Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt grew up in Raleigh and studied creative writing at UNC before launching her musical career with gigs in local clubs such as the Cave and the Cat’s Cradle.
Her 2002 debut album, “Bramble Rose,” earned enormous critical acclaim, and in the years since she has built on that success with three more highly lauded discs, numerous awards and accolades and performances on top stages throughout the U.S. and the U.K.
Merritt’s newest album “Traveling Alone” was produced by Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket) and features a supporting cast including Andrew Bird, Marc Ribot, Rob Burger (Lucinda Williams, Iron & Wine), John Convertino (Calexico), Eric Heywood (The Jayhawks, Son Volt) and longtime collaborator Jay Brown. It will be released by her new label, our own Yep Roc Records, on Oct. 2.
She will play a free concert, along with Megafaun and Mandolin Orange, at the Carrboro Town Commons on Friday, Sept. 21.
Merritt now lives in New York with her husband, drummer Zeke Hutchins. She’s on a national tour to support the new album, but we caught up with her last week while she taking a few days off at her mother’s house in Raleigh before heading back out on the road. Q. How do you feel about coming back to Carrboro?
I’m so excited about that. It seems like just the right amount of fall is here; the weather is beautiful. I’m really hoping I’ll have time to go to the Farmers Market and eat at Crook’s. Being home is a wonderful feeling, and I’m proud of where we are musically, so I couldn’t be happier to start out here at home. Q. Tell me about this new album. Where did this record come from within you?
“From within me,” that’s a good way to put it. Career-wise, in a number of ways I found myself pretty much alone – I was without a manager or a label – and I’m in my late 30s, at a point where things could have gone in a number of different directions. It’s an age where you really have to sort things out for yourself and decide what path you want to take. You start to realize that you have a limited amount of time. A certain amount of seriousness comes with that that you didn’t have when you were younger and didn’t realize you had such a limited amount of time.
And with that seriousness, you want to try to go to a deeper level. You deal with some heavyweight things, and you want your work to penetrate deeper and deeper. It’s my job to ask hard questions of myself, and this was a time to find my own path. Q. You put together quite a crew to help out.
It’s my dream cast. There’s aren’t many moments when – hold on one second (she puts the phone down and calls to her mother in the background: “Hey, mama, I’m doing an interview ... I’m walking back to your garden so you won’t make fun of me!”)
– Sorry. There aren’t many moments when you can do anything you want, but I was at a point in my career when I was kind of by myself, and I thought, “This is it. This is the moment when I have to be the artist I set out to be and make the record I want to make right now.” And I thought, “OK, what would that look like?” So I called these guys and said, “This is what I want to try to do.” I’m sure their eyebrows went up a little bit. But they all said yes and things started to happen, and then we all got in the same room together and it really
started to happen. I wanted that freshness of having a group who hadn’t ever been in the same room together to record. Q. Does the record reflect that, do you think?
I think it does. When I listen to it, I hear .. .well, I hear a lot of things. I hear a lot of deeply personal things. I hear that sense of relief and elation you get when you try something you’re not sure you can do, and then you do it. But mostly I hear the intense kind of care and listening those guys gave to the work. Q. How did you find yourself without a label or a manager?
It happens a lot. I’ve been in that position before. And I think it was the best thing. There was nobody cheering me on or telling me what I was doing wrong. It was just down to me, and in that situation you have to really examine yourself and question what you’re doing. A lot of important and revealing things can happen. It reveals your grit. Q. Now you’re with Yep Roc. That seems like a great fit.
Doesn’t it? I’m so excited about that. They’ve been in my corner from the word go. I adore them. There’s something about being from North Carolina, and we’ve known each other so long, we’ve always both been cheering for each other. I couldn’t be happier. Q. You host a monthly interview show, “The Spark,” on public radio. How did that come about?
I had this desire to have conversations with other artists. I’m fascinated with the process, with the work, with the vigilance it takes. How do you make unique work? How do you make a unique life? What does integrity mean? All these questions that I, and probably everybody else, negotiate every day. I wanted to meet some other artists and hear what they had to say about these things. It’s a success to me before it ever goes on the air, because I meet some incredible people and invariably come away feeling, “Wow, what person is so beautiful and so thoughtful.” Q. Are there any particular interviews that stand out for you?
Patrick Dougherty, an artist who lives outside Hillsborough, is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever talked to. What a man of depth and beauty. Just amazing. I could listen to that conversation over and over. Q. So you don’t just talk to musicians?
I try not to do musicians, actually. I do have some musicians on, because I know a lot of them, and they’re wonderful. But music is what I do. And part of the point is to learn from people who do things I don’t do. Painters, writers, filmmakers, composers. Q. You originally intended to be a writer yourself. Does that play a role in your work now?
Absolutely. I think my work is pretty story-driven. Without a story to tell, without something to say, I don’t know that I would get on stage. The writing is always the beginning, and for me the most important thing. And then it becomes about the songs. Running for the stage just for the sake of running for the stage, that’s not something I admire. That’s not something I would do.
Writing teaches you about using an economy of words, about revising, about how to tell a story. I use all those, plus I have the whole box of paints that includes sounds, tone, rhythm, melody. I’ve always thought of what I do more as writing than music. Music is wonderful and mysterious, but writing is always the door I go through to get there.