“He’s hot!” Natalie Merchant exclaims, brandishing a photo of e.e. cummings and, a bit later, Robert Graves. It says something about Merchant’s refreshingly idiosyncratic world-view that poets can be considered pin-ups. Merchant has spent the last few years adapting work by cummings, Graves and a whole host of other writers and setting it to music; the fruits of her labour will be available on her new album, Leave Your Sleep, due out on Nonesuch next March. Merchant has collaborated with more than 100 musicians from across the world for this double-album (her first since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter). But in a delightful (and free!) preview show at Farringdon’s Free Word Centre, she presented some selections from the record with a trio of musicians, in what she referred to as the “bare-bones treatment.” Poems by Charles Causley, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mother Goose, Edward Lear and Lawrence Alma-Tadema received musical treatments that were not merely tasteful but dramatic, sensuous, funny and moving, with Merchant’s vocals at their best.
A disarming stage presence, Merchant also revealed a sense of humour that has rarely translated onto her records, swapping banter with her droll guitarist Erik della Penna (he does a mean James Mason impression; she does a good Katherine Hepburn) and drawing the audience in with grace and ease. A lovely evening that raised expectations for what promises to be a wonderful album.