06/11/2010 06:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Natalie Merchant Sets Poems to Music

Natalie Merchant, whose voice everyone from my generation knows from the once ubiquitous 10,000 Maniacs song "These are the Days," will be on tour this summer performing songs from Leave Your Sleep, her first studio album in seven years.

Motherhood inspired Merchant to record a children's album this time, though she wanted to appeal to a child's more mature side, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, "There's a huge amount of insipid, cloying nonsense out there that underestimates children's sophistication."

Merchant found the child-like sophistication she wanted in poetry. She selected poems from of E E. Cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves and many others, then set the work to a variety of musical styles including folk, jazz and chamber music. Merchant's unmistakable voice holds the ambitious project together.

Setting poetry to music is a risky proposition -- it doesn't always translate well -- but Leave Your Sleep has already drawn serious praise from the well-respected poetry critic, and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia. He told the Inquirer:

"There have been pop musicians in the past -- Joni Mitchell and Loreena McKennitt, for example -- who have set poems to music, but no one has ever done anything of this scale or range. What Natalie has done is to create art songs, in the old sense of taking preexisting poems and setting them to music. She's the Franz Schubert of folk-rock."

I've compiled a few clips of Merchant performing songs from the album so that you can judge for yourself.

"Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience," by the English poet Charles Causey, opens the album. Causey's thought-provoking story suits Merchant's voice. Here's an excerpt:

I had a silver penny
And an apricot tree
And I said to the sailor
On the white quay

Sailor O sailor
Will you bring me
If I give you my penny
And my apricot tree

A fez from Algeria
An Arab drum to beat
A little gilt sword
And a parakeet?'

And he smiled and he kissed me
As strong as death
And I saw his red tongue
And I felt his sweet breath

You may keep your penny
And your apricot tree
And I'll bring your presents
Back from sea.

You can watch Merchant performing the song (and hear the rest of Causey's story) here.

Some of the poems featured on Leave Your Sleep are simple, beautiful portraits like Rachel Field's "Equestrienne." Merchant turned it into a simple, beautiful song.

See, they are clearing the sawdust course
For the girl in pink on the milk-white horse.
Her spangles twinkle; his pale flanks shine,
Every hair of his tail is fine
And bright as a comet's; his mane blows free,
And she points a toe and bends a knee,
And while his hoofbeats fall like rain
Over and over and over again.
And nothing that moves on land or sea
Will seem so beautiful to me
As the girl in pink on the milk-white horse
Cantering over the sawdust course.

Merchant also chose some darker, or at least more mysterious, poetry. She set E. E. Cummings' odd little poem "maggie and milly and molly and may" to suitably sorrowful music. Here's the poem.

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

You can view a complete list of Merchant's tour dates for Leave Your Sleep here.