Tift Merritt | A New Chapter, Another Country

prof_tift-merritt_sm.jpg"I called home and said I think I need to see this through. Something special is going on."








If singers could be weather conditions, Tift Merritt would be a soft autumn breeze. There’s something about her music that evokes change and remembrance of things past, much as the fall season does — and yet Merritt’s clear, wistful voice has a reassuring quality about it, a tone that seems to comfort even as her thematic concerns tend to address the melancholy side of life. On her latest album Another Country, the North Carolina singer/songwriter gets to the heart of numerous matters, with inspiration from an extended stay in Paris last year. It was a fateful trip, but Merritt didn’t go there intending to make a record…or really to do anything in particular.

"I went there thinking that I was just gonna kind of catch up on my sleep," said Merritt during a recent telephone chat. "I didn’t really think I had anything to say. But I found this apartment online that had a piano in it, and I thought, well heck, no point in missing this. So when I got there I really surprised myself, and I just started to write. Things like being away, being outside my own language, and being in a new place; it was just really fueling a fire that was very unexpected. So that was how I knew I’d stay. I called home and said I think I need to see this through. Something special is going on."

What was intended originally to just be a getaway for a few weeks ended up lasting much longer, and inspired some of the most stirring and poignant tunes Merritt has penned since her acclaimed 2002 debut Bramble Rose. That disc earned the sort of reviews that would spoil some artists. The Times of London called it "the best release by a new artist, in any genre." "Imagine the Rolling Stones recording a country album in Muscle Shoals with Dusty Springfield singing lead," declared a scribe at Amazon. It wouldn’t be the first time Merritt would be compared to Springfield, and other popular singers as well. Her 2004 release, Tambourine, was more stylistically varied than its predecessor and its title cut was one of the sauciest, most rockin’ numbers Merritt had recorded. But career-wise, she remained a slow burner, the type of artist you either discovered on your own or maybe decided to check out after reading one of those rave reviews. Merritt certainly doesn’t just churn product out for the sake of it.

"The work of being a musician today is not just, you put your record out and then you take a deep breath," she said. "I’ve been on tour pretty much without stopping since February. I’ve only had one week off."

Naturally it helps a touring artist if they have a barrelful of stirring new tunes to play, and Merritt’s sojourn to France proved fruitful in that regard. She was more surprised than anyone about this.

"There really and truly was no thought about making an album or whether anybody would like it. I was just writing for myself, trying to make sense of my life. I didn’t know what I was making, just that I was making something. And that’s a good feeling."

Another Country contains some of the loveliest vocals Merritt’s ever recorded, showing her fully inhabiting the songs and inviting the listener in. There’s the jangly folk rock of "Broken," Merritt’s delicate piano playing on the title song—which which finds her declaring that "Love is another country/ And I wanna go…Wanna go with you"—and the revealing "Hopes Too High," a gently loping acoustic tune that compels close listening. "No place to run for a girl like me/ A whole lot of used-to’s and supposed-to-be’s/ I wanna burn like August/ Shine like gold dust/ Where everyday living can’t hold me," Merritt sings in one verse, before delivering one of many unforgettable choruses on the disc. The effect is uncommonly intimate.

"I didn’t want this record to be overly delicate," said Merritt. "But I did want it to be a first-person experience, just one person extending a hand to another person, one person writing a letter to one other person. I didn’t want it to be some big, splashy in your face affair."

{mospagebreak}Perhaps the words "big" and "splashy" can’t accurately be ascribed to these songs, but adjectives such as "timeless" and "stirring" certainly apply to tunes like "I Know What I’m Looking For Now," easily one of Merritt’s finest songs to date. Virtually every line in this soft-rocking gem is quotable, as it starts with Merritt’s description of herself as a "mixed-up girl with plenty to hide," and proceeds to recount, in truly moving fashion, the little things that can make a difference in life and provoke deeper thought. The mix of wisdom and vulnerability in this song has such cumulative power that you can easily imagine it appearing in some film, to underscore a particularly climactic, memorable moment—perhaps where the main character gains new clarity.

"I’d say that’s probably the most autobiographical song on the record," said Merritt. "I felt like that song lyrically and musically came together pretty quickly. It sort of wrote itself, and that doesn’t happen all the time."

Other songs such as the unabashedly emotional "Keep You Happy" are bound to elicit tears from some listeners, as Merritt shows her knack for wrapping her richly expressive voice around an honest, achingly real sentiment in the manner of some of her own favorites like Emmylou Harris and Carole King. These songs reflect a noticeable maturity in Merritt’s work, and a more potent resonance in her vocals.

"I’m definitely thinking a lot [on this record] about how I’m just at an age where I’m not that old, but I’m old enough that what I thought my life would be like and what my life is, they really had to come to peace with each other, you know? There’s a certain amount of reality that you face."

Merritt, of course, has the familiarity of her North Carolina home and family to return to when the touring/traveling adventures halt for awhile. She grew up in the coastal state and loves it there, saying that she believes in "regionalism."

"I think France and North Carolina have more in common than they realize," she said. "It’s a very particular place; it’s got a particular speed. You just have to come here and experience it. As far as North Carolina goes, I think it’s a place where people are really good at telling stories. They’re really good at not so much lying, just kind of stretching to put the point home. I think about that a lot when I’m songwriting. I feel that’s something I learned here, the great art of exaggeration."

Though she was actually born in Texas, Merritt moved to North Carolina with her family at a young age. She learned to play music from her dad, who performed locally on weekends and was always encouraging. Merritt began playing clubs in Raleigh and Chapel Hill in the late ’90s, releasing a seven-song country EP in 1999 with the Two Dollar Pistols, a band led by John Howie, Jr. The disc was mostly covers, but in 2002 she signed with the Lost Highway label and showcased her true songwriting gifts on Bramble Rose. The naturalism and grace of her music has been wowing critics and fans ever since.

"I’m really lucky that my audiences tend to be really nice people," said Merritt when asked about the kinds of people who come to her shows. "I get a lot of really nice letters from people who come to the shows or just come across the album. It’s not always easy to be out there on the road, so it means a lot to get their encouragement."

And the most enjoyable aspect of being a musician for Ms. Merritt?

"The writing. The time when you get to write songs, and be a writer, that’s my favorite part. Everything else kind of comes from that." | Kevin Renick

Catch Tift Merritt on tour this fall:

09.04: Visulite, Charlotte
09.05: Grey Eagle, Asheville
09.06: Variety, Atlanta
09.07: Workplay, Birmingham, Ala.
09.09: Rhythm & Brews, Chattanooga
09.11: Blueberry Hill, St. Louis
09.12: Southgate House, Newport, Ky.
09.13: Original Highlands Art & Music Festival, Louisville
09.19: Discovery Indie Series/Attucks Theatre, Norfolk, Va.
09.26: Center for the Arts/Jackson Hole Music Experience, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
09.27: The Bouquet, Boise
09.29: The Triple Door, Seattle
09.30: The Annex, Bend, Ore.
10.01: The Shedd Institute for the Arts, Bend, Ore.
10.02: KRSH’s Backyard Concert Series, Santa Rosa, Calif.
10.04: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco
10.11: Chicago Country Music Festival (Americana stage), Chicago

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