Natalie Merchant makes Arsht Center debut on Sunday

Natalie Merchant. Photo by Mark Seliger

Natalie Merchant has always been an under-the-radar singer-songwriter whose lilting, lyrical voice has graced hits from 10,000 Maniacs, the ‘80s alt-rock band that helped define the “college-rock” sound, and smooth, sophisticated works from her acclaimed solo career. You won’t find her dominating headlines – especially not the tabloids – but to serious music fans, she’s a superstar.

Backed by a 38-piece orchestra, Merchant will make her Arsht Center debut Sunday, performing a few Maniacs hits (“These Are Days,” “Verdi Cries,” “What’s the Matter Here”), plus solo favorites including “Carnival,” “Wonder,” “Kind & Generous” and “Jealousy.” She’ll also perform tracks from her latest album “Leave Your Sleep,” which was inspired by children’s literature, and from her upcoming project, due in April.

Merchant talked to about the show, her new album, and her humble beginnings, before stardom struck.

Were your song choices for your set list influenced by what might sound better with an orchestra?
Yes, definitely. And many of the songs that we do have orchestral arrangements already, or they had some kind of small ensemble – wind instruments or strings. And there are a couple of exceptions that I had new arrangements written for. And we do some songs from “Leave Your Sleep,” and there are a couple orchestral and quartet songs on that, and then the new album, which features a lot of orchestral songs, too.

Does the new album have a working title yet?
It’s just going to be called “Natalie Merchant” – self-titled. I couldn’t come up with a word or phrase that summed up the whole album, and I thought that you can play that card in your career once.

So what does the new material sound like?
It’s a mixture of electric instruments and strings and woodwinds. It’s pretty raw, urgent kind of music. It’s hard to explain, but we’ll be playing some of the material, so if people are curious or interested, they can come to the concert. Or wait till the spring and buy the record, I guess. We’ll be debuting a new song called “Andalusia.”

What led you to perform with an orchestra?
I was actually invited to perform with the symphony in Boston five years ago, and that was the first time I’d ever done it. And I liked it so much that I wanted to do it again. At that point I only had enough material to fill half an evening, and now I have so much material I have to leave out about 10 songs.

Did that experience inspire the arrangements on “Leave Your Sleep”?
Definitely. Lots of clarinet, lots of violin, harp, cello, trumpet.

That album is based on children’s literature – was recording it a gift to your daughter, Lucia, in a way?
Well, it took seven years to complete the project, and I feel like it’s still ongoing because we still perform some of the songs live. But it was a way for me to remain creative through those early childhood years and stay engaged in her world. And I had a lot of time to do quiet research in the beginning, and as she got older, she shared in the research herself. But it’s an unusual project because it’s not really strictly a children’s record, but it is. I call it a thematic work about childhood. It’s definitely not the cloying, annoying, condescending children’s record. And having lived with a child now for 10 years – they’re extremely sophisticated creatures, and they don’t want adults to talk to them like adults to children. They know the difference between adults and children.

You were surrounded by music and the arts as a child. Does it feel like you’re doing the same for your daughter, and maybe she’ll follow in your footsteps into the music business?
I think she might pursue a career in the arts. She’s extremely creative, much more creative than I was at that age, probably because she is in an environment where that’s encouraged, and she sees me engaging in that process all the time. My grandfather was a musician, but my mother wasn’t an artist of any sort. But it’s funny – my mother decided to go to art school when she was in her 50s, and she turned out to be a very good graphic artist. She was too busy having children. So I guess she was creative, but I never got to see that part of her until she was older. But my daughter’s grown up around people being creative all the time, so I could imagine it’s a lifestyle that would be very seductive.

For you growing up, did it feel inevitable that you would explore music as a career?
No. It was a bit of a surprise to me.

So when you were 17 and starting out with the band that would become 10,000 Maniacs, it didn’t feel like destiny?
It felt like fun, and then eventually it was an easy way to travel and get out of town, which was my main goal in life at 18 – get out on the road and see the world. And I thought I would just do it for a couple years and then go back to college. I was accepted to several art schools in Manhattan, and that was my trajectory – go to school in Manhattan and study art and then I would be a graphic designer or something like that. And I looked at the prospect of being in debt at 19 years old [laughs], or get in a van and start seeing the world. It was a lot easier to get in the van.

When did you realize that it was going to work out, that you would be able to do that for a career?
I think by our second album with a major label, “In My Tribe” – that’s when I thought, “Oh, this could actually be my career.” When we were recording it, I was still living in my mother’s house. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment still. I remember my mother threatening me – get a real job or go back to school.