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Tift Merritt: A Poetic Songbird

Tift Merritt 
A Poetic Songbird
By James Calemine

"I can't keep quiet
Oh, I can't hide
I want to shout and sing
And shine, shine, shine..."
     --Tift Merritt

Her voice sounds flawless. She crafts her own songs, plays her own instruments and her ability to convey emotion to a crowd renders her a rare songbird in any generation. She adds soul to any song she sings. Tift Merritt, born in Texas, grew up in North Carolina--began playing music in her early teens. She spent years honing her songwriting while searching for musicians to fit into her overall sound. Her first album released in 2002--Bramble Rose--proved a reflective collection of introspective songs that marked the work of a budding musical poet. Her 2004 disc, Tambourine, found her rocking out a little more and exploring a STAX-like sound that earned her a Grammy nomination.

Tift’s latest work, Another Country, finds her in a state of grace. These quiet songs, written in France, during a time she wanted to get away from anything familiar--define Tift Merritt as a serious songwriter. Her live performances, such as the one on Austin City Limits, illustrate her power as a performer. Don’t be fooled by her beauty… she’s very serious and the proof is in the songs.

In this Swampland/Mystery And Manners interview, Tift discusses her early music influences, career moves, recording, writing, singing with Emmylou Harris, literature, photography, Another Country, future plans and a glimpse into the future. Tift Merritt emerges as one of the south’s finest female artists today. She also proved an interesting conversationalist…a real southern belle…


TM: James?


TM: I’m so sorry. I Sunday’d out…

Its okay--

TM: In fact, when the phone rang I was about to go running and I wondered who could be calling me on a Sunday night from a number I don’t know. The funny thing is…I had a big sign on my desk: ‘Don’t forget--Interview Sunday Night!’

No problem. So, you’ve got a little time?

TM: Of course. How about you?

I’m just wrapping up something I wrote about seeing The Black Crowes on Friday in Chattanooga, which is relevant to our conversation because George Drakoulias produced the Crowes’ first two records and he produced your last two…

TM: Wow. In fact, we just cut a track in London with Paul Stacey (Stacey played in Chris Robinson’s band New Earth Mud, produced The Lost Crowes, served as The Crowes’ lead guitarist from late 06 to mid-07 and he produced The Crowes’ latest disc Warpaint).

Really? He’s a great guitar player…

TM: He is a great guitar player.

I have to congratulate you…Another Country sounds mighty fine.

TM: Oh, thank you. George deserves thanks too…and Dave Bianco…and all the musicians…

Let’s go back all the way. You were born in Texas and you grew up in North Carolina… 

TM: Oh, wow. We really are going all the way back…

We won’t get lost back there, but what are your earliest musical memories?

TM: My earliest musical memories are singing with my dad or watching my dad play music and me trying to sing along. Just him teaching me cool old songs and just spending time with him…

Was his guitar always around and you’d pick it up?

TM: Well, he played piano and guitar. So I started playing piano first. Then I guess I was 13 or so when I started playing…ah that was so long ago…I should be so much better at it. At 13 or 14 I started to take an interest in his guitar. He had a beautiful old Guild. He always said he won it in a pool game, but that is so unlike my father that I just don’t believe him. It’s a great story but I don’t think it’s true. So, I eventually got a little guitar of my own by the time I was 14 or 15.

What kind of music were you buying and listening to at that time?

TM: I was always a bit out of synch. I was doing what most folk musicians do…I was figuring out the songs that I could play. What I listened to was what I could figure out how to play. So, I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of old soul and Joni Mitchell. I had Blonde On Blonde and this Michelle Shocked record…anything I could hear and latch onto and try to figure out on my own and try to sing what I was really interested in hearing.

How did you get your first band together?

TM: I played with people a little in high school, but mostly I was just by myself. I played in bars for a while when I was in my late teens. I was by myself and I couldn’t drink and I didn’t know how to handle drunk boys and I looked really young. So I didn’t like that much. I tried playing with other people but nothing really stuck. I was pretty introverted. I eventually went to college. I just kept writing because that seemed to make the most sense to me. Then I met Zeke (Hutchins) and we put a band together and that just stuck.

