In the wake of bands like The Lumineers, The Head and the Heart and Mumford & Sons and their meteoric rise to the top of the charts in the US, with sales well over 1 million each and tours that sell out months in advance, the state of Americana music is very much at the forefront of people’s minds. All of a sudden, this fascination with Speakeasy culture- with Portlandia, artisanal craft and story-telling is ubiquitous, but at the bottom of the obsession is the question of authenticity- does this music make us feel like we’re getting back to a simpler, more genuine version of ourselves that maybe got lost amid all the iPhone messages, emails, Twitter posts and auto-tune?
One of the beacons of heart-warming, soul-searching and downright beautiful musicianship continues to be Tift Merritt, whose writing has never shied away from approaching difficult subjects with honesty and willingness to engage, but never has she been so vulnerable and calm than on her new record Traveling Alone. It’s a stunning set of eleven songs that reassert Merritt’s worth as a songwriter, but also show just how much she has matured over the course of her career. While it’s unsurprising that legends like Emmylou Harris took an early interest in Merritt- Bramble Rose is a delightfully precocious star of a record- it’s so rewarding to see that there’s still many roads left to travel, and that Tift is looking down each one of them with a little more perspective and quite a few more stories to tell.
Recently, Glide Magazine’s editor Peter Zimmerman sat down with Tift for a long talk about this new record- about the financial stress and loneliness that bore the sessions that became Traveling Alone– about her relationship with melancholy, and how important it was to get back to a real sense of home with this album. Merritt is absolutely one of our generation’s most vital voices, not just in Americana music, but because she’s unafraid to discuss difficult topics, and she’ll then crack a giant smile and invite you in for freshly brewed iced tea. If you haven’t already, take a listen to Traveling Alone– you won’t be disappointed.
On New Year’s Day 2012 I saw you perform all of the songs that made it on Traveling Alone, but you were solo. Now, you’re touring with a full band. I was really impressed with how different the songs are on stage when you’re with this new band.
You know, some people get freaked out by that– they like the solo thing better. But, I think you have to be able to do both. I love being in a band so much– your songs are capable of really blooming with a band, whereas I think it’s really capable of cutting straight to the bone and being delightfully stark by yourself. It’s two very different kinds of power.
It seems like a lot changes, though- not just the songs, but even the way you sing. When you’re solo, you have the room to breathe and play with tempo, while you have to be a lot more accountable, if you will, when you have four or five other people on stage with you.
I know what you mean, and I like that I can completely turn on a dime when solo, but I’m not sure that’s always the smartest thing. I think you still have to adhere to rhythm, meter, etc. I would say that I have a pretty emotional band that is willing to turn with me. But at the same time, they’re a force in their own right. They’re not just responding to me– it’s a real conversation. And so, to me, that sort of vitality is really exciting.
Some of your band members you’ve been with for a long time though, like Jay Brown.
Yeah, like 15 years. I move my eyebrow, and he knows what I’m thinking.
So, when you first spoke about making Traveling Alone, you mentioned how you were doing it with your "Dream Team" – people who you felt really connected to you and the material. Was there something that made you want to get back to that sense of home with recording?
It happened pretty organically. Some of the reasons were circumstantial, though, because I didn’t want to take this record on my own because I didn’t have a lot of time. I also felt kind of pushed into a corner, like– "shoot I’m fighting to keep alive here," you know. I mean everybody’s career has moments where you’re like, “Well, you know, I think I want to go home and call it a day.” And I think other than doing that, it really put some fire in my belly. Like, "I’m going to make this record, and I’m going to make it the best I ever made." I think the wade of time brings a “it’s now or never” kind of feeling, like, “Well, there might not be another chance to get this right, so we have to get this right right now.”
Musically, too, there was a decision to record the way we did because I was really interested in getting back to what felt natural to me, in an artistic sense. Right now, I’m not interested in the noise. I’m interested in what’s really meaningful, what’s strong enough to last. And, really, I don’t care about much other than that. And I think the writing of this record was just noise, and how do we get it out of here. So there was definitely a challenge to get it back to that place that felt right.
With this record, I wanted to take a chance on myself, to see if I could hold my own with these people I was surrounding myself with, because they can stand on their own in a way that isn’t over adorned or overwrought. I also wanted to challenge myself to be the glue for this group, and that was really something that propelled me forward.
Also, a few years ago, I began this project with my friend Simone [Dinnerstein], who is a classical pianist, and to do a collaboration with someone with that much discipline was really eye opening. Watching her work ethic and dedication to practicing was really amazing, and just suited me, and made me aware of new ways to approach my own craft.
