Natalie Merchant has grey hair

 Look, Natalie Merchant has beautiful grey hair.  

You can see her here in full flight!  

Photo by Arnold Gatilao

I only discovered her amazing voice a couple of years ago after @catherinecronintweeted this TED Talk - where she 'sang old poems to life' and featured her 'Leave Your Sleep' project.  I was immediately taken with her independence of spirit and the way she had reached back into history to create musical myths from the words of writers from the past - many of whom I had never encountered before.  She was an education in poetry and music.  I bought the record - the first of many - and my youngest child, in particular knows the words of most of the songs by heart. 



This was more than just the music, for me, it was a re-awakening to poetry.  In national school, I had experienced poetry through the metre-stick teaching method and I came to hate it.  There was no joy there, no feeling.  Merchant talked of coming late to poetry and how it only came alive for her when she felt in her own mouth - and I related to that.  I was getting a second chance to feel poems and her work added so much to that experience.



As I reached back into her huge back-catalog of music, I discovered a modern pop icon fashioned like a modern, more sociable Emily Dickinson.  There are so many facets to her music - she is the music.  Her fashion sense has an innate elegance and she has never exploited her sexuality to sell records.  Her wardrobe modesty right throughout her career is notable in an era when record companies owned their artists - in every sense of the word.  It's great to see how a young woman, who started in the music industry while she was still in her teens, managed to consistently retain such a clear sense of herself.


She also has a keenly developed social conscience: In this project, 'Give us your Poor' she takes a song written by 15 year old Nichole Cooper who was homeless when she wrote the piece, and gathers around it, a group of artists who are homeless - or have known homelessness in their lives.  Together they create a powerful collective message.  As Montreville Blakely explains, 'art is a point of healing'. 




Listen to her duet with John Castillo, a young man from the Perkins School for the blind.  Look how she shares the stage with him - 'makes him the centre of the performance.  Listen here to the lyrics of 'Wonder' and how she talks about children with special needs - and how this song has become an anthem for their parents.

In this interview, Merchant talks of her 'plan to age gracefully in this field. I ain't goin' to be shakin' ma booty when I'm 55 - that's not what I"m doing. [Laughs] There's so much music that I've wanted to write and that I've been interested in that didn't really fit in to a pop album format...  and now's my time to start exploring and carrying through on those visions.'  Which brings us back to the grey.

My hair was good and grey at the age of 25 - just like my mother (but you didn't hear that from me) and her mother before her.  When I got married my mother 'persuaded' me to dye it and somehow I got seduced by the practice.  By 2009 though, I was well sick of the whole thing.  A local Sligo businesswoman, Martina Hamilton had impressed me with her grey chic and one Monday afternoon, decided I was letting my grey out.


I called my usual hair place - but they couldn't take me for a couple of days.  I didn't know if I would still have the courage then.  So, I rang my sister and said 'who does your hair?'  She gave me a name - Joanne at Salon 2 in Sligo.  I promptly called and they said, yes, come in at 5. 

Joanne turned out to be a smart, glamorous Donegal woman with a husky voice, a big heart and dirty laugh.  Shouldn't you be talking me out of this?' I asked.  'No, you've got the wrong woman for that', says she.  And with that she took her scissors to my shoulder-length hair - starting at the top of my head and cut a big swarth within an inch of my scalp.  The point-of no return.  Well, it took a few weeks for the last of the black to fade away - but eventually I got down to what was just me.  Since then, I've been back to Joanne every few weeks and we've shared our stories, our ups and downs, our kids ups and downs, losses and joys.

So, seeing Natalie resplendent in her grey tonight was a lovely surprise :)  Her long black hair has always been very much part of her identity - even part of her dance routine.  It's had a life of it's own.  But, she has grown into a new phase - with her usual elegance and apomb.

This blog has been mostly about education - so to wrap this up, here's the education bit.  Here is how one school has taken her 'Leave Your Sleep' album - originally conceived and written for her own daughter - and used it to create real connections between children, music and poetry.  The highlight was a visit by Natalie - look how she interacts with the children and encourages them to perform.  She's powerful.  Pure grey power.


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