Was songwriting your angle at that age?

TM: I was always a writer first. In fact, I thought that I would write stories and novels. Songwriting was really a natural part of that, but I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t necessarily have to have a band.

Speaking of writers…what’s the last book you’ve read?

TM: I’m reading a biography of Alan Waters right now.

Have you ever read any Cormac McCarthy?

TM: Oh, he’s one of my favorites. In fact, I read The Road…it wasn’t the last book of his I’ve read. In the past year, I’ve read The Road and that was incredible, but I love The Border Trilogy…

That’s his sweetest stuff…

TM: I know. Some of the other stuff…like Suttree…that was really hard. He gets pretty dark.

His early works are not for the faint of heart.

TM: I think he writes about violence in such a beautiful way.

So, around 1999 you’re playing around Chapel Hill, and that’s when you and you’re band crossed paths with the Two Dollar Pistols.

TM: Yeah, we had our band and we opened a lot for the Two Dollar Pistols and they would get me up on stage to sing a duet.

Around that time you met Ryan Adams, right?

TM: Yeah, it was all around the same time. Ryan wasn’t living in North Carolina at the time. It was probably around 2000-2001. We were just playing clubs and doing our thing and so it was around then. Let’s see, I signed to Lost Highway in 2001…yeah, it was 1999 or 2000 when I met Ryan.

Bramble Rose was your first real record. It’s a pretty laid back affair with well-constructed compositions. You even got Tom Petty’s great keyboardist Benmont Tench to play on the record…

TM: Benmont’s wonderful. We were working with Ethan Johns (Glyn Johns’ son) who has a great community of musicians around him. It was all very natural. There was nothing tricky about it.

You attracted some critical acclaim over Bramble Rose. What was happening in between Bramble Rose and your next record Tambourine? I know you were out on the road some…

TM: I went out on the road for a while, but not long as you would have thought. We were out for about six months. Then I got the call that I needed to go home and write another record.

That’s about the time you came across George Drakoulias, right?

TM: Well, while I was writing that record (Tambourine) I met George. George has always been a dream producer for me. I picked up the Maria McKee record when I was a teenager and just had this gut feeling that George would understand what I’m trying to do. There was a fair amount of pressure put on that record in the beginning…’we need a hit’…when that ideology is touted—I’m not saying it’s anyone’s fault, it’s just part of the deal (laughs). That was a good time for me to say I want to work with George. Also, I felt like Bramble Rose is such a part of me…it’s special, but I’d never been on the road before. I really found myself in a new place as a writer and as an artist after being on the road. We had this amazing capability as a rock band, and as a performer I was getting my own confidence. That record had so much tenderness on it. I really wanted to make sure that I made a record that stayed as genuine and sincere, but it didn’t have so much time spent on the introverted…I wanted to rock out. We played so many ballads on that tour that it was very natural that I wanted to rock. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go in the other direction as I wanted a balance of all the colors. I think George has a really amazing way of handling sincerity and energy. That was how I met George. He and I hit it off immediately.

So, since Draloulias worked with Tom Petty in the past—he recruited Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench to play on your second album Tambourine

TM: Yeah. We got lucky there. It was pretty scary because they are so good.

Emmylou Harris’ band member Don Heffington also played on Tambourine.

TM: Yeah, he’s played with everyone…

Tambourine is a great record too. It’s got a little more rocking on there. At the end of the Tambourine tour was when you taped your great Austin City Limits session, right?

TM: Yeah, it was late in the album cycle when we recorded that.

It was a great way to highlight the band…

TM: Absolutely, that was a great band.

So, what sort of headspace were you in that made you want to live in France? Those songs you wrote there make up your latest CD, Another Country

TM: Well, I was doing a tour over in Europe and the record cycle was done, and I didn’t know what was next. I just decided to stay in Paris—just to take a vacation. So I rented an apartment with a piano in it. All of a sudden I just started writing. So, I called home and said I was coming home.

How many songs did you write in France?

