Natalie Merrill is nervous about her New Year’s Eve gig, playing an acoustic set between Analog Outlaws and The Black Moods at the Marquee.
She paces backstage, getting subtle encouragement from fellow musicians. Merrill steps in front of the curtain with two musicians from her band, bassist Troy Dixon and guitarist Jim White, and exhales. What follows is magical: Her own take on Lady Gaga’s “You and I.”
Sitting on the patio at Postino in Scottsdale a month later, Merrill recalls the night with a smile, and reflects on the moment.
“There comes a point where you’ve practiced your heart out, you’ve rehearsed everything, and you got to let it go,” Merrill says. “You have to remember why you’re doing it, and you’ve got to stop fixing your outfit and your hair. You have to stop rehearsing what you’re going to say in between songs.
“You need to just let it all go and just be. That’s way easier than worrying about every little thing and trying to control it. There’s never a perfect show. There’s never a perfect performance.”
Soon she hopes to focus more on her own music and less on covers. She and her band, Natalie and the Sweet Talkers, are in the studio working on their debut album.
“We were dipping our toes in the water, but now we’re diving into it finally,” Merrill says. “It’s awesome to have five different people discussing ideas.”
The project is a long time coming for Merrill, who plays Rockbar in Scottsdale on Saturday, March 9. She’ll be joined by Dixon, White, drummer Eric Hassler and keyboardist Landon Holzwarth.
A 2014 Arcadia High School graduate, Merrill knew she wanted to be a singer since she was a 10-year-old girl studying Taylor Swift music on her guitar.
“I got really frustrated with it,” she says with a laugh. “There was a big learning curve that I wasn’t aware of. My fingers hurt so I put it away.”
Merrill vividly remembers her first concert and, naturally, her exact outfit.
“I was 10,” she says. “We saw the Dixie Chicks. My mom bought me and my sister Dixie Chicks shirts. We tied up the sleeves with little ribbons and had braids in our hair. I remember it perfectly.
“I remember the instrument changes. Every one of them was incredible and they sounded better than the record. I totally fell in love.”
She picked up the guitar again in high school, but this time it led to something: bar gigs.
“My mom would drive me in the minivan and sit next to me,” she says. “I had my braces and my little tip jar, and it was awesome.”
When Merrill stepped on stage for the first time, it was a high she hadn’t experienced.
“I want to relive it all the time,” she says.
Merrill enjoyed her time at Arcadia High School, especially contemporary music and sound teacher Richard Maxwell, who was nominated for music educator award presented by The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation.
“We had an awesome class in high school, CMAS, and we went backstage to see how things were set up,” she says. “It was technical.
“We went to Green Day for a field trip,” she says. “We actually visited the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences for a field trip, too. It was so cool. I’m super thankful for that because it got me into it.”
Maxwell is just as taken by her.
“She always had such a great attitude,” he says. “I don’t remember a single time when I said, ‘Wow, she got arrogant or full of herself.’ She was always humble. She never had this sense of entitlement with her, which is another thing that serves her well.
“She’s exceptionally talented. The idea of her doing well is not at all a stretch in part because she had this professionalism about her. People would see her and go nuts and she would never brag at all—ever.”
After graduating high school, Merrill thought twice about a career in music. She attended ASU, from which she earned a degree in psychology.
“I got an insurance job and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m feeling stifled’ and just decided to jump into something creative,” she says. “So much has happened since then.”
Merrill has performed with Roger Clyne, opened for The Black Moods, and played gigs in Mexico. She still admires Swift, but looks up to Stevie Nicks, a fashion inspiration as well.
“I mean, she’s powerful, but in the most graceful, gentle way,” says Merrill, who’s quick to stress her mom inspires her as well.
“And Stevie Nicks is incredibly sexy, but in a super serious, classy way. She has this balance and every song is about heartbreak and then it’s put back together by the end in like 3 minutes or whatever. I mean that’s genius. Genius. I have a dream to perform with her one day.”
Despite her love for “The Reigning Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Merrill has yet to see her perform live.
“I will see her, of course, but it would probably blow me away and make me even more crazy about her.”
Merrill’s road to music was a winding one, but she’s happy with the path she’s chosen.
“I’ve learned a lot and changed my path so many times,” she says, “I’m really grateful because my parents are OK and so supportive with me changing my path as much as I want to, which is amazing.
“There’s no feeling like when I’m on stage and I’m connected with the audience. I’ve never met them, but we have this connection. I’ve had different avenues all my life, then I found one I’m really good at and I love to do. It fuels me.
Natalie and the Sweet Talkers w/Southwest by Midnight and The Day Drinkers, Rockbar, 4245 N. Craftsman Court, Scottsdale, 480.331.9190, rockbarscottsdale.com, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 9, $10. For other upcoming shows, search Natalie and the Sweet Talkers on Facebook.
(Photo by Chadwick Fowler)