Tift Merritt’s Journey to “Another Country”

tift_merritt_340x270.jpgThe title of Tift Merritt’s third record could be a metaphor for its unique musical geography, a territory equidistant between Memphis, Nashville and Laurel Canyon. This new sound is far removed from the neo-traditionalist twang of Merritt’s early work, or the energized soul of her last release, the Grammy-nominated “Tambourine.”

In the album’s title song, “Another Country” becomes a landscape of the heart, a place where lovers find refuge and tortured souls escape.

It’s all of those things, but mostly, it’s France.

“A record is born usually in a particular place and very quickly, and it becomes an umbrella for whatever happens,” says the Texas-born, North Carolina-raised singer-songwriter.

“It was a Paris record.”

A burned-out Merritt made the journey in mid-2005 to recuperate from a long, hard run of touring. “10 months in a van will make you need to go to Paris,” she says. “I’d been in a different city every night … it took a toll that I didn’t quite know how to handle.”

Her requirements were simple: rent a room with a piano. “There was very little weight on the trip,” she said of her plan to spend a couple of weeks to “just catch up on sleep and eat some chocolate croissants.”

Merritt’s most personal work to date started almost by accident. She began, writes Merritt in the album’s liner notes, “with a certainty that I had nothing to say. But I kept finding myself back there, plucking a melody, again and again.”

She slept near the piano, wore the same clothes for days on end, and left only to get coffee. She played a lot of Van Morrison on the stereo – but not much else.

“Sometimes when you’re writing it’s really important to not listen to music,” Merritt says. Other voice shouldn’t intrude.

“I let ‘Veedon Fleece’ intrude.”

Three months later, she’d written most of “Another Country.”

Ir contains echoes of seminal singer-songwriter works from the early 1970’s – Jackson Browne’s “Late For the Sky,” Judee Sill’s brilliant but overlooked debut, Linda Ronstadt’s Capitol albums.

“I love those records,” she says. “There’s a sense in them, that they had this motto: I wrote this song, and nobody can sing it but me, and this is a really hand made, particular thing.”

Making the Record

In the studio, she tried to match the conversational tone of that era. “I wanted it to be a very direct, one person talking to one-person record,” she says. “You get a different feel for [it] when you’re in another country. You see that you really have to look someone in the eye. It’s not about shouting or going fast, but it’s about really talking to someone else. That’s what I wanted it to be sonically.”

Making the record was an organic process. “It was really self-evident that these songs made themselves clear and there wasn’t a lot of messing around with them that we needed to do,” she says. “We just needed to stay out of its’ way.”

Ultimately, the journey from scribbled Paris notebooks to finished project would not be smooth. Soon after returning to the States, Merritt was dropped by her label. “I went through a period of time where we really took our business into our own hands.” Even though she had signed with Fantasy before going to Los Angeles to complete work on “Another Country,” the period served to remind her that she’d chosen an often-nomadic existence.

“ In a lot of ways this record was really about making our own path,” says Merritt.

“The Spark”

A need to better understand the emotional freight of her artistic choices led to “The Spark With Tift Merritt,” a public radio program that’s a blend of interview and public therapy. In the show’s first installment, she discussed the common threads and challenges of writing novels and creating music with the British writer Nik Hornby; at one point, he jokingly suggested they should marry.

Other guests have included the poet (and Princeton professor) CK Williams, and contemporary bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. “I think of the show as a student to teacher experience rather than artist to artist,” says Merritt.

“I found that I was alone a lot on the road, and I wondered how other artists were doing it, how they handled the problems of their lives and making the work they were making. Being on the inside, I really didn’t know. I wanted the story behind the press junket – the spotlight that’s so neatly told dressed in couture clothing with hairspray on.”

Acknowledging that artists are “real human beings, not … geniuses sprung forth from the sky,” is something she needs to know, perhaps even more than her audience. “Nik Hornby says, ‘it’s a struggle for me at my desk some days and I pray for emails.’ I hear that and I think that I’m doing the right thing.”

Why, after three albums and over a decade as a professional musician, is this message so important now?

“I think you get acclimated to putting yourself out there, and then it gets real scary,” she says. “I believe that this kind of albeit slightly self-serving thing is a natural urge to find out about other people who are doing what I’m doing.”

“The Spark With Tift Merritt” is available on the Internet, at marfaspark.com.

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Local Rhythms – Dreaming of June

sun_flowers.jpgThe net effect of winter has my brain feeling like a frost-heaved road. I’ve had one or two glimpses of my lawn since November, and a few 40-degree days strung together make me punch-drunk.

Let the temperature cross 50, and I’m hallucinating cabanas and boat drinks.