TM: Well, once it was all said and done—more than that, but by the time we went in to do the session it was very clear what was going on the record. I write a lot more songs that go on the record—some are finished—some aren’t. Some are just pathways to other songs. It’s a process for me…not really a number.

Where did you record Another Country?

TM: In California.

Drakoulias once again produced it. Bob Dylan’s old guitar player, Charlie Sexton, plays on Another Country, but your band plays on all the songs. Not too many guests on this one.

TM: Yeah.

You’ve got a Letterman appearance coming up…

TM: Yeah, I have two. One I’m a back-up singer for Emmylou Harris.

Her new record All I Intended To Be is great.

TM: Oh, it’s beautiful.

You’re in good company. Was Another Country your first record you really got to do what you wanted?

TM: Yeah. When I was writing this record I didn’t even know that I was writing a record. I was just hanging out in France trying to give myself some time. I’d been working really hard on the road for a long time. We were nominated for a Grammy and that made everything crazy. Then everything just stopped. I didn’t know what was going on (laughs). I wasn’t even sure I wanted to make another record y’know? I was just totally writing for myself. I brought these songs back to the States and kept writing and kept going back to France and kept writing and then eventually this record was dropped. So by that point, I knew where to go because these songs made things self-evident for all the right reasons because that’s what it is…I wrote the songs because I wrote them. I just followed the songs.

Were you feeling any pressure during that time?

TM: I think the concept of pressure is a funny one. There was pressure on this record, but a very different kind of pressure. It was a pressure of I didn’t think I had anything to say. I didn’t think I had it inside. I don’t want to draw lines between personal and professional pressure. I do what I do because I mean it. Of course, sometimes there’s pressure in the soup…somebody’s calling up saying you have to do this or you should do that. I do what I do and say what I say because it’s real. Whether any of those things are there are not. So, I think you’re right—this record is an exceptional experience. (Pause) It wasn’t the same as my other works. I think really what happened with this record is it’s so apart from the music business that even talking about it in a music-business sense makes it even less special. I stepped away from my whole life and went to another country where I didn’t even speak the language. It’s a kind of freedom we only get a few times in our life.

Well…I must say, for someone who says they don’t speak the language…the last song on Another Country—is a beautiful song you sing in French called “Mille Tendressess”…

TM: Well, I do speak the language, but I’m not fluent. I can certainly get by, but it’s still an experience while just communicating with one other person is something you can’t take for granted.

You’ve got some pretty serious tour dates coming up…

TM: Yeah, we’ve been out for about three months already. We did six weeks in New York and a month in Europe.

Tuesday is your next date…you’re in Philadelphia Tuesday and then it’s back to Europe. I’d like to try and catch your show in July at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

TM: That would be great. I think they’re going to televise that show.

At this point, being in the business, what’s been the hardest thing for you to learn?

TM: That’s a good question. The music business is not real. There are days it feels real for good or bad and you certainly have to make it work somehow. I don’t know if it’s been the hardest thing to learn but it’s a constant reminder that I’m a working artist, and I’m glad to be working. I just want to be a good writer and a good musician. It’s always been about storytelling, but somehow that doesn’t seem personal enough. I think it’s important to remember music is real but the business is not.

Regardless of the business, music, writing, or whatever you’re just trying to move the audience—to make them laugh, cry or reflect…

TM: Ah, semantics are very important when you’re talking to a writer (laughs). I would say when I’m performing, I am a storyteller because I’m not trying to illicit a reaction from the crowd—I’m trying to tell a story as true as I can. I have a radio show where I talk to artists about the kind of things you’re asking a little bit. Sometimes the road is such an insular place you should be really careful that you’re bringing new…uh…

…That you’re not amputating yourself from real life…

TM: Absolutely! I couldn’t say it better myself.

Maybe there are semantics involved (collective laughter). You’re not a greenhorn anymore…

TM: We’re all thankful we’re not green anymore.

Obviously a Grammy nomination is up there, but what are some of your other highlights?

