Tift Merritt: Stories To Tell

Ever since Tift Merritt debuted with Bramble Rose in 2002, critics and journalists have attempted to align her with specific musical trends or fellow artists, such as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams or Caitlin Cary, but by doing so, they missed the mark. Certain comparisons are absolutely valid and justified– it’s not as if Merritt’s music exists in a vacuum– but by compartmentalizing her sound and the breadth of her work as mentioned, so much of the magic that makes Tift Merritt’s music come alive is missed. Even at her most accessible, she’s somewhat of an enigma, seamlessly weaving between genres to create songs that mine an emotional depth so rarely found with such consistent triumph. Simply put, few artists make work of such high quality over the entire course of their career. Unless, of course, you’re Tift Merritt.

Fierce devotion to artistic integrity, though, often has humbling and frustrating consequences. Merritt is no stranger to commercial disappointments, as she was dropped by her label, Lost Highway Records, following her sophomore release Tambourine (2004). And while critically lauded and loved by her audiences, 2010’s brilliant See You On The Moon, despite its employment of mastermind Tucker Martine as producer, failed to yield the results hoped for. To a fan, it’s difficult to watch an artist have to endure the often skewed and uneven financial pressures of the music industry, but rather than shrink from such duress, Merritt returned from being dropped by her label with the euphoric and shining Another Country (2008). The album resonated especially with her fanbase because it was so clearly evident that the album’s eleven tracks were rooted firmly in Merritt’s engaging aesthetic, and that the words were heartfelt and sincere. To say it was her phoenix rising of an album may be slightly hyperbolic and sappy, but what it did do was reaffirm Merritt’s commitment to producing excellent work of emotional insight and honesty.

Understandably, getting dropped by a label carries with it a turbulent mix of feelings, often calling into question one’s ability and fortitude. Thus, prior to Another Country, Tift was unsure of whether she’d write another record. She’d toured relentlessly behind Tambourine, and at the end was left with an aching exhaustion that caused her to look at a break. A break from America, a break from the industry, but most importantly a spiritual break to piece back together her thoughts, emotions and visions. She found that break in Paris, where she’d planned to go for a two week vacation. But, as she writes in the liner notes for that album, “I had decided to take myself to Paris. It was the only thing I was sure of… Maybe everyone knew that I was going to stay awhile, deep down. Deep down, I wasn’t sure I was ever going home.”

The Piano

In Paris, Merritt’s journey took her on long walks through the city gardens, to churches for people watching, to cafés for strong coffee and fantastic wine, but more than anything back to the piano. Merritt mostly composes on piano, but rarely gets to tour with the instrument, leading her to rely heavily on the guitar during her shows. But if you ever get the chance to see Tift play a piano live, it’s an extraordinary affair. She recently played San Francisco’s historic Swedish American Music Hall while opening for folk rocker Stephen Kellogg, and her excitement from playing the beautiful grand in the Hall was palpable. While she opened with a new song (“Lingering On”) and See You On The Moon standout “Feel of the World,” it wasn’t until she made her way across the stage to the piano that she really came fully alive. She spoke nervously to the audience, as if she was worried they wouldn’t accept her if she revealed too closely her relationship with a piano. There’s only a handful of other artists with this intense connection to their instrument that reads so clearly to their audience, like Tori Amos or Lindsey Buckingham. To most, an instrument is a means to an end, but for Amos, Buckingham or Merritt, it’s a world unto itself.

When Tift played the devastating and elegant title track “Another Country” on piano, the audience was wholly rapt, hanging on her every lyric, chord and cadence. She sings about feeling utterly disconnect from love, as if it exists as another country, whose inhabitants are shadowed and far off. While it’s a fairly well-trodden subject (and often clichéd), she makes it seem fresh and new. And all the while beneath that spectacular voice is a hushed and straightforward piano line– elegiac in structure but soulful and ardent in execution.

