Interview: Tift Merrit

After two records and a Grammy nomination, Tift Merritt took hiatus with a piano in Paris and was rewarded with an unbridled inspiration and a wealth of her most accomplished songs to date. On February 26, Concord Music Group’s Fantasy Records will release Merritt’s Another Country.

Merritt’s debut Bramble Rose earned spots on both Time Magazine and the New Yorker’s year-end Top Ten lists. Tambourine, her sophomore album, was Grammy nominated for Country Album of the Year and earned numerous accolades from press and fans. She has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and shared the stage with Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, and Nickel Creek. Her Austin City Limits television performance was released on DVD in October of 2007.

Another Country was written by Tift Merritt, produced by George Drakoulias, and recorded by David Bianco. The players include guitarists Charlie Sexton and Doug Pettibone and Tift’s longtime band, Zeke Hutchins (drums), Jay Brown (bass) and Danny Eisenberg (keyboards).

You took a little bit of a break after your second album and spent some time in Paris, can you talk a little bit about the inspiration that you gained during that time period?

I think there is something very freeing about being a stranger in a strange place. Paris is such beautiful city; there were always artisans at work making beautiful things and there was something about being surrounded by all of that which was very reassuring. Also, as a writer, it was a beautiful experience to speak in a foreign language, or without words, and then sit at the piano with the relief of thinking in English, but the simple happiness of not taking any exchange between people for granted.

How is this upcoming album different from your previous ones?

This album was just such a surprise. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to write anything at all while I was in France. I just wanted to sleep and recharge and be alone. But these songs appeared, with a life of their own, and I was just pulled along for the ride.

Is there a song off of your upcoming album that feels the most personal to you? If so, can you explain?

Probably Another Country. I really was feeling like another country myself – a very faraway and untranslatable one. I Know What I’m Looking For Now is also a very personal song. It came so naturally and I never needed to edit it much, so it really reads like a letter I wrote about pretty much exactly what was happening to me.

Do you have a song, whether from the upcoming album or from one of your past ones, that is your favorite to perform?

My favorite song to perform changes pretty often, depending on what is going on in my head or in my heart. Sometimes, I’ll go back to a song that I had gotten tired of, and find something true in it again, which feels really nice.

What is the song writing process like for you, does the melody come first or the lyrics?

The feeling and the idea of the feeling come first, whether it is a few lyrics with a melody, or a group of chords that feel good. After that, I try to get the music right and the structure right, and then I try to finish the lyrics and that is usually a lot of beating my head against the wall.

Was there an album that you heard growing up that really changed your life and convinced you that music was your future?

Blue was pretty huge because it was the first time I heard a woman being a really serious writer and artist, not just a singer up front. Definitely Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town hit me really hard too, because I could hear a piece of myself in that record. Everybody could, probably. But I felt like, oh my god, that is how I want to sing. It made me feel so small, but to hear that music seemed to make so much of what I was looking for possible and real.

Now you’re also hosting your own public radio program now, correct? Can you talk a little bit about that?

The Spark is my chance to talk to the artists I admire about how they make their work and how they live their lives. I am so curious about the real time and energy and doubt and fire that go into making good work, not the glamorous side of the spotlight, but the everyday work, which I think is often more interesting, more human, and more hidden.

You spoke against Federal Communications Commission several years ago, what’s your opinion on the music industry now?

When I spoke out, I was really concerned that localism was truly being neglected by conglomerate media outlets. Which means that the idea of regional musicians and regional culture is eclipsed by national playlists and syndication. Which means that a young Nina Simone in a third grade classroom in NC might never have access to local airplay or local support that, on a grassroots level, would grow her career.

I am really very excited by the restructuring of the music industry, and I think it can put power in the hands of musicians when they have a direct relationship with their audience. But I have repeatedly seen the FCC make decisions which protect large media corporations who do not need protecting at all at the expense of local cultures, local voices and local media owners – all of whom are actually worth protecting.

What do you enjoy doing on your downtime?

I love to cook and catch up with friends. I love to surf, do yoga, watch Netflicks. I would love if I had a little more downtime to do these things more often…

What can fans expect from your upcoming shows?

I’m really excited to be back on the road. The band is feeling really right – intense in the right ways, laid back in the right ways. We always try to have our shows be a real experience, a distance to cross, highs and lows as if you have really traveled somewhere. I’m thinking about trying to show old French films before the show or even during the show…now if we can just get those costumes and all the feathers ready in time…

What’s next for you?

Well, the record release seems pretty imminent and consuming at the moment, so it’s hard to say. But I’d really like to go to Portugal… or I’d really like to get to work writing new songs… or run away and become a painter…

Interview By: Emma Loggins

Tift Merrit Official Site


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