TM: Well, the first time I sang with Emmylou Harris in my hometown with my parents there. That was really amazing. That will always be a highlight. That was in 2002. It was a landmine benefit. I was a surprise on the bill because someone had to cancel. Emmylou introduced me in my hometown and chimed in on a song with me and I thought I died and gone to heaven. My mother told me I’d never get anything else for Christmas (laughs) since I got everything I ever wanted. There are definitely times…there are highlights of writing…highlights of performing…it’s important to remember it’s one of those great things about being a musician. It’s not a one-sided career. You’re a performer—you’re a business person—mostly a writer and a musician. So, there have been moments on stage or moments in my own privacy when I was writing when they would touch that place you’re trying to touch. Sometimes I get there without effort…and those are the ones you say ‘I can’t believe that happened’.

So, like many folks, you take photographs…

TM: Oh, I’m a hack. I started taking pictures. If I could draw or paint—I’d be a painter—but I can’t. I don’t have the gene where your hand expresses what you mean on canvas. Photography is really important to me for a couple of reasons—one, I think it’s good to think in pictures and not think in words—as a writer it’s a practice of using my eyes and challenging the words. I think it’s important to look. As a performer—I really got serious about it when I was on tour because I was so desperately tired of myself and I just didn’t feel interesting at all and I’d go look at other people and it was a really important part of what made me happy every day.

You can distract attention away from yourself…

TM: You get outside of yourself and that’s important for all of us. Then you have this love for your step-child (laughs) and there’s no pressure for you to be any good at it.

The expectation is low…

TM: Yeah, so it brings a special kind of happiness.

Even when I take a flawed photograph…it’s still first class fun…

TM: Exactly.

You know, if you ever have time, I’d love to publish some of your photographs and you could write a little story around it. Or maybe you could write something about your favorite southern songwriters…

TM: Oh wow. That would be amazing.

I got Jim Dickinson to write about his favorite places to eat on the road, his favorite pianists, films and desert island albums

TM: That’s great. I’m looking at the Swampland site now. I didn’t know Robert Rauschenberg died…

Well, you’ve got an open invitation…

TM: I’d love to do that…

You’d be an interesting correspondent.

TM: That’s really cool. I’ll send you a link to my radio show. I talk to all different kinds of artists—painters, writers, musicians--about how they make their work and how they live their lives.

I always love to throw the artist a curveball. Like, for instance Tift, where does your loyalty abide during college football season?

TM: Well, my college football loyalty does not exist (laughs). I’m from North Carolina, so it’s all college basketball.

Yeah, between The Tar Heels, Duke and rival Kentucky being so close…that’s indeed basketball country…

TM: It’s always pretty crazy during the season.

So, who are the guys you’ve got out on the road with you behind Another Country?

TM: Well, Zeke Hutchins—he’s been my musical partner and business partner and boyfriend for a long time. Jay Brown has been with us for ten years—he’s the bass player and harmony singer. Danny Isenberg has been with us for about five years now. Scott McCall has recently started playing guitar with us—he’s a North Carolina man. He’s wonderful.

You’re upcoming tour schedule is rigorous…

TM: You should have seen it three months ago (laughs).

Yeah, when we first set up our interview, I remember thinking that’s two months from now. You’re home now, right?

TM: Yeah, I’m at home in New York right now. I play Philly, New York—then I do Letterman. Then I go to Norway!

Then back to Colorado…

TM: Crazy routing, eh?

I look forward to the Letterman performance. I'll remind you in a couple months about contributing...

TM: Yeah, let me give you my email. As you know I don’t have a bunch of time on my hands, but I’m always interested in writing—getting my thoughts together for something particular…

Even if you wanted to write something around some Norwegian barbecue joint you take a picture of on tour (heh heh heh)

TM: That would be a story! (laughs). That would be awesome.

No pressure. No forced march towards the deadline…

TM:…Or some dreaded homework paper…

…Only submit things that give you a buzz…

TM: Awesome.

Well, since you’ll be singing onstage in Philadelphia less than 48 hours from now…and you’re not going to have much down time this summer…I’ll bid you goodnight.

TM: I enjoyed this…it was fun. It was really nice talking to you. Please forgive me for being late…

Of course, you’re forgiven…

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