Propelled by the response to the song, she followed with a completely unplugged version of “Something to Me,” with her gorgeous voice bellowing out to fill every corner of the intimate venue. Certainly the size of the Swedish American Music Hall contributed to the feelings of closeness, but Tift acted as if she were singing around a campfire, inviting the few hundred concertgoers into a moment of time-weathered folk tradition. Standing without any amplification, just letting her guitar and voice carry is a bold statement in and of itself, but Tift acted with humble modesty and intensity. Rarely does an opening act tap into such a powerful frequency with their audience, but her set was nothing short of phenomenal.

Returning “Home”

In our recent phone conversation, Tift opened up about the San Francisco show, and claimed, “To sing and perform in a room like that is to me really the home I try to get to.” Home, though, should be qualified, because it’s not someplace derivative or simplistic; rather, home for Merritt is the space of artistic experimentation and truthfulness that continues to inspire her to write and perform music. Another Country was born out of a crucial period living in Paris, where she attempted to rediscover what it was that made life beautiful and worth observing. Stationed full-time in New York City now and married to longtime collaborator and drummer Zeke Hutchins, Tift is in a very different set of circumstances, but she’s still exploring the subject of one’s foundation– what one calls “home.”

During her set in San Francisco, Tift shared a new song called “Southern Downtown,” which she sang with bassist Jay Brown on harmony vocals (even though he didn’t play during the show). Merritt grew up in North Carolina, and the song harks back to images and memories of her youth. A folk-inspired ballad about homesickness, she sings “I never did fit in / I always wanted out / Like an empty street / in a Southern downtown.” It’s part lament for leaving and part acknowledgment of the necessity for going, but consistent throughout is the unceasing awareness that there’s no return. When talking on the phone, Tift explained the song as “the beauty of homesickness and the reality that you can’t go back– that you can love a place and see it for what it is when you have some distance from it. I’m not old, but I’m not young anymore, and I don’t feel like I’m at that place where I’m only looking back or trying to find something that I may have passed by. Maybe when I get there, I’ll look back, but maybe I won’t.”

When played with a band, “Southern Downtown” opens up to new colors and sounds. The melancholy of the slide guitar matched with the softness of the drums provide a wistful backdrop to Tift’s guitar strumming, and when she and Jay Brown harmonize while singing “I never hurt so much / the way I miss it now / feeling all alone as a Southern downtown,” it’s a recognition of the heaviness of homesickness, but it’s more complicated than just that reading. While the lyrics appear literal, when taken in the context of Tift’s career they become more figurative than anything, like the song is a 3AM trip into the attic to look through old photo albums. Singing about her father’s eyes and her mother’s arms, there’s a visual aspect to the song that reveals her connection to that time and place, but it’s as if this is a part of who she is now, so she allows herself to feel that homesickness because she’s accepted the life she’s built around her career. Home then becomes something much more nebulous, and in that way it opens up a wide realm of possibilities for her as an artist, as so eloquently showcased on her last record, See You On The Moon.

See You On The Moon

See You On The Moon is a very different album, perhaps Merritt’s most adventurous and unconventional.  It’s not enough to merely claim that because See You On The Moon is Merritt’s fourth album it must be her most mature; however, its subject matter veers more towards the poetic and the observational, offering vignettes of the human experience with a weight to them that is distinct from the rest of her oeuvre. Also, the sheer sound of Moon is new for Merritt, which demonstrates producer Tucker Martine’s impeccable taste and influence. Just because Martine is at the helm doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the record being wholly Tift Merritt, though. Tift’s voice is center stage on Moon, and it’s never held such nuance.

