The sun dips below the bald ridge of the Catskill Mountains as Natalie Merchant lopes confidently through the public gardens of Montgomery Place one of those sprawling Hudson Valley estates whose grandeur reflects a gentrified approximation of wilderness. ''They call these bearded irises,'' says the former lead singer of rock's 10,000 Maniacs, stroking a lean violet flower. ''These are anemones; there used to be only three nurseries in the country that grew them. And that's a tulip tree-look at the blossoms!'' Her reverent patter slows as she nestles up to a massive fennel bush and inhales deeply. ''I can easily see myself retreating from the world and raising plants,'' she sighs. ''Soon.''
Her pastoral urges, however, are leading her far from that fantasy of isolation. The Maniacs' vanilla-glazed folk rock and Merchant's hippiechick esprit in particular may have passed for quirkiness in the button-down '80s. But that five-grain aesthetic now swims resolutely mainstream; nearly two years after Merchant officially quit the Maniacs, her earthy solo debut, Tigerlily, entered the Billboard pop chart at No. 13 two weeks ago. ''I think she's right on the threshold of being really big,'' says Lee Chesnut, senior vice president of music programming at VH1, which is currently featuring her first video, ''Carnival,'' on Crossroads.
Such predictions, of course, have haloed the 31-year-old Merchant since July 1993, when she officially divorced the band she had fronted for a dozen years. A klatch of college-radio buddies from backwater Jamestown, N.Y., the Maniacs bridged the gap between earnest and eager; their grinning melodies sugarcoated Merchant's often frowning lyrics on songs such as ''Like the Weather'' and ''Candy Everybody Wants.'' And incessant touring spawned an audience that was cultish in fervor yet centrist in size three of their five albums have gone platinum, including their last, 1993's 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged.
But, as early as their fourth album, 1989's Blind Man's Zoo, the feel-good vibe had begun to fray: Not only did critics deride the disc for its stiff-collared preachiness, the group actually stopped playing cuts off the album in concert because, says Merchant, ''we realized they were just such a bummer.''
''Looking back,'' she says now, ''I think that was the first convulsion of not wanting to be in 10,000 Maniacs, because I didn't want to have to consult with all these other people. I didn't want art by committee anymore.''
The split came five months into preproduction on their follow-up album, 1992's Our Time in Eden, for which Merchant (who had moved to Manhattan) returned to the woods. ''Going back to Jamestown was a trip back in time,'' she explains. ''Living together again really felt like backpedaling. And being the only female, I'd [buy] the food, and everybody else would eat it and then not do the dishes, and beer cans didn't get rinsed and needed to be recycled and smelled funny, and I just thought, 'This should have happened 12 years ago!'''
Bobbing out of an uncomfortable silence, her voice falters. ''We spent too long working on that record,'' she says, almost to herself. (The Maniacs, who continue to tour without a label deal, refuse to discuss Merchant or the breakup.) ''I just came to rehearsal one day and said, 'It's over. I really can't do this anymore.' And I remember [bassist] Steve Gustafson saying 'I'm actually surprised you stayed as long as you did.'''