Brain Pickings

Leave Your Sleep: Natalie Merchant Sets Victorian Children’s Poetry to Song

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Musty libraries, otherworldly storytelling, and how dead poets wrote the year’s most moving album.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, which is the seedbed of some of humanity’s greatest creative achievements, hardly gets more bewitching than the intersection of literature and music. (An intersection I hold particularly dear.) That’s what Natalie Merchant accomplishes with great elegance and genius in Leave Your Sleep — a brilliant and beautiful musical adaptation of near-forgotten Victorian children’s poetry, a decade in the making.

The album, her first studio recording in seven years and co-produced with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and creator of the eclectic Red Hot charity series, samples from the entire spectrum of literary fame and obscurity, including poets like Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti and — our favorite — e e cummings, as well as little-known geniuses like Brooklyn poet Natalia Crane, who published her first book in 1927 at the age of ten.

What I really enjoyed about this project was reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life. Bringing them to light.

What makes the album all the more special is that in the six years Merchant spent researching the poets, sifting through newspaper microfilm from the 1800’s and spending countless hours in musty Victorian libraries, she grew increasingly curious about and inspired by their lives and decided to write a book about them. Poetry inspiring music inspiring prose, a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of the arts. Coupled with Merchant’s unforgettable powerhouse of a voice, the album is one of the most inspired projects to come out this year.

We were fortunate enough to experience Merchant’s absolutely breathtaking live performance at TED earlier this year, which, though not doing justice to her live stage charisma, you can sample below. The rich emotion oozing from Merchant’s voice as her melodic storytelling unfolds is just otherworldly.

Sophisticated, playful, bittersweet and utterly haunting, Leave Your Sleep spans as rich an emotional spectrum as it does a musical range, leaving us dangerously close to infatuation in a way that no single recording has managed to in longer than we can remember.

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