Considering ex-10,000 Maniacs frontwoman Natalie Merchant's slow burn to solo success, what impresses isn't just her current, platinum-plus popularity.
It's a marvel that anybody likes her at all.
After all, this is the woman who left her band at the height of its fame in 1994 for a career alone _ a move that brought lots of public griping from her bandmates about her imperious ways.
It didn't help that Merchant herself made things worse with a confused performance at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert last year _ singing a disjointed jazz tune in an appearance some speculated was scheduled as a favor to her new manager, Bruce-Springsteen-mouthpiece Jon Landau.
And the precious air of many Merchant tunes, combined with her publicly strident stands against logging in state parks and meat consumption, have prompted others to dimiss her as a haughty P.C. queen.
So why do so many people love her albums? R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe offered this explanation in February's US magazine: "Her music works it's way into you slowly. You have to hear a song five or six times before it grabs you, and then it doesn't let you go."
Indeed, that seems to be the story for her solo debut, Tigerlily _ which sold slow out of the box last year, but built on the strength of the loping, low-key song Carnival into a million-selling album.
The single itself seems a curious metaphor for Merchant's offbeat appeal. Coasting along on a soul-tinged, percussion-flavored groove, the song tells the story of New York's myriad urban tapestries subtly _ drawing the listener in with languid vocals, shimmering keyboards and a bluesy guitar solo.
Elsewhere, songs like the piano, organ and vocal meditations I May Know the Word and San Andreas Fault move cautiously, building their complex sonic structures slowly _ like a spider spinning an intricate web of sound.
"She wants as much meaning in as few notes as possible," says guitarist Jennifer Turner, whose artful, spot-on playing proves to be Tigerlily's secret weapon, in US magazine. "In the studio, the concept jelled _ it all came together."
As the homey photo of her backing band inside the liner notes to Tigerlily suggests, recording sessions for this record were a group affair _ the result of Merchant's desire to make as live-sounding a record as possible.
To that end, the 32-year-old singer took direct control of the recording process _ rehearsing the band in her upstate New York home and funding the entire project herself.
"The (10,000 Maniacs) Unplugged album taught me that a single live performance could be very, very powerful," Merchant says in a press release circulated with Tigerlily. "I had bought a home in the country and dreamed of living and working in a communal setting. I tried to record Tigerlily in that spirit."
In fact, the recording process isn't the only place Merchant flexed her newfound muscles as a solo artist. Over the year that passed between her departure from 10,000 Maniacs and the recording of Tigerlily, the singer/songwriter also jettisoned her manager (hence, Landau's involvement), accountants and lawyers.
"It was time to make a second start, and I wanted all my decisions to be educated ones," she says in the release. "My bedside reading was (the book) Everything You Need to Know About the Music Business."
Still, her former bandmates _ some still bitter about the breakup, though Merchant gave them two years notice of her intention to leave the group _ say her recent moves only herald a growing ego and overweaning desire for control.
"It got to the point where we couldn't be around her," said Dennis Drew, Maniacs keyboardist (the band has continued on with former guitarist John Lombardo and vocalist Mary Ramsey), during an interview last year. "She wanted to be at the center of everything."
"I was a b__ a lot of the time," admitted Merchant of her last days as a Maniac, in Rolling Stone magazine. "I was like the snotty little sister. I spent most of the last tour in the back lounge of the bus with the door shut."
That harsh attitude came, Merchant says, from being forced to work in the cramped confines of a band she'd fronted for more than 12 years. And _ according to her, at least _ it didn't help that she was the only female along for the ride.
"Writing for this album, I felt I could speak for myself. When I was singing for a group, especially since it was a predominantly male group, my tendency was to withhold certain emotions or observations," says Merchant in the press release _ a surprising claim, considering the group's success with songs like Eat For Two, a tune about being pregnant.
Still, it seems the great success of Tigerlily can probably be traced to a simple fact: thanks to Merchant's singular vocal, lyrical and keyboard skills, it sounds like a 10,000 Maniacs record, anyway.
While admitting the truth in that observation, Merchant has also noted that some rather savage critical analyses of the record _ including particularly negative reviews in Rolling Stone and Spin magazines that pointed out similarities to the Maniacs' sound _ may have more to do with her than her art.
"I think other people judge me harshly," she told the Gannett News Services in March. "I'm basically a writer and a performer. I want people to know me through my music and let that be the end of it. Maybe people judge me harshly because of my reticence to discuss my personal life. They think . . . that I don't eat pizza and listen to Led Zeppelin. They see that a lot of my lyrics have serious content and assume that I don't enjoy life."
AT A GLANCE
Natalie Merchant opens for Sting on Saturday at Legends Field, 3802 W Martin Luther King Blvd., Tampa. Tickets are $37.75, $30.75 and $25.75 for the 8 p.m. show. 879-2244.