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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was seven years ago, when her daughter was born, that Natalie Merchant decided to get off the road. She'd been performing for over two decades with the band 10,000 Maniacs, and then solo. She didn't stop composing but found herself drawn to nursery rhymes and to poetry that spoke with childhood. Out of that has come her new double CD.

She sets Victorian and early 20th century poems to music. She happily creates unlikely combinations with - say, klezmer and blues. And she also puts the poets into musical worlds they would have known well, like this old-fashioned jig.

(Soundbite of song, "A Capital Ship")

Ms. NATALIE MERCHANT (Musician): (Singing) A capital ship for an ocean trip with the walloping window blind. No gale that blew dismayed her crew or troubled the captain's mind.

(Speaking) It's something like a jig or Rio. It's just so uplifting. It fills you with joy. That's what childhood part of childhood is about that. Just unbridled enthusiasm. Like can't control yourself. Would you please calm down? No, I can't. You know, jumping on the furniture. I love the thought that there might be, someday, children all over being told to calm down when this record is on.

(Soundbite of song, "A Capital Ship")

MONTAGNE: Much of the music sounds, to my ears, like songs that are like, hand-painted toys. One of them is "The King of China's Daughter."

Ms. MERCHANT: Right.

(Soundbite of song, "The King of China's Daughter")

Ms. MERCHANT: (Singing) The king of China's daughter, so beautiful to see...

(Speaking) It's one of my favorites.

MONTAGNE: It's a favorite of mine. Just tell us a little why you picked that one.

Ms. MERCHANT: Well, it's such a beautiful, simple poem, and this image of the girl with the jump rope made of the notes of singing birds, and her skipping over the sea. And it also gave me the opportunity to collaborate with a Chinese music ensemble. And that whole idea of, you know, anywhere, you - you know -I'm dating myself here - but anywhere you put the needle down, if that means anything to people anymore, you're put instantly in a place geographically, historically, through the music and the words.

(Soundbite of song, "The King of China's Daughter")

Ms. MERCHANT: (Singing) I skipped across the nutmeg grove, I skipped across the sea; but neither sun nor moon, my dear, has yet (unintelligible) me...

(Speaking) It's very cinematic. I imagine the procession coming over the hill with the girl and the red (unintelligible) and the paper lantern swaying in the breeze.

MONTAGNE: Well, why don't we play one of the songs by a writer in Victorian England - that you write was known as the laureate of the nursery, William Brighty Rands.

Ms. MERCHANT: William Brighty Rands.

MONTAGNE: William Brighty Rands. But as we're going to listen to it here just in a moment, it doesn't feel, initially, very Victorian.

Ms. MERCHANT: No, it doesn't.

MONTAGNE: In fact, it feels very Caribbean, but let's play it for a second here.

(Soundbite of song, "Topsy-Turvy World")

Ms. MERCHANT: (Singing) If the butterfly courted the bee, and the owl the porcupine; churches were built in the sea and three times one was nine; then the world would be upside down, yes. The world would be upside down. What a topsy-turvy world this would be; the world would be upside down, yeah...yeah...

MONTAGNE: Now, this goes on - and lovely, just what you might expect, except you get to lines like, if mama sold the baby to a gypsy...

Ms. MERCHANT: To a gypsy for half a crown; if a gentleman were a lady, then the world would be upside down. And you know what is really unusual? With all these poets, I began with a name, a birth and death date, but I didn't have any more information. And as they became my collaborators, I needed to know more about them. And boy, was it exciting when I found out about William Brighty Rands. He actually had two families simultaneously that had no knowledge of each other, in London. And they didn't discover each other until they were at his gravesite. And one of the wives went blind from the shock of it, for six months. So the world certainly was topsy-turvy.

(Soundbite of song, "Topsy-Turvy World")

Ms. MERCHANT: What I really wanted to do is introduce my daughter to really pure forms of music - just an explosion, when you open this CD, of how vast and magical the musical spectrum is.

MONTAGNE: There's also a very wide spectrum of the message, or the stories contained. There's a very haunting song toward the end of the CD, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called "Spring and Fall to a Young Child," and it's referring to the inevitable.

Ms. MERCHANT: Well, he was a Jesuit priest, and I'm sure that you can imagine in Victorian England, there were a lot of opportunities to discuss and console people around the issue of death.

(Soundbite of song, "Spring and Fall to a Young Child")

Ms. MERCHANT: (Singing) Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove and leaving, by and by...

(Speaking) I found a letter when I was doing my research about him, saying that he had just written a poem explaining death to a small child. And it wasn't written to any specific child but he must have, you know, felt compelled.

(Soundbite of song, "Spring and Fall to a Young Child")

Ms. MERCHANT: (Singing) No matter, child, the name, sorrow's springs are all the same, they're all the same. No mouth had, no nor mind expressed what heart heard of, ghost and guest...

MONTAGNE: The sort of loss that even children knew in Victorian times, and even early in the 20th century - they didn't have any choice but to experience that, and they experienced it quite close at hand. But I'm sure you put this on there because you think that it speaks to a child today as well.

Ms. MERCHANT: Well, my daughter's only 3. I mean, listening to that song is really difficult for me. I'm going to talk about something that's even harder. I had, I lost three very dear friends, but two of them within the space of two weeks, and they were twin sisters. And I actually dedicated the album to them. And my daughter had to live through that. And she saw them suffer, and she saw them pass.

And then the questions, the conversations that followed, I'm sure don't differ much from the ones that you could imagine happening in Victorian times. I mean, he even states in the poems: No matter, child, the names, sorrow springs are all the same. And that when you see the death of anything, you see the death of everything, and you see the death of yourself.

And I've heard that song over and over. It feels like time is suspended. It's like a meditation.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: While there are any number of musicians who have come out with CDs of children's music for fun or for their kids, this is not...

Ms. MERCHANT: This is not that.

MONTAGNE: ...this is not that.

Ms. MERCHANT: The album really developed over time, and evolved into a piece of work that's a thematic piece about childhood. And basically, that covers the experience of being human.

MONTAGNE: Natalie Merchant. Her new CD, out today, is called "Leave Your Sleep."

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