Tift Merritt: Coffee Talk With The Compass Rose

Tift Merritt

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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From winding Carolina country roads, Parisian avenues to New York City streets, where she and Hutchins currently reside, Merritt always keeps her native state close to her heart.

“I take a lot of North Carolina with me. And I’m lucky that I have a family, and I’m from a place that is a real sense of place, especially the North Carolina where I grew up, there was nowhere else like it, and the places I love generally have a feeling like that too, but I also have a family of people around me that – they are a particular place – and I’m lucky that what they say to me is ‘go, go find…make your home bigger.’”

And for Merritt’s unique perception of the world around her? “It’s a problem,” she jokes, laughing. “I’m a sponge, and it’s a problem.”

Away from music, Merritt’s creative passions range from photography to talk radio. While her photography has been featured in art galleries, her main creative interest may be hosting ‘The Spark’, a monthly interview program which serves as a continuous discovery of the world and unique individuals whose talents and livelihoods were found off the beaten path. Merritt hosts “The Spark” on NPR affiliate KRTS 93.5 FM from Marfa, TX.

“‘The Spark’ is so important to me,” Merritt beams, “and I always say that if nobody ever listened to it, I would still do it because I realize somewhere along the way…that I was…that I felt very alone, but I must not be the only person who felt that way. I want to talk…I need to talk to people who are making unique work, making unique lives, and making their own way.

“I learn so much from talking to people about those things,” adds Merritt, “and I learn that people who are doing that kind of work have so many paralleled pleasures and sorrows. I think it’s important to remind everybody out there running down their own path that they aren’t alone. So selfishly, I get a lot of pleasure from it, but also, I’m very inspired by these really unique people I get to talk to.”

A chance encounter on ‘The Spark’ led Merritt to NYC-based classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Merritt interviewed Dinnerstein for the classical music magazine Gramophone, and the musicians bonded immediately and became friends. Would making an album such as Traveling Alone give Merritt a comfort zone in collaborating with an artist in a completely different musical genre, such as Dinnerstein and classical music?

“That collaboration has nothing do with comfort zone, I can tell you that,” Merritt says, with a bright smile. “Except that Simone is really my comfort zone in my heart, and as my friend. She and I have so much in common, it’s kind of mind-blowing how different our work is and our worlds are. But our hearts are very much the same. She plays with so much depth, and every note that she plays is on purpose. And I love being around that. And I love learning from this very vast, vast person.”

Initially, Merritt and Dinnerstein were friends in two completely separate musical realms. However, Dinnerstein kept suggesting she and Merritt collaborate, something Merritt initially felt would be a challenge.

“I’m like ‘Simone, how will we even play, have band practice, how will we talk to each other? How will I tell you what’s important to me?’” Merritt says, recalling conversations with Dinnerstein. “Because in my world, I don’t have to explain it, I just surround myself with the people who know those rules. It was very interesting to learn from her, and to have to show her what was important to me. And then to have to go into her world, where I have no knowledge at all. And I could only look back at her and go, ‘am I doing okay?’ It was an experiment in trust, as much as anything. So rewarding.”

Two years ago, the artists’ held a series of performances at Duke University and embarked on a short tour afterwards. From those compositions Night was created, drawn from a variance of artists ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach, Billie Holliday, Franz Schubert, Leonard Cohen, Patty Griffin, and original works by Merritt.

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