Peggy Sirota
Mark Bautz
June 15, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Watch out ”Cats!” Natalie Merchant closed out her seven-month national tour this weekend with five sold-out shows on Manhattan’s Great White Way. The Broadway first-timer showed high style throughout her concerts at the Neil Simon Theater, changing costumes twice during one night’s performance and leading her crack eight-piece band through such poignant hits as ”Jealousy” and ”Life Is Sweet.” One theatrical highlight was Merchant’s eerily beautiful rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on a stage lit only by candles and sweeping strobes that mimicked shooting stars. Prior to the concert, EW Online talked with the singer:

Why Broadway?
I live in New York, and it’s a good place to end the tour, for one. Plus this whole tour has been more theatrical than anything I’ve ever done before. The aim has been to give people the opportunity to see me in an intimate setting, and in New York, I haven’t played anywhere more intimate than 3,000 (seats) in a long time. This theater holds about half that many, I believe.

How will the shows differ from your usual gigs? No furry cat suits, I hope.
The big difference is that we have control of the lighting, which is so crucial to setting mood. It’s a subtle difference, but you’ll feel it. And (while performing), my gestures won’t have to be so big. For Lilith Fair and other stadium-type venues I’ve done, I feel like I have to make myself so much larger than life, but on a stage where people are close, you can make a small gesture with your hand and they see it.

You’re recording a live record from the shows, right?
I’ve been performing for 17 or 18 years, and people have always told me that a live performance is entirely different from my studio albums, that there’s a greater vitality and spontaneity. In fact, my favorite 10,000 Maniacs record is our unplugged one, because we didn’t labor over it. People played as well as they could at that moment; they weren’t trying to better the performance for the sixth time. I think you start losing that magical quality in music when you keep repeating the same thing and obsessing about perfection.

Speaking of perfection, your voice is so unique that even if people have never heard the song before, they can immediately tell that you’re singing it. Do you think this makes them overlook your other musical talents?
That’s weird, because I think my voice is my weakest part. I guess I’m most proud of my lyricism, and my sense of melody is pretty good. As a player I’m very limited, so I don’t boast about my piano playing. But I don’t think of my voice as being that special or that good, although I like it more now than I did years ago. It’s gotten deeper and has more wisdom, I guess.

You were quoted saying ”undertaking a one-woman campaign to convince the media that I have a sense of humor would be a big failure.” Why do you think you’re perceived as ultra-serious?
Rock critics hate me! (laughs) I feel that when people think of me they think of the more subtle and subdued material, and all the benefit performances, and all the chest-pounding and soapbox-climbing I do, and I’m proud of all that, but it’s not all I am. I also feel like a lot of people come to me with their own preconception and then they base everything on that. I’ve actually had interviewers start by saying, ”You don’t have a sense of humor, do you?” Not a good way to begin (laughs again).

Does this image bother you?
Not really. I want people to know my music, not who I am. The only reason I do interviews is so people will know I have a record out, or a concert, a film, whatever. Or I’ll do them to aid a cause I believe in. But I don’t have any desire to be a celebrity. I really don’t.

Earlier you mentioned the 10,000 Maniacs. What’s the difference between those days and now that you’re leading your own band?
I make a lot of decisions, and I don’t have to negotiate to get what I want. I’m not challenged as much. And the level of musicianship in my band now is much higher than in the 10,000 Maniacs, so it’s easier in many ways. I can choose a pretty complicated song, rehearse it twice, sound-check it, and perform it. Things went a lot slower in the Maniacs. There were a couple of guys who knew theory and were really good players, but the rest of us just stumbled into it. It was a good band, but we weren’t really great players.

Okay, so what are you going to do when your tour is finally over?
Stay in one place longer than two days (laughs). I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a puppeteering troupe. I could do everything out of my garage: build all the puppets, write the stories, pull all the strings. It’ll be just for children…. I’m kidding.

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