The State University of New York at New Paltz will bestow an honorary Doctorate of Music upon Natalie Merchant, award-winning singer, songwriter and public advocate, at the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony on May 17.
As the lead singer in the 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant’s literate, socially conscious songs established her as one of the pre-eminent female performers in contemporary pop. Her band signed to Elektra Records in 1985 and in the years to follow emerged with multi-platinum albums, sold-out tours and worldwide acclaim. After a successful career with the 10,000 Maniacs – where their music put them into the Top 40 – Merchant embarked on a solo career with the successful 1995 debut, “Tigerlily.”
During the ceremony, Merchant will be recognized on stage, but will not address the graduates. College President Steven Poskanzer and the class Valedictorian will offer commencement addresses.
In addition to her successful music career, Merchant has been an active and articulate spokesperson on a variety of issues related to disadvantaged children, the arts and the environment.
In 2008, Merchant was asked by the governor of New York to serve a five-year term as a member of the New York State Council on the Arts, where she is an advocate for artistic excellence and for providing all New Yorkers the opportunity to access and experience the power of the arts and culture.
Merchant has been a guest of the college in the past, and has forged ties with the college’s nationally accredited School of Fine and Performing Arts. She performed on campus to raise money for student scholarships and also took part in the local Unison Arts Center’s 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert. (Unison hosts a concert series and art exhibits with the help of SUNY New Paltz, local businesses and the New York State Council on the Arts.)
“Awarding Ms. Merchant with an honorary degree will be a fitting way to acknowledge her commitment to our state’s artistic heritage and health, her direct contributions to the SUNY New Paltz community, and will serve as an ideal way to show our appreciation for this much valued relationship,” said College President Steven Poskanzer.
Merchant began her musical career as the lead vocalist and lyricist of the pop music band 10,000 Maniacs and released two platinum and four gold records with the group between 1981 and 1993 (“The Wishing Chair”; “In My Tribe”; “Blind Man’s Zoo”; “Hope Chest”; “Our Time in Eden”; and “MTV Unplugged”).
In 1994 Merchant began her solo career with a self-produced debut album, “Tigerlily” (1995), which astounded the music industry by selling 4 million copies. In the years following, she released “Ophelia” (1998), “Natalie Merchant Live” (1999) and “Motherland” (2001). In 2003 after 18 years she left Elektra Records and independently released an album of traditional and contemporary folk music, “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” on her own label, Myth America Records. In 2005 she was persuaded to curate a collection of her own work for a double album she titled “Retrospective.”
Merchant has collaborated both on stage and in the studio with a wide range of artists: REM; Wynton Marsalis; The Chieftains; Mavis Staples; Daniel Lanois; Ladysmith Black Mambazo; David Byrne; Philip Glass; Billy Bragg; Wilco; Tracy Chapman; Cowboy Junkies; Ryan Adams; Lokua Kanza; Yungchen Lhamo; The Fairfield Four; Gavin Bryars; Jakob Dylan; Susan McKeown; Chris Botti; Lúnasa; The Klezmatics; Katell Keineg; Dan Zanes; and Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Throughout her career, Merchant has also been dedicated to supporting a wide array of non-profit organizations, lending both financial support and raising public awareness. Scenic Hudson, The Center for Constitutional Rights, Riverkeeper, Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace, Association to Benefit Children, Planned Parenthood, and The Southern Center for Human Rights are among the social justice groups to which she has been devoted.
After the birth of her daughter in 2003, Merchant took an extended break from recording and touring. She is currently in the studio preparing her first studio album in eight years, which is due for release in fall 2009.