuming quest for evocations of the experience of child-rearing from an adult perspective — something that will work for adults," she says, "and also of the unique world that children inhabit — something that would be useful for my daughter."

"Leave Your Sleep" is a double CD with 25 tracks in a variety of styles, from reggae to klezmer, from orchestra-and-voice to bluegrass. It's yet another new direction in a career that began in the early 1980s with the band 10,000 Maniacs, branched into a successful solo stint in the 1990s, and quieted for a while for motherhood.

An ambitious work that embraces fun, story and sadness, "Leave" is Merchant's first studio album since "The House Carpenter's Daughter" in 2003.

Most ambitious of all, the songs are settings for poems by e.e. cummings, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others. Merchant, 47 and a longtime poetry devotee, says, "I found a new connection to the possibilities of the mother tongue as I started to teach my child to speak."

Merchant's voice negotiates Hopkins' poignant sadness ("Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?"), cummings' profound playfulness ("whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it's always ourselves we find in the sea"), Field's "girl in pink on a milk-white horse," and John Godfrey Saxe's six "blind men of Indostan" groping around the elephant.

As Merchant set the poems to music, she realized the album would become "an anthology that would act as an introduction to poetry, and also an anthology of musical styles."

Galloping through the album is a horde of 130 musicians, in groups as diverse as the Irish band Lunasa; session greats the Memphis Boys; the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York; the Klezmatics; jazz-jam band Medeski, Martin and Wood; and playful L.A. girl duo the Ditty Bops.

Few producers have an ear for so many genres, but Andres Levin would. A musician and composer, he has worked with everything from electronica to Afro-Cuban, everyone from John Legend to David Byrne to Carlinhos Brown. Asked what it was like to co-produce "Leave Your Sleep," he says, "A challenge, but even more, a treat."

None of the music is electronic, and, says Levin, "about 90 percent of it is live in the studio — that's the way we tried to do it, whenever possible." He marvels that it has such a together feeling: "That's the craft, the magic of it: How do we make all this sound like one, unified thing? Plus, it was a treat for me to record music I'd never done before, such as bluegrass, or, say, a viola da gamba — you don't see many of those in recording studios."

Merchant is touring this summer, performing tracks from the album in everything from small, acoustic settings to full band to orchestral arrangements. "I have a repertoire now of 20 songs I can do with an orchestra," she says. "I did that with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and I really enjoyed it."

"Leave Your Sleep" does not shy away from the sadness of childhood. Merchant says, "There's a huge amount of insipid, cloying nonsense out there that underestimates children's sophistication." So she aimed to mix the fun and dreams with an acknowledgment of the hard parts of being little.

"By the time she was 3," she says, "Lucia was asking pretty groping, existential questions. And I, when I was little, I'd see the crying Indian on TV, and the violence and rubber bullets in Belfast, and Mother put pictures of starving children on the refrigerator.

"Children see all that. If you don't have an adult willing to engage in a dialogue with you, respect your feelings and the complexity of your mind, childhood can be an isolating place to be. That understanding is what I'm hoping this album gives people of every age."

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