Merchant Builds Her Own 'House'

Excerpted from the magazine for

Natalie Merchant giggles while recalling the low expectations she and her former bandmates in 10,000 Maniacs had for their debut release.

"[But] it sold more copies than there were people in our hometown. And we were so impressed by that," she recalls.

Twenty years and some 14 million records later, Merchant had similarly low expectations for her new album, "The House Carpenter's Daughter."

The set is a collection of traditionals and contemporary folk tunes. It's self-released on Myth America Records, the label she recently created with her manager, Gary Smith.

"House Carpenter" is being sold through a handful of retailers, driven solely by word-of-mouth and a press campaign that by former Merchant standards is almost nonexistent.

But less than a month after its release, the album had surpassed its break-even point of 50,000 units. To date, it has sold some 68,000 copies since its Sept. 16 release, according to Smith -- a triumph on many levels for the acclaimed singer.

The album's success shows that established, multi-platinum artists who feel out of step with the majors have more options than they may realize and that they can indeed leave that environment and sell their work themselves -- even if on a smaller scale.

But Merchant wasn't out to prove anything with "House Carpenter" or its unique sales approach. She simply needed to operate on a smaller scale.

When she left Elektra a year ago, Merchant was expecting her first child and was seeking a lifestyle change that would eliminate the rigorous touring and countless interviews she'd become accustomed to while promoting what she calls "big-budget pop records."

"I'm at a position in my career that I don't really need to sell records to survive," she points out. "I just need to make records to satisfy myself creatively."

Merchant and Smith originally released the album exclusively on her Web site. While they eventually sold more than 7,000 copies online, they wanted to expand the offering to fans who do not own a computer.

Merchant and her touring band recorded the tracks that constitute the album during two days at the end of their last trek. The singer merely wanted to capture a slew of songs they had been playing on tour. She never really thought that it would become more than a souvenir of their time together.

"There was no build up to 'We're making a record.' We just thought, 'We better record these songs because they sound so great,' " she explains.

Once she and Smith decided to release the project, Merchant tweaked the recording by adding vocals and overdubs. The project progressed organically, in tandem with her pregnancy.

"We weren't on anybody else's schedule," Smith says. "So things can take a lot longer than they should, because we don't have those pressures."

That easy progression has fit perfectly with Merchant's new role as mom to a 5-month-old daughter. She says she has lost all ambition for the music industry's "obsession with escalation."

Merchant now feels less like a pop star than ever before, adding that her career runs a distant second to being a parent.

"I'm in a really fascinating period of life," she says. "I sort of feel like I need to atone for all the years that I didn't understand how profound this is."

Excerpted from the Nov. 8, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

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