Tift Merritt: One singer-songwriter who is not compromising
Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt make quite a debut ten years when she issued Bramble Rose, an album that drew comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Iris Dement. Merritt, who originally set out to write fiction, is a consummate lyricist and an understated but capable singer, too. She recently phoned in to talk about her latest album, last year’s Traveling Alone, and look back at her 15-year career.
I read that you originally wanted to be a fiction writer. Is that true?
I sort of got my start writing short stories. I was in a creative writing program when I started my band. That’s how I come to all of this. I was in an undergraduate program. I only have nine hours left to graduate. I have a science lab that I needed to finish and I have recurring nightmares about being in college. If I ever go back and want to teach, I think it would be good to be a student and teacher at the same time. It is a regret. It was not a regret at the time. It felt very important that I didn’t need someone to give me a piece of paper to tell me who I am. But I always loved school. I I don’t have a screwed up relationship with school.
Did those short story writing skills carry over when you started writing songs?
Absolutely. I rely on the seeds that were planted in that writing program all the time. I had a really wonderful mentor who was such a tough and beautiful person. As an artist, you never have a license to be less than a decent person to make art. I don’t believe in that. I also believe that you have to be your own best editor. You have to be the person who knows what’s going on in your work and why. You have to be the hardest eye on it. The last thing which I immediately learned when I was in the music business and there was money and pressure, was that it was so strange to have people in control of my life have such vague feedback on what I did. It was just, “We don’t know what we want. It’s something about the band. It’s something about finding a niche. It’s something about the song’s bridge.” I had been in this atmosphere where the value of feedback was that it was very concrete. I couldn’t do anything constructive with the feedback I got in the music industry. I come at my work certainly as a writer first and a musician second and from that kind of workshop attitude and not so much a pop point of view.
I think you started playing small clubs in North Carolina in 1998. Is that when your career really began?
So what has been the biggest challenge you’ve had for the 15 years you’ve been a performer?
I think my biggest challenge has been translating it into commercial success. I feel very good about the things that I’ve made. I’ve been very lucky critically.
But I think I’ll always have a direct relationship with the heart and soul of my work and that’s really, really important. I have to live there. If I get outside of that, I feel like I’m on a date with the wrong person.
Your 2002 debut received such acclaim. Have you felt pressure to live up to the accolades?
I’ve always trusted my work and I think if I make my work honestly and deeply and I am satisfied with it, that’s the right direction to go in. There was a lot of pressure on me after that but it was more that there were commercial expectations and I think I handled it pretty darn well. It’s a privilege to have commercial expectations put on you. But I think I’ll always have a direct relationship with the heart and soul of my work and that’s really, really important. I have to live there. If I get outside of that, I feel like I’m on a date with the wrong person.
Talk about what it was like making Traveling Alone. Was it an easy album to make?
It was a pleasure to make it. It had its set of challenges for me and I’m not whining. Being an artist is not for babies. This was a record that I made with my band and me. It was just me and the people I had asked to be there with me. I thought that would be an enormously scary thing but it was so completely freeing. There was such an economy of motion. There was no second-guessing. That was a wonderful door to go through and I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to walk backwards.
What exactly inspired the title track?
I think that’s a song that has a lot of different things that inspired it and there are lots of different layers. On one level, I was alone in the real world. I’m also at the point of my life where my interior landscape has a sense of aloneness within and I’ve been trying to reconcile that and join the world in a way that doesn’t seem compromised. It’s like how do you use integrity in a way that does not isolate you and allows you to take part in the world without feeling compromised. I think that’s a very complicated question.
That song could also serve as a metaphor for a relationship.
I think the relationship would be with your interior life. I think it’s a more solitary song. I don’t think it’s about romantic love except when it expresses it directly. It’s more about interior life and an individual’s relationship with the world.
What inspired you to take on that philosophical concept?
I think those are things I feel in my own life. I think making your own way in the world without a map is something we all do to a certain extent. I think that I at some point in my life thought my map would meet up with everybody else’s in a natural way. I thought I would get to that point. It turns out that that was not true. That was a sad moment for me. I’ll be making my own way without a map and it’s not going to come into town and make peace as easily as I thought it would. When you realize that, you say, “How am I going to continue making my own way?” There is an art to making your own way. I don’t think it’s that that there are no rules and you do whatever the fuck you want. It’s about having a deeper sense of integrity and a sense of things that must not be compromised even when the world asks you to compromise them. It’s something of an outsider’s code in a way.
One reviewer on Amazon said the album has a “melancholy undercurrent.” Is that accurate?
I don’t know. I feel like melancholy is such a flimsy word. I think there’s a toughness and sadness to some of this, but there’s also a strength to speaking truthfully that I think is there. If you listen to the words, I don’t think it’s a flimsy record.
Talk about what it was like performing with Andrew Bird.
I just adore him. He and I sang together for the first time a couple of years ago and the first time I heard him sing, “I thought wow. That is a noise worth making.” I asked him to come in and sing on the record and am so pleased that he agreed to do that. He’s such a fine, fine musician. He’s one of the best. Since then, I’ve been doing some more singing with him and it’s made me really, really happy. I think his voice is a beautifully instrument.
Did he whistle, too?
He did not whistle on this record but he does whistle when he’s playing with the band and I enjoy it immensely. He is fantastic.
1/31 Burlington, VT
2/1 Albany, NY
2/2 Pittsburgh, PA
2/5 Cleveland, OH
2/7 Evanston, IL
2/8 Milwaukee, WI
2/9 St. Louis, MO
2/10 Louisville, KY
2/13 Dallas, TX
2/14 Austin, TX
2/15 Houston, TX
2/19 Birmingham, AL
2/20 Knoxville, TN
2/21 Asheville, NC
2/22 Atlanta, GA
2/23 Nashville, TN
The Linda WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio
The Kessler Theatre
McGonigel’s Mucky Duck
The Square Room
3rd and Lindsley