Born October 26th, 1963 in Jamestown, New York, the enigmatic and soulfully voiced singer literally grew up in the band 10,000 Maniacs. She joined the group at 17 and fronted for twelve years. Natalie Merchant met Robert Buck (guitar), John Lombardo (guitar), Dennis Drew (keyboards) and Steven Gustafson (bass), the founding members of 10,000 Maniacs in Jamestown, while attending community college. The bands first gigs were playing Joy Division covers to hostile small town audiences. After releasing an EP in 1981, drummer Jerome Augustyniak joined the group, and played on 10,000 Maniacs first full-length record, Secrets of the I Ching.
The group signed a contract with Electra, and spent much of the 80's as a staple of the nascent alternative rock scene. Merchant lived the stereotypical typical rock 'n' roll lifestyle, dating R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe and confiding to interviewers that she doubted she'd live past 27, the age Jim Morrison and Janet Joplin died. Still, her band mates were surprised when, in 1991, at age 28 and after seven albums with 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant gave the band notice. In 1993, she negotiated a solo contract with Elektra records. Although the Maniacs were experiencing newfound commercial success with the 1993 release of the live MTV Unplugged album, when Natalie jumped ship Elektra dumped the band.
Shedding the baggage of constant negotiation with a six-member group, and after taking a year off from the music business in 1994, Natalie found unprecedented creative freedom and control while working on her solo project. As a result, 1995's Tigerlily, showcased Merchant's strengths as a vocalist and a songwriter. While she eventually recruited a more permanent backing band of Jennifer Turner (lead guitar), Peter Yanowitz (drums) and Barry Maguire (bass/guitar), Merchant maintained her identity as a solo artist. When Tigerlily went triple platinum, it catapulted Merchant into the category of best-selling songstress and adult contemporary star. The album's cuts include the hits Wonder and Jealousy, along with 'River,' a tribute to actor River Phoenix, who died in late 1993.
Merchant spent much of the next two years touring, including opening up for Sting's 1996 world tour. In 1997, she took another year off, emerging in May 1998 when she released her second solo effort, Ophelia, a concept album in which Merchant invented several female characters and created songs, videos and stories around them. Merchant promoted the album while touring with the 1998 Lilith Fair. In the fall 2000, Merchant's first live album, Live in Concert, hit record store shelves, followed shortly by the recording and release of her third solo studio album, 2001's Motherland. That album's title song was covered by Joan Baez in 2003. By then Natalie Merchant had severed ties with Elektra and put out a fourth studio record, The House Carpenter's Daughter: A Collection of Traditional & Contemporary Folk Music, on her own independent label, Myth America. The birth of Merchant's daughter has postponed touring for this album until spring 2004.