Sunday’s bright sky got me thinking about summer music. I know, spring is barely a week old old, but that’s how I roll. While my neighbors are measuring flowerbeds and opening seed orders, I’m waiting for the snow to melt through my pool cover and checking the price of chlorine.

That’s when I’m not thinking about stretching out on a lawn to watch bands play.

There’s reason to be excited. June’s barely two months away, and the festivals returning for 2008 are better than ever.

Some cabin-fevered folks can barely wait. LimboFest lands in Northampton, Massachusetts on April 12, with the Alchemystics headlining a day of funky beats. It’s a little early for an outdoor event, but the promoters promise a heated tent for protection from the elements.

The Strange Creek Campout, a two-day, tie-dyed delight happens May 23-24 in Greenfield, with Dead-alikes Max Creek, the bluesy Ryan Mountbleau Band, Strangefolk and local heroes the Kind Buds.

At the end of May, the Discovery Jazz Festival kicks off in Burlington. The lineup is still under construction – Marcia Ball and the New Groove Orchestra are set. Organizers hope to unveil a statue of Big Joe Burrell, a cornerstone of the Vermont music scene until his death in 2005.

June is the sweet spot, starting with the (world famous) Roots on the River gathering. This year’s “Fred Fest” again features Fred Eaglesmith leading a few different bands, along with a Lori McKenna/Mark Erelli show at the Bellows Falls Opera House, as well as Steve Forbert, Mary Gauthier, Eilen Jewell and others performing outdoors.

Meadowbrook began with a bunch of chairs in an open field. Now it’s on a lot of best venue lists, with a roof, good sound, a bar and corporate sponsor. ZZ Top (June 19) and an updated Volunteer Jam with Charlie Daniels (June 21), help welcome the bikers to the Lakes Region.

Robert Plant is touring with Alison Krauss. In the interim, her Union Station band mates miust make their own way. Dobro master Jerry Douglas swings through the area in mid-April, while “Man of Constant Sorrow” writer (and native Vermonter) Dan Tymynski headlines the four-day Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Weston beginning June 26.

Here are some things to make the wait for summer go faster:

Thursday: Spring Savories, Claremont Opera House – Piano player John Lovejoy serenades as patrons partake in an “epicurean adventure” that includes food from area restaurants and wines provided by the NH State Liquor Commission. The event, a fundraiser for the region’s most beautiful (and recently re-opened) Opera House, gets better every year.

Friday: Toots and the Maytals, Lebanon Opera House (moved to April 8, 2008) If reggae has a Hall of Fame, the first inductees would likely include this band, if for no other reason that their association with “The Harder They Come,” a film that introduced the Jamaican music to the world in the early 1970s. Though not as famous as Bob Marley, musicians like the Clash and Specials covered their songs.

Saturday: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Boccelli’s – This duo, led by Arlo’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter, was a surprise opening act for last fall’s Greg Brown show at the Opera House. Ever since, requests have poured in to bring them back. The precocious pair can play everything from pure country to foot-stomping mountain music.

Sunday: Spare Change, Canoe Club – Joe Stallsmith’s name comes up a lot in the history of area music. He fronts a few different bands; this one has an old-time feel and features some incredible picking. The three-piece – guitar, mandolin and fiddle – moves from Nashville to Texas, with a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fire up the Orange Blossom special, and enjoy some Americana.

Monday: Songwriter’s Club, Parker House – There’s a great scene in the film “Once” where a musical duo looking for financing perform their song for a banker, who responds by serenading them with one of his own (and gives them the money). Somewhere in the recesses of everyone’s mind lurks a hit. This monthly song-polishing group is run by Yellow House Media maven Dave Clark; bring your hooks, lines and stinkers, he says.

Tuesday: Gym Class Heroes, U Mass Lowell – This hip hop band made a splash with “Cupid’s Chokehold,” which pilfers Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” and mixes it up with contemporary angst, helped out nicely by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. I like the fact that they play their own instruments, a rarity in the genre. Their sense of humor is fun, and it’s pretty much bling-free – my kind of rap.

Apple’s Rhapsody?

3d_apple_logo_102.jpgThe Financial Times reported yesterday that Apple was readying a subscription-based version of iTunes. I fully expected Lefsetz to blow a gasketat the news, but thus far, he’s said nothing.

ZD Net’s post speculates that Apple will eventually get to an annual pricing structure, not the one-time forever fee (tied to an iPod purchase) mentioned in the FT story.

I’m a long time advocate of subscription services. I don’t need to own every CD under the sun, but I would like to fire up whatever song suits my mood. ZD Net’s Larry Dignan agrees:

 I’d rather have a subscription music service. I’m sick of my music. That’s at least part of the reason why I subscribe to Sirius–I’m lazy and would rather have someone just play new tunes I haven’t heard than have to go looking for them. Of course, the other primary reason for Sirius is Howard Stern, but that’s another post.

