Merrie Amsterburg and Peter Linton
Former Natives sit down at the Good Citizen office and map out the path from Burlington's Little Sister to today's Merrie Amsterburg.
By Andrew Smith
Boston-based singer-songwriter Merrie Amsterberg and her husband Peter Linton stopped in at the Good Citizen office late on a Friday afternoon to wait out the Jill Sobule soundcheck over at the Metronome. Jill was running late, and as the "opening act," Merrie and Peter had some time to kill. We'd only met once, a half dozen years before, but we easily started chatting about the Burlington music scene and its long and checkered past. The couple was warm and friendly, open and forthright about their successes and failures, high hopes and frustrations. 1997 has been a great year for Merrie and Peter, as Mer-rie's first solo album, the wonderful Season of Rain (Q-Division Records) has found national distribution and high praise from major media like CMJ and Billboard Magazine. But let's go back a few years. Okay, let's go back a whole bunch of years.
When Peter Linton and his band Little Sister left Burling-ton in the early eighties, the city of Boston was the destination. But it was a trip to the west coast, courtesy of a Miller Beer-sponsored "Rags to Riches" contest, that sealed the fate of Little Sister. One of five finalists, Little Sister was the "east coast" winner and flown out to a showcase at the famous Palace Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The band didn't win the contest, but MCA Records showed great interest - and it was enough to make the band - Peter and friends Russ Lawton, John Howley and Mike Rush - consider its fate. And that was enough to make John, the singer, decide that he couldn't devote the rest of his life to the band. So, John returned to Vermont and the rest of Little Sister, back in their adopted home of Boston, went looking for a new singer. Fate twisted again, and they met Merrie Amsterburg, a recent transplant from Michigan. Peter and Merrie, uh, married. And together they all become the Natives.
Peter, a 1974 CVU grad, has had quite a few brushes with fame, and the country-flavored Natives lived through several of them. They were already house-packing regulars at local bars like Nectar's and many bigger clubs throughout the northeast in the early nineties when they were sought out by Kiss bass player Gene Simmons, of all people, who was starting his own record label, the ill-fated Simmons Records. Peter and Merrie laugh heartily when they describe the Simmons label's logo, a silver money bag with a dollar sign on it, but surely the experience of waiting out the nine month option on their contract must have frustrated the hard-working band.
When that was done, the Natives landed in yet another contractual disaster, this time with famed producer Richard Gottehrer's imprint Instant Records. Instant was distributed by SBK through EMI. Gottehrer, who the band met through their friends the Judybats, had many successes as a producer, including Marshall Crenshaw. But he didn't strike gold with the Natives and they found themselves stuck in a deal with no record and no freedom either. For two years the Natives were held captive by Gottehrer, and when they were finally released in 1994, the strain had taken its toll. Early 1995 spelled the end of the Natives, and Merrie and Peter broke off on their own.
Merrie had written the majority of the Natives songs, and her maturing material made the move to working under her own name a logical one. And so as Merrie Amsterberg, Merrie signed yet another record deal with yet another producer, this time
Q-Division's Mike Denneen, famed for his work with such break-out Boston acts as Letters to Cleo, Jennifer Trynin, Aimee Mann and Morphine. Denneen produced her album Season of Rain, and he released it last fall on his own label, and since then Merrie and Peter have been working it and working it hard. With Denneen's Q Division in total control, and they are management, booking agent and record label, Merrie has been eased into the spotlight in a conscious effort to grow her career slowly and carefully. Already, Merrie has been the subject of glowing regional press like a Northeastern Performer cover story, and growing national accolades, like a remarkable article in industry bible Billboard Magazine and a "Jackpot" pick in CMJ. And they're playing shows: the road is offering up gigs as far and wide as opening for Bob Mould in Boston and playing the Mountain Stage NPR radio series with the Indigo Girls way down south. Wherever the road takes them , Merrie Amsterburg and Peter Linton are on it. And with a debut album as confident and easy on the ears as Season of Rain, they're on it for the long haul. ~GC~
Andrew Smith is a dork and he's the editor of this magazine so he can be as much of a dork as he wants to be. So there.