Lending a Voice to the Homeless

Her voice has sold millions of albums, now she's using it to help the homeless.

Nov. 9, 2007 — -- Platinum-selling singer and songwriter Natalie Merchant is lending her world-famous voice to the homeless.

"Homeless people are dehumanized by the whole experience," Merchant told ABC News' Charles Gibson in an interview, "and really isolated and robbed of their humanity in the eyes of so many of the nonhomeless people."

Merchant decided that the way to restore human dignity to the homeless was to give them a voice, and she lent them hers. Merchant and other musical celebrities like Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Keb' Mo' paired up with homeless and formerly homeless musicians to create a new album called "Give Us Your Poor." Songs on the album were also written by homeless artists.

Merchant described the collaboration as a musical petition on behalf of the homeless: "It's like stop pretending you don't notice us. Listen to us. And that's what I want this record to do. I want people to listen and allow these people to reestablish their humanity."

"That's how we express our humanity, is we speak to each other. We tell our stories. And they were telling their stories through their music," she said.

But Merchant wanted to do more than just sing a duet. She solicited demos throughout the country's homeless shelters until she found Nicole, a 15-year-old who crooned about looking for someone to rob after feeling desperate and being jobless.

"It seems the song just had the essence of what I was looking for. I was looking for the story of a homeless person trying to explain what it feels like," she said.

She produced and arranged the song, then recorded it with six musicians who are living or who once lived on the street, including Grammy-nominated blues man Sam McClain, who spent 20 years without a home.

"When people open their mouths to sing, it comes from a deep place where they store all the experiences of their lives," Merchant said. "And when the mighty Sam McClain opens his mouth, you know this man has had a life where he has known a lot of pain and suffering, but also joy."

Regarding the entire collaboration, she said, "It was a deep, fundamental, emotional exchange that took place. They were able to express themselves in a way and on a scale that they had never been able to before."

Merchant's work with "Give Us Your Poor" isn't over yet. She is co-headlining a benefit concert with Mighty Sam McClain and other artists in Boston Nov. 16.