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FUV Essentials: Carmel Holt on Natalie Merchant

FUV host Carmel Holt with Natalie Merchant (photo courtesy of Carmel Holt)

FUV host Carmel Holt with Natalie Merchant (photo courtesy of Carmel Holt)

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It was the spring of 1994 and my senior year at Bard College. As a music major, soon I would be putting on two concerts to complete my degree. I wanted to fill the concert hall, so I made up some handbills to put around town and brought a stack with me to work, a local garden center and landscaping company in nearby Rhinebeck.

It was amid the rows of plants and spring flowers at that garden center that I met Natalie Merchant. I heard that she had moved to the area some time ago, but recently she had bought a house in Rhinecliff (a small enclave of Rhinebeck), and started shopping at our garden center for plants, discussing landscaping with my bosses.

That day, I waited on her and we immediately hit it off. Our friendly chatter continued as I brought her to the counter to ring up her purchases — and my handbills were sitting there. She picked one up, asked what it was, and without hesitation, I invited her to come to the show. 

Truth be told, I had less than zero expectation that she would actually show up at my concert. It was just a polite exchange, and I was just happy to have met her and discover what a nice, down-to-earth person she was. There was no trace of awkwardness or even nervous fan-girl-meets-big-music-star. Thinking back on it now, I believe this was my first time meeting a musician/celebrity. I was most certainly a fan, but somehow, the enormity of it escaped me.

However, I had underestimated Natalie’s sincerity. The night of my senior concert arrived and the show went fairly well. Afterwards, I was in the lobby talking with friends. All was pretty normal until someone said, “By the way, Natalie Merchant was here!" I was really happy, surprised, and then, nervous about what she thought.

My first introduction to 10,000 Maniacs had been in high school, when a neighbor played me the album In My Tribe. As a teenager who was steeped in music from the '60s and '70s, the only current music I was aware of was Top 40 radio. As I write this, I realize that hearing 10,000 Maniacs was more of a true revelation then I could have known, because it introduced me to the world of current, alternative rock. It was an early glimpse of what would become my musical world.

Natalie's house in Rhinecliff was a beautiful, old Victorian, surrounded by woods and gardens. As spring became summer, I was in her neighborhood, playing a small gig down the street at the old Rhinecliff Hotel. I got in touch with Natalie and her boyfriend at the time and asked if they could make it down and, once again (to my surprise) they did! Afterwards, we went back to her house for some tea. It was an incredible place, and it was an amazing time to visit, which I did several times that summer. She had built a home studio and her new band was there, rehearsing and recording.

I started soaking it all in; I was a wide-eyed, young, aspiring musician, reveling in being welcomed into the homey atmosphere that she had created for herself and her bandmates. I had no idea that what I was witnessing was the beginnings of her landmark solo debut, Tigerlily.

The album was recorded soon after in Woodstock, at the legendary Bearsville Studios, and was released the following year, in June 1995. A few months later, I began working at a radio station right down the road from that studio. This was a station where, had I been able to listen to in my high school years, I would have heard 10,000 Maniacs. When I arrived, part of my daily radio soundtrack was songs from Natalie's brand new solo album.

A couple years later, I created and produced what would become an annual breast cancer benefit concert, called "Pink October," presented by WDST. I wanted to raise awareness of breast cancer and do something to help women fight what was becoming an alarmingly widespread disease. The first year's concert was successful enough to justify a second. But more importantly, in a strange twist of fate, the cause became personal. My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. We were fortunate, the cancer was detected early, she had a mastectomy and, with minimal treatment, survived. So for the next "Pink October" concert, I doubled down and decided to call upon my friend. 

It was 1999 and I had fallen out of touch with Natalie since those magical days hanging out at her house in Rhinecliff. I didn’t know how to reach her, so I found her manager, and made the call. Not only did Natalie say yes, but soon after, I found myself back at her house for the first time in five years, brainstorming about the concert, and creating what would become the true launch of an annual fundraising effort for breast cancer that has now long surpassed my tenure.

It was an incredible night at the Bearsville Theater (also just a stone’s throw from Bearsville Studios), it was a sellout, and the benefit raised over ten times more money than the year before. Natalie’s generosity was astounding and in the years that followed, I learned that this is her nature. She has an exceedingly giving and open heart; I was lucky enough to be touched by her kindness. Time and time again, she would repeatedly say yes to the many, many requests to use her talents to help raise money for various causes, big and small, and individuals in need in our community and beyond. That is who Natalie Merchant is.

As the years have passed, our respective careers have provided us a way to always stay in touch, even if sporadically. I have continued to working in the radio format that supports her music, old and new, and have hosted interviews with her too. She has remained a steadfast Hudson Valley resident; we both have long called Ulster County home.

Common threads of music, community, and friendship, have kept us connected for over 20 years now. That two decade mark might have otherwise slipped my attention, but an unexpected way to celebrate our friendship came my way last year. In 2015, Natalie observed the 20th anniversary of Tigerlily by releasing Paradise Is There, re-recordings of the songs of Tigerlily along with a companion “memoir" — a moving, first-person account of her career. I was asked to host a screening of the film at the wonderful Jacob Burns Film Center, with a Q&A after the film.

Natalie and I sat side by side, watching the film together. I was moved to tears as I watched her story unfold on the big screen: her childhood background, her incredible musical achievements, her caring and generous acts of kindness, and the way her music has helped people, reflected by fans and friends. In a personally transportive moment, I saw the story of Tigerlily being told, filling in the gaps of the period of time when I had been on the periphery of Natalie's circle in 1994.

I squeezed her hand in the dark theater. Natalie has touched so many innumerable lives with her compassion — including mine. It felt bigger and more meaningful than ever to me. In that moment, I was never more thankful and humbled to know Natalie Merchant as a musician, but even more overcome with gratitude to know her as a friend and fellow traveler in this big, beautiful, complicated journey of life.

These are days, you'll remember
Never before and never since, I promise
Will the whole world be warm as this and as you feel it
You'll know it's true that you are blessed and lucky
It's true that you are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you.

- Natalie Merchant, "These Are Days"

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