The arrangements of the songs on Moon are particularly spacious. The album opens with “Mixtape,” a hip-swaying, sultry burn of a song, using the metaphor of a homemade analog mixtape for a relationship between lovers. It’s unlike anything heard on Tift’s three previous albums, so the choice to open with “Mixtape” was quite astute. Scott McCall’s electric guitar opens the song with strumming on a 4/4 tempo with enough muting and up pulls to give it that dark summer feel, and then the handclaps that play off the guitar provide just the right amount of pep to give “Mixtape” a silky rhythmic body. Tift enters with a hushed, almost spoken vocal, which steadily grows in resolve and strength into the chorus, where Eyvin Kang’s haunting viola and violin combination swoop in. At this point, there’s a whole lot of instrumental work going on, but never does one part overshadow another, or does it ever get so full of sound that the song becomes bombastic and showy. The song feels loose and casual, but never inchoate or arrogant. It’s one of the toughest balances to achieve in music, but with the help of Martine’s exemplary production hand, the song grows without encumbrance, it flows with purpose but most of all it opens up an entire new sonic world for Merritt, and the success of the song indicates her evolving faculty.

Tift describes the album as coming out of a desire to work against angst. She writes, “We wanted to make something elemental: open space, grit, real strength. Direct. Two people talking honestly.” Directness is the key to Moon, as the twelve tracks of the album muse about death, relationships, regret, devotion and desolation, among others, but directness is what keeps the album so present and profound. These aren’t slipshod songs, thrown together with a bunch of standard percussion, 1-2-3 harmonies and trite lyrics– these are worlds unto themselves. “Engine to Turn” and “Six More Days of Rain” may appear the most akin to Merritt’s work on Another Country and Tambourine, but they’re utterly distinct, incorporating joyous full chorus sing-a-longs, Southern gospel and emotional resolve. “Papercut” is ‘80s guitar rock with indie lo-fi shimmer brilliance, a risk for an artist so deeply rooted in an acoustic aesthetic, but it just works. Even her cover of Kenny Loggins’ hit “Danny’s Song” is heartfelt, warm and made her own. Its raw demo sound matched with Jay Brown’s dulcet harmonies strip the song of its usual hackneyed saccharine taste without adding irony. It’s become a Tift Merritt song, and fits beautifully on the record.

Journeying Forward

In our discussion, Tift stated, “I want to cross the distance [with my music]. I want it to come somewhere and go somewhere, whether it’s within one song, an album or the course of four records. So, I do think there’s this idea of travel or growth or something, that you’re not just singing the same thing over and over again. That you’re pushing forward into new places and new territory, be it emotionally or physically.” It’s this desire to risk– to journey forth into an unknown territory– that is the mark of a true artist, and it’s a desire that Tift Merritt has in spades. See You On The Moon ventured into sonic arenas previously unexplored, with the title track ballad (one of the best songs in her repertoire) and “Feel of the World” anchoring the album, unafraid to embrace melancholy and yet coming from a space of weathered understanding. Moon continues to resonate two years after its initial release, and proves to be a classic when taken among its contemporaries.

The future is still very much a mystery in terms of Merritt’s next project. So far, she’s played live almost an album’s worth of new material, and with an open taping policy many of these solo songs now exist in the Internet ether of YouTube and fan sites. In our conversation, though, she talked briefly about her next step, saying, “It’s a very loose and big plot kind of thing right now, and I don’t really have any desire to pin it down yet. It’s at that time when things aren’t fully formed, when they’re very free and very private– not yet solidifed. But, in my show I like to work in half the set as new songs, because while I’m fiercely private about the writing part of my life, there’s a really wonderful place where you can let the audience into the process. And it’s always a big surprise.” Until the next album is recorded and released, fans will have to check out Tift and her band live to get a taste of the new work. But, if “Southern Downtown,” “Marks” and “Lingering On” (all new songs played in San Francisco) are any indication, not only will it be a big surprise for music listeners, but also a major triumph.

For more information, you can find Tift on the web at www.tiftmerritt.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tiftmerritt and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/#!/tiftmerritt Tift also runs a radio show/podcast called “The Spark”– read more about it at http://www.marfaspark.com/note2.htm

Tift Merritt
Swedish American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA
May 14, 2011
Opening for Stephen Kellogg

Lingering On [New Song]
Feel of the World
Good Hearted Man
Another Country
Something To Me (unplugged)
Southern Downtown [New Song] (w/ Jay Brown)
Marks [New Song]
Supposed To Make You Happy (w/ Jay Brown) (unplugged)

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