From a writing point of view, do you feel like you are most creative when there is some sort of hardship pushing you?
I don’t know. I think some of the finer things I have written are out of joy and vitality- taking in the luster of life. It’s probably safer to be that underdog, and maybe I should scare that feeling away. You know? But, I wouldn’t say that I live in that place of pain or hardship, and certainly not on behalf of my work. If anything I have to get it out and then I’m free to move forward.
I think it’s really worth spending your time in substance and asking what’s really real, what really matters, what’s noise, and that can be a really painful process answering that question. But it’s not the same thing as filling in with sadness.
In terms of figuring out how to separate the noise from the substance, then, do you find that you have to really structure your writing time? Are you conscious of sitting down to create, or is it one of those things where a melody will hit you when you’re walking down the street and all of a sudden the song is fully formed?
It’s both, really. There’s time when something pops in your head and something comes easily. I think that’s usually you’ve earned that from all of the times that you’ve chained yourself to the desk and served the repetitive motion theory which is, you know, you show up, you put your guitar in your hands, and things start to happen when you don’t put too much pressure on it. You spend quality time with your instrument or your notebook and your guts and things are milled from that. And I think that is how you begin to generate the things that come as if by accident out of the air. It’s because you brought that quality of attention in a more routine kind of way. I really enjoy spending time with my instrument and writing, and I really enjoy spending time alone. And I really enjoy the routine of quotidian life if that’s what I’m doing, and I don’t really get to submerge myself in that that often because I’m traveling so much, so I really enjoy it when I do have that time.
What would you say was the song that came the easiest to you on Traveling Alone, then?
Hmm, that’s a good question. Maybe "To Myself," you know, that’s a really free, natural song that didn’t need to be labored. I think about songs like, “Wow. That was an important song to this record– that really serves the cause. That really clarifies what was going on." In those terms, I think writing “See You On The Moon” was something that really—I started to understand what I was trying to do, and I think “Sweet Spot” was kind of probably something that wasn’t labored either. By nature, it couldn’t be. It was sort of a declaration of, like, “I’m not going to try too hard. I’m going to be myself, and if that’s not enough, fuck it.”
I think that was really important on this record that it just—it just had to be comfortable with itself, you know. It just had to be self contained and self possessed and self insured. Not—not just overly labored, just honest. Not over raw, just honest. Just plain spoken-ly honest.
At the same time, I think there’s an honesty to songs that push the boundaries of what maybe we’d come to expect from a Tift Merritt song. I’m thinking of "Mixtape" or "Papercut," from See You On The Moon. It’s intriguing to me to see such a change, then, but you’re still working with Tucker Martine. How did that conversation change with him, between Moon and Traveling Alone?
That’s really a good question, and I can tell you exactly how that happened. Tucker is a very textural kind of producer, and I had made these records that had a real band feel, but more of a country rock band sound that was a bit more what you’d expect from a band like that. But, in the demos I did for See You On The Moon, I got really into layering guitars, and certain Pianos, and Tucker really paid attention to those, and while he did embrace the simplicity of them, he really built the songs out of the instrumentation I was using. I think we really went into that record with that in mind, not really assuming it’s not going to be this normal four on the floor roots/rock band. And I think a lot of really interesting things happen.
I don’t think we ever talked about it, about what happened really. You know, we dismantled the drums a bit on “Mixtape” and took more of a Bill Withers approach to that instrumentation. So, with that record, we did focus definitely on building out from me, but you’re right- it was more texturally inspired and a bit more daring, for sure, and that was something Tucker definitely influenced- and why I went with him as a producer in the first place.
They may not seem necessarily connected- these two albums- but I think they are. They’re very different yes, but I really like to work with people more than once. I think working in any kind of deeper way is something that involves time, and it’s important to try to grow with people. I like to have larger relationships with people musically then just, they do this, and we call them when we want to do exactly that.
Tucker’s wonderful and gentle and great with people and bringing out the best in people, and I—I thought it was important that he be a part of this. And Ryan Freeman mixed this record, which was great as well.
With Tucker, do you tell him "this is the sort of sound, look and aesthetic I’m going for with the record," or do you let him run with the ideas he has? What’s that dynamic like?
I have a really strong vision, and I’ve always had a strong vision, and Tucker encouraged me to hold onto that, and that was really great. Also, I think people knew it was kind of time for me to step up musically and do this thing this way and not fuck around. A lot of our conversations were about the songs, since I wrote so many, but another conversation was on who should play on the record. I felt really strongly, and he did too, that it needed to be a group of people- a very specific group where no one was an exchangeable ingredient in the experience.
And, to me, the heart of this record is that band, and it was just super serendipitous that first of all the people we wanted to come did come, and secondly they gave so much of themselves to the record. They were so extremely generous with me and really challenged me and supported me and dared me to do whatever I could do, and they really went down with me to my toes on the journey, you know, just a really beautiful and emotional time. These are all people who really play without their egos and really are listeners and minimalists and very open and giving of themselves and I think there was this emotional, musical intelligence going on that was so giving.
You mention having a lot of songs for this record. How many did you end up really working with?
You know, we didn’t have a lot of time. By the time we got in, I think we had 13 or 14, and we weren’t even sure we could do all of them. We probably had 18 total that we thought were all worth being recorded, and we started to talk about what needed to be done to finish them. But it became pretty clear which ones we should focus on. I think that we did the right songs. I wish we had had a few more days so we could actually have done more, but I don’t know that the album would have been any different.
Thinking about your bsides, there are quite a few songs that just never made the records– or just were a bonus track for iTunes, like "Bar With A TV On," or "Worn Out World," etc. What’s your relationship like with those songs? I feel like maybe because they don’t fit on the album doesn’t mean you don’t still care for them- or is that the case?
You know, when we first started this album, I did a recording on my own, just to give myself a day in the studio and go do whatever I needed to do because I had a lot of songs, and I think some of those are floating around, and I don’t—I don’t—I hope they’re not shamefully bad or anything. But it was—it felt really right how the songs turned out.
But you know, it’s tough. Songs that don’t make the record- they’re never my favorites; they’re the ones I question, and those are the ones between one and another song in my mind. I don’t think they’re bad, but if they were posited against something that made the record, I usually am closer to the ones on the record.
There was this song called "Southern Downtown" that got cut from Traveling Alone, and I really do have a soft spot for it, but for that I felt it was kind of whine-y, and it lyrically was all about feeling sad, homesick, and feeling like I didn’t fit in, and you know, I don’t really like to linger on that point of view. I like the point of view just to be a little grittier and more capable of holding its own pain without whining. But I don’t feel like I let down the metaphor of the Southern—I didn’t live up to it.
I remember hearing "Southern Downtown" two years before the new album came out, when you played it live in San Francisco, and I came away thinking it sounded like the bridge between See You On The Moon and the more organic sound of Traveling Alone. So, when the record came out, it was surprising to see it got the axe.
That’s what great about going on a writing or creative journey. You know the direction that you’re going, but you don’t know really what you’re doing or how you’re going to get there, or what it’s going to look like when you get there. But there are songs like “Southern Downtown” that make you think, “I’m going in the right direction, but I don’t know if I’m there or not.”
One part of Traveling Alone that I find so potent is the tinge of melancholy and loneliness in so many of these songs. And knowing that you recorded this album without a record label, and you funded it completely yourself… was it important for you to acknowledge and embrace that melancholy rather than pretend it didn’t exist? These songs definitely feel like your most vulnerable to date.
I don’t know. I mean, I really wish I had a succinct answer for that question. I remember that solo show that you saw where I previewed the album, it was right at my birthday, and I just think that the longer that you’re alive, the more that you just see that it doesn’t really matter what anybody thinks. I mean, it has to be authentic, and ask the questions that are in your mind in order to be a good artist, you ask the hard questions, and those usually are sad and hard. Those are usually the ones of substance, and I think that I’m comfortable there. You know, I’m a very joyful person, but I think that joy and sorrow are inexplicably linked. My general point of view out in the world is that I’m really happy to be alive, and I love people, and I’m not a downer. But I’m also kind of intense.
But, I don’t feel wary of my own intensity. I think women are often told ,“No, don’t be too heavy,” and I think that I’m like “Well, it’s really nice of me to try to protect you guys from that, but that’s a big waste of time.” You get used to putting yourself out there, and maybe what we’re talking about is that every time you’re less fearful to do it even more, in fact, you’re compelled to go deeper, and that is kind of the only thing that makes sense. And I think when you’re living right, you know, when you’re on your path in a deep way, everything gets really simple, you know, and you just go, “Oh, why would we do anything else than what we’re doing?” It just makes sense.
Tift Merritt is currently on tour supporting her latest album Traveling Alone, which is out now via Yep Roc Records. For more information, visit Tift’s official website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.