The point: Apple has what it takes to make music subscriptions the norm. In fact, Apple can make music subscriptions palatable to the masses. Music is perfect for the subscription model if done well (and Apple can do it well).

I expect the “own versus rent” fanatics will be in full dudgeon over this, however.

Local Rhythms – Crowded SXSW 2008

phoneboothstuffing.jpgI didn’t make it to Austin for South By Southwest this year. I may be the only one.

Wild Light, a chamber pop combo that met during high school in Milford, represented New Hampshire, playing a set along with four other acts from Almost Gold, the Boston indie label they recently joined.

Vermont’s Syd Straw did a showcase of songs from Pink Velour, the Weston alt-folk rocker’s first new album in 11 years. Witch, the Brattleboro heavy metal band featuring Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, played several different showcases.

Nearly 20,000 fans jammed the week-long event, which now includes a film festival and brings in more money than Texas Longhorns football games.

It keeps getting bigger every year.

Close to 1,700 bands (up from 1,400 in 2007) performed in the many bars, theatres and hotel lobbies of Austin, not to mention hundreds of others that set up on street corners and under bridges in hopes of getting noticed.

The question is, by whom?

Most of the industry types were either attending legal seminars with titles like “When Can I Shoot A File Sharer?” (OK, I made that up), or at the bar drowning in Lone Star Beer. They sure weren’t looking for bands to sign.

The sad fact is that the more people flock to Austin, the less relevant it becomes. SXSW is MySpace with a downtown, and everyone – from Van Morrison to a Gary Numan tribute band – is represented.

The Numan cover band, Airlane, was one of 170 who listed Austin as their hometown. How many, I wonder, came for SXSW in years past and couldn’t afford to leave?

It won’t change anytime soon. Eyespot.com’s David Todd, who said, “I definitely agree that 99 percent of almost any creative enterprise is not worth watching, but I think almost all of it is worth doing”, summed up the mood.

Todd may be right, but how am I supposed to locate the 1 percent that is worthwhile?

At this rate, SXSW will cross the 2,000-act threshold in a year or two. I like to drown in music as much as the next guy, but this is ridiculous.

With nothing to separate the wheat from the chaff, the crush in Austin is nothing but cacophony. The only things I really miss about not being there are the weather and the margaritas.

What’s hot close to home?

Wednesday: Tony Trischka, Green Mountain College – The avant-garde banjo player is an annual Poultney tradition. In addition to fronting Skyline, he mentored a young Bela Fleck. We take it for granted when artists like Alison Krauss or Nickel Creek engage in a twangy mash-up, without acknowledging that Trischka practically wrote the book on reinventing bluegrass. This is a long drive for some, but if you want to see a master at work, this is worth it.

Thursday: Roland Yamaguchi Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – The member of this band have been featured for as long as there’s been music at this downtown Claremont eatery. When they backed vocalist Emily Lanier, they were known as A New Kind of Blue. Now they’re the Roland Yamaguchi Band, although no one in this band is named Roland. The smooth jazz combo features Tom Caselli on keyboards, Nate Thompson playing upright bass, and the smooth guitar sounds of Larry Welker.

Friday: Celia Brothers, Middle Earth Music Hall – Singer/songwriter Phil Celia has of late been channeling Frank Sinatra. Tonight he joins his brother Perry for a night of personal songs drawn from Perry’s “Patience” and Phil’s “Songs of Men.” Joined by ace guitarist (and School of Rock professor) Tuck Stocking and bassist Eric Richardson, they’ll also play material from their forthcoming “Stockholm Street” CD, an autobiographical work that draws from Phil’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn.

Saturday: Acoustic Truffle, Salt Hill Pub – Their name comes from the Beatles song, “Savoy Truffle,” and they’ve been wowing Seacoast audiences since the mid-80’s with their blues-infused, up-tempo rock. Truffle has two incarnations; the acoustic version leaves out the drums, but keeps the energy level high on stripped-down versions of songs like “Captain Molasses” and the plaintive “Developer’s Blues,” a tune the Grateful Dead would have been proud to call their own.

Monday: Caribou, UNH (Stafford Room) – Jangly, ethereal and psychedelic are a few of the adjectives that describe this Toronto-based collective. Leader Daniel Snaith has a Ph.D. in mathematics, yet he chose instead to make music that sounds like Brian Wilson meets Moby. Snaith is to front men what Todd Rundgren is to studio albums, though – it’s his vision, with interchangeable players.

Tuesday: Joan Baez, Lebanon Opera House – The doyenne of American folk music shows no signs of slowing down, