Here's a letter about the project that Natalie posted to her website on Sept. 8, 2006:
I've just come home from a trip to Boston where I was involved in the most exhilarating recording session. Several months ago I was approached by a non-profit policy research organization affiliated with the University of Massachusetts. Their project was this: they would send me a handful of demos of original songs written and performed by musicians who are currently or had been homeless. I was to choose one song and collaborate with it's author in the studio and the track would be included in benefit album and documentary film intended to raise awareness about the issue of homelessness in the United States.
I was so impressed by the artists and their work and suggested inviting as many as I could to the session. The song I picked was written by Nichole Cooper while she was homeless at the age of 15. The lyrics killed me with their directness ("we needed money bad and I couldn't find a job / so I went around looking for someone to rob"). Hearing such a young girl sing of that experience convinced me that people needed to hear her story.
From the demo, I was able to pick five other singers from the Boston area (Mighty Sam McClain, Cheryl Middleton, Weeping Willie Robinson and Julia Tripp) in addition to two guitar players from Washington state, Montreville M. Blakely Jr. and Chris Holzer. The rhythm section was provided graciously by Andrew Barr on drums and Marc Friedman on bass from the Boston based group The Slip. Elizabeth Steen volunteered to play organ, you may recognize her from years of our touring and recording together. Q-Division studios in Boston generously discounted their rates for us and engineer Matthew Ellard (who had recorded my portions of the Billy Bragg / Wilco "Mermaid Avenue" records) was the skilled and able man at the controls.
I want to thank everyone involved, the four days we spent together yielded an incredible recording of the song, "There is No Good Reason" that is powerfully moving, honest and soulful. I'll let you know when the album, "Feels Like Home" will be released on Appleseed Recordings. Other well known artists who have contributed to the project so far are: Bruce Springsteen, Dan Zanes, Danny Glover, Bill Janowitz and Jewel. There was also a film crew in the studio and the documentary that they are making has a trailer that can be seen at "Give Us Your Poor".
During the sessions in Boston, we were honored with a visit and conversation with a man who has been a long-time hero of mine, the author Jonathan Kozol (also a member of the "Give Us Your Poor" advisory board). Since he began writing about his experiences teaching at an inner city public school (in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood) with his first book, "Death at an Early Age" (1968) he has been one of the most persistent voices in America addressing the inequities of our public education system. "Savage Inequalities" (1991) and last year's "The Shame of the Nation" expose the system of institutionalized discrimination. It was his book "Rachel and Her Children - Homeless Families in America" (1988) that I read when I first moved from my hometown to New York City and struggled to come to terms with the hopelessness I found on the streets. Because of Jonathan Kozol's book, I volunteered to work in a day care center in a homeless shelter in Harlem. I wasn't the only one thanking Mr. Kozol for the changes in my life that his books had brought, Julia Tripp (formerly homeless 11 years) explained that she had been a student in the very same school that Jonathan had taught in back in 1968 and that, "Until I read your book, I always thought it was my fault."
BELOW: Natalie talks with the author Jonathan Kozol during the "Give Us Your Poor" session. Photo by Megan Boyd.
BELOW: Weeping Willie Robinson and Mighty Sam McClain give Natalie a little love during the "Give Us Your Poor" recording session.
Photo by Brianne Widaman.
See more photos from the session on NatalieMerchant.com.