Natalie Merchant began her recording career when, as a college student, she joined the seminal alternative rock band, 10,000 Maniacs. Serving as lead vocalist, lyricist, and sometime pianist, Merchant released five critically acclaimed studio albums with the band, including the platinum-selling In My Tribe (1987), Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), Our Time in Eden (1992), and MTV Unplugged (1993).
Merchant left the group in 1993, after 12 years, to record her first solo album. Tigerlily (1995) was certified five-times platinum, and was followed by the platinum Ophelia (1998), Natalie Merchant Live (1999), and Motherland (2001).
She then took an extended hiatus from pop music and major labels, independently releasing a collection of folk music, The House Carpenter's Daughter (2003), which also coincided with the birth of her first child.
For the next seven years, Merchant lived quietly in New York's Hudson Valley, devoting herself to family and community, while taking opportunities to collaborate with other musicians and strengthen her commitment to activism and philanthropy.
In 2005, she was appointed by Governor Eliot Spitzer to serve a four-year term on the 20-member board of New York State Council on the Arts. She worked with a group of homeless musicians on a benefit album, Give US Your Poor (2006) and a documentary film, No Good Reason (2006). She worked with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, collaborated with British composer Gavin Bryars and the Royal Shakespeare Company on The Sonnet Project (2007), and in 2008 contributed to the Cowboy Junkies’ 20th anniversary re-recording of their first album, The Trinity Session.
In 2010, Merchant returned with a thematic double album titled Leave Your Sleep, a meditation on childhood and mothering. The anthology comprised 19th- and 20th-century American and British classic children's poetry by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, and E.E. Cummings that Merchant had set to music.
In 2012, Merchant, along with actor and writer Mark Ruffalo, organized a concert to protest oil and gas fracking in New York state. A documentary, written and directed by Jon Bowermaster, was made of the event, "Dear Governor Cuomo." She directed a short 2013 documentary titled SHELTER: A Concert Film to Benefit Victims of Domestic Violence, that shone light on a group of women living in the Mid-Hudson region of New York State responding to the crisis of domestic violence in their community with compassion and creativity.
Merchant's most recent release is Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings (2015).