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Natalie Merchant celebrates the 20th anniversary of Tigerlily with new album and film

Melody Lau

In 1995, Natalie Merchant released her first solo album, Tigerlily. Eager to forge her own path outside of her successful career as the lead singer of the band 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant resigned to upstate New York to write what she describes as a "raw and honest" record. The result became Merchant’s most successful album, selling more than five million copies worldwide and garnering lots of critical acclaim.

To mark the 20-year anniversary of this important record, Merchant returned to the studio to tackle these songs once again on Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Songs are reinterpreted and transformed into brand new versions, often featuring lush string arrangements that replace the original album’s electric guitars.

"I was happy to let the original Tigerlily exist as a record of that moment, but I felt that I needed to do justice to some of the songs," Merchant tells CBC Music. "I really understand the songs now in ways that I didn’t then because it was too unfamiliar, too new."

In addition to that, Merchant also teamed up with filmmakers to make an accompanying documentary that doesn’t follow the process of these recordings as much as it dissects the importance of music in general and its effects on fans. Both the album and the film will be released on CD/DVD on Nov. 6.

CBC Music caught up with Merchant to talk about the evolution of Tigerlily, filming a movie and how her music still reaches new listeners today.

What made you want to go back and revisit Tigerlily?

I wanted to go back and re-examine this particular album because it was the most significant record of my career. It was my first solo record and I think that I discovered my voice through this record. It was quite astounding that, even though it was a really understated record in that it was completely under-produced and very intimate, it was the largest-selling album for me. It reached over five million people. The anniversary was coming and I wanted to take measure of what happened since, where I was and where I am today with those songs. I’ve continued to play many of those songs in the last 20 years and I’ve watched them change. My understanding of them and my reading of them has completely changed over the years.

How have they changed?

The biggest change over the last 20 years was the addition of the symphonic instruments. For the last six years, I’ve been recording with orchestras and performing with orchestras and it has radically changed the way that I listen to music and the way that I present music. There’s a level of depth and maturity in the delivery that just wasn’t there 20 years ago. A lot of people question why you’d want to go back and re-record the same record, but every time I step onstage and perform one of these songs, it’s different than the time before it, or the time before that, or the other 150,000 times! It’s never the same twice.

Have you ever reached a point of exhaustion with these songs, though?

You know what’s fascinating … maybe I’m just easy to please or simple-minded in some way, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of playing a song like "Carnival" or "Wonder." It’s good because the audiences want to hear the songs and I want to play them, not because of the response that I get but what I feel inside when I play those songs. They’re very satisfying songs.

So how did you land on the idea of re-recording the entire album, track for track?

I originally wanted to record five songs that had strings on them now as a 20-year anniversary gift to my fanbase. It was actually all the musicians around me that encouraged me to make a whole album. I realized that a lot of the songs that were on the original recording were fully electric yet, when we did the orchestral shows, we did them completely acoustically and that people were really fascinated by that, that the songs could be stripped down. The idea kept escalating to, "Well, why not make a film?" Blah, blah, blah, two years of my life later!

I was going to ask when the film came into the equation.

The notion of the film came about pretty quickly, but I was adamant that I didn’t want to make a film about Tigerlily and I didn’t want to make a film about the remaking of Tigerlily. What I wanted to do was make a film about the power of music in my life and in other people’s lives and to use my music as an example of that. It was sort of a case study, it goes song by song and examines where those songs had gone in that 20-year span and what they had done in people’s lives.

Is there a difference between approaching an album versus approaching a film?

There are a lot more people involved in making films. I think making records and touring involve lots of people, but for films, you multiply that by 10. I find things frustrating sometimes because I want to do everything myself. If I could become an editor tomorrow, I would do it just because it seemed like every step of the way, I was trying to do it through someone else’s hands.

How was it to see the final film?

It’s been very moving to see the final results of the film. I’ve gone to three screenings now and there are points when — and I can anticipate it now because I know the script of the film so well — but people are moved to tears over and over during the film. I think that’s because I’m touching upon the really universal, core emotions that we all have, like grieving, loss and love.

Are you still meeting people who are discovering Tigerlily today?

There was a surgeon who came to the first screening in New York and during the Q&A afterward he raised his hand and told me, "I had no idea who you were this morning and now I love you and I love your music." His wife insisted he came to the film after working for hours that day. I find that to be the highest compliment, someone who had no knowledge of what I do and be moved by the film. I feel like the film is my way of explaining who I am and what I’ve been doing all these years.