At this stage of her life, Natalie Merchant is more proud of getting an honor named for John Lennon because of what it says about her activism than her music. The singer is the sixth recipient of the John Lennon Real Love Award, and will headline a tribute concert to the former Beatle in New York on Dec. 6.
“It’s gratifying,” Merchant said in an interview. “To have any connection to John Lennon, especially with activism, is quite prestigious and meaningful to me because he was one of the main artists who inspired me when I was growing up to think about the wider world and my impact on it.”
Merchant volunteers three times a week for a Head Start program near where she lives in Hudson Valley, helping disadvantaged children. She often performs free concerts for children and, at the height of her fame three decades ago, volunteered at a homeless program in Harlem, where most of the people thought she was a student from nearby Columbia University.
She got to know Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, when they worked on the anti-fracking movement in upstate New York. Merchant, 55, records and performs sporadically now and, aside from guiding her teenage daughter through high school and into college, said her activism takes up most of her time.
“These projects, for a good reason, they suck your life blood,” she said. “I began to see these projects as much more important than making another Natalie Merchant record.”
Joan Osborne, Rachael Yamagata and Sam Amidon are among the other artists who will perform at the annual Lennon tribute, now in its 39th year. The show will take place at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space. Merchant, who calls “Imagine” one of the most powerful pieces of music ever recorded, is already rehearsing some Lennon songs with her accompanist for the tribute.
“The thing that we want to do is not faithfully perform the songs as John recorded them, to give stylistic alterations,” she said. “It will be fun. We don’t want to feel like we’re a John Lennon karaoke group.” And what are some of her favorite Lennon songs? What might she be performing?
“I think that would spoil the surprise, wouldn’t it?” she said.