Tift Merritt: Singing For Herself

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Videos by American Songwriter

Photo by Alexandra Valenti

“I haven’t done an interview in a really long time, so forgive me if I’m wonky,” says Tift Merritt. After living in New York for nine years, Merritt has recently moved back to Raleigh, the city she grew up in and where she first broke through as a singer-songwriter in the early ’00s. But today, she’s back in her adopted hometown of Manhattan to promote her latest album, Stitch Of The World, her first in nearly four years.

A lot has changed for Merritt since she released her last album, 2012’s Traveling Alone. After spending three years touring the world — by herself, with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein in support of their collaborative 2013 album Night, as the opening act for Josh Ritter and Nick Lowe, and as a member of Andrew Bird’s roots band Hands of Glory — Merritt found herself in the midst of a mid-life upheaval spurred on by the end of her relationship with longtime musical partner and husband since 2009, Zeke Hutchins.

“Suddenly, I was turning 40, getting divorced, and scared out of my mind,” Merritt writes in the liner notes to her new album.

Merritt then spent the following year uprooting and reconfiguring her own life. She took a much-needed year off from the road, moved away from New York and spent time in California and Marfa. Along the way, she fell in love, became a first-time mother, moved back home to North Carolina, and managed to write an album about it all.

The result, Stitch Of The World, was recorded in Los Angeles right in the middle of Merritt’s mid-life disruption. Co-produced by Merritt and Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, who also sings on three tracks, the album explores a number of new sonic possibilities that definitively stray from Merritt’s easy-strumming, alt-country roots. Many songs feature open tunings, intricate arrangements; several songs lack any semblance of a chorus and abandon conventional song structure altogether.

“I was really bored with my guitar playing, and I wanted to figure out ways to make my musical landscape feel wider,” says Merritt. “I love traditional song-form: I think two or three choruses, a chorus and a bridge is a beautiful thing, and I don’t feel the need to always blow that up, but I also don’t always want to work within that.”

As Merritt’s six-month-year-old baby daughter Jean wanders around during the interview, untying shoelaces at every given opportunity, Merritt expounds on her current existential philosophy. “Right now I’m wide open to life, and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “If I’m really engaged with what I’m writing, I’m just trying to make sense of the questions that I’m taking into my body and myself and my life.”

Or, as she puts it, more succinctly, in her new song “Proclamation Bones”: “The fate of my heart is unclear.”

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Tift Merritt has the same simple explanation for several songs on her new album. Ask her about the inspiration behind one of her new songs, and there’s a decent chance that in her carefully considered, thoughtful explanation, she’ll eventually arrive at some version of just about the most honest realization a songwriter can have: “I wrote that song for myself.”

That’s how she describes “Love Soldiers On,” a gorgeous folk-soul divorce survivor’s hymn that forms the emotional backbone of her latest work. She also comes to a similar conclusion when discussing the album’s title track, a meditation on spirituality that uses the act of sewing as a metaphor about embracing humility amidst the universe’s vastness:

“That song started in California when I was in this cabin on a cliff, and it was so beautiful, with the sky and the sea and the trees and the beach, that it looked like it wasn’t real. I was thinking about how, somehow, I was sewn into this all as well, and how sometimes you have to be open and light enough to be a part of something greater. I’m a stubborn person, but I do think it’s important to tread lightly and realize your own smallness. So, I think that was certainly a song I was singing to myself.”

As Merritt describes it, her latest material was the result of a yearlong process of soul-searching, which most often occurred during her long walks through the open fields and endless skies of Southwest Texas during her stay in Marfa. “It was not the clearest time in my life, and I didn’t have a lot of perspective on the songs I was writing because I didn’t have a lot of perspective on myself. But I turned to that thing which is spending time with your work day after day and really trusting that it could add up to something.”

Eventually, songs began springing to life. She wrote “Something Came Over Me” after a sleep-deprived Sunday morning subway ride in New York, a revelation she describes as a “hung-over, sleepless crusty moment of love for the world.” Other times, she didn’t even need to write her own lyrics, as was the case with “My Boat,” which set a 1984 Raymond Carver poem to music. Keeping in mind the past year of headlines about refugee boats sinking in the Mediterranean, Merritt reimagined the poem as an ode to inclusion and compassion. “Of course everyone is invited into my boat,” she says of the song.  

The Raymond Carver composition on her new album is a rare exception for Merritt, who first and foremost considers herself a writer and has even contemplated, at various points throughout her career, giving up the guitar to write full-time. But on her latest album, the songwriter expands upon her sturdy form of songwriting with rich literary detail firmly grounded in folk musical traditions.

“Tift came into the studio with a great collection of very rich and personal songs,” says Sam Beam. “She also brought with her an unbelievable amount of strength and determination. That’s really what allowed us all to walk away from the recording session with such a wonderful record. She’s a gifted and powerful writer, and these songs are daring in their honesty and brighter for their brokenness.”

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As Merritt has spent the past year of her life fully embracing change, growth and disruption, she’s also faced a strong pull from her own past. A year ago she moved back home to Raleigh, a transition she was initially hesitant to make. Then, right after she left the studio and finished recording her forward-looking new album, Merritt immediately began rehearsals to celebrate the 14th anniversary of Bramble Rose, her earliest, and to this day, most well-known album with a series of hometown shows in which she performed the record in full.

When Merritt first released Bramble Rose, her country roots influences felt largely out of touch with the major label music industry boon of the early ’00s. O Brother, Where Art Thou? had been released a year earlier, but it would be many years before certain country-leaning influences would become acceptable for a singer-songwriter trying to establish critical respect. Merritt can still recall an early review in Spin that blasted her for championing Linda Ronstadt as an influence. “I remember feeling so misunderstood when they made fun of Linda Ronstadt, and I also remember being told at that time that I couldn’t be an Americana songwriter because there wasn’t a market for it.”

The timeline of Merritt’s career has essentially coincided with the evolution of the modern Americana genre, and a lot has changed in the roots music industry in the past 15 years. Today, no one would be ridiculed for citing Ronstadt as a key influence, and marketing oneself as an artist singing Americana, a genre that now has a well-defined set of corporate pipelines and major industry backing, is hardly a renegade career decision for a singer-songwriter.

Nowadays, Americana provides Merritt with a community for her music, with her last two studio albums, 2010’s See You On The Moon, and 2012’s Travelling Alone, charting in the Top 20 of the Americana/Folk Albums chart. “One of the most important things about the Americana movement, if you could call it that, is the sense of community and time and tradition,” she says.

Merritt now lives in the same Raleigh neighborhood that she lived in when she wrote the heartbroken, alt-country gems on Bramble Rose. Recently, she went searching for inspiration to the album’s title track, a lonesome weed growing against a cemetery by the side of a highway. Nearly a decade and a half later, the weed is gone.

“It was a long, hard look in the mirror,” Merritt says of the experience of revisiting the earliest days of her career as she moved back to Raleigh. “I don’t like going back. It was really hard, and I felt like if I had had my druthers, I would have stayed in New York City, but it turned out that it’s been really good to revisit my roots and pour some water on them.”

For Merritt, pouring water on her North Carolina roots has already led to fruitful collaborations and new musical experiences. She recently joined up with the members of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Durham-based roots collective, and her soulful harmony vocals ended up playing a huge part in the sound of the group’s breakthrough 2016 record Heart Like A Levee. Merritt has become a de-facto member of the group, touring with and opening up for the band throughout 2016. 

“Tift is a master singer,” says Phil Cook, the multi-instrumentalist veteran of the North Carolina roots scene who plays in Hiss Golden Messenger and Megafaun. “I will always be over for life by someone’s voice. If it hits me just in that perfect spot, I’m there forever. I love hearing Tift’s voice, always.”

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It’s six days after the election when I meet Tift, and the singer is distraught. She hasn’t yet fully processed the news of the past week, and she when she tries to, she says she gets nauseous. Eventually, she knows she’ll have to work through her emotions the same way she always: by writing.

“What are the words? I don’t have them yet. Eventually I’ll have to sit down and write about it.”

Talk soon turns to “Love Soldiers On,” a song that Merritt says has become unrecognizable, in the days after the election, as the ditty she wrote to comfort herself in the wake of her divorce. At the present moment, the thought of singing the song makes her want to throw up.

“During the run-up to the election I could sing that song proudly like, ‘LOVE IS GOING TO WIN!’ and now I really have to adjust my compass and say, ‘love is going to win,” Merritt says, her voice getting quiet and solemn as she repeats the slogan the second time. “It’s a really different song for me to sing now. I’ve got to just have a little bit of distance, and the way I actually digest things fully is through making music and singing, so I guess the way I’ll have to make sense of all this is through singing that song.”

The very next night, Merritt is onstage by herself in Brooklyn, testing out material from her new album. At the end of her set, she unplugs her guitar, heads to the front edge of the stage, and begins singing a deeply emotional rendition of “Love Soldiers On.” Without any amplification, let alone her full studio band, the song sounds less like a declarative affirmation and more like a pleading, personal prayer.

“Love soldiers on/ there’s nothing you can do,” Merritt repeats as the song draws to a fade, a reminder that those words are not only Merritt’s answer to her past two years of personal turmoil but also, now, her dire plea for the country’s future, her defiant response to the ever-present political terror she now must live with. Once again, Tift Merritt is singing the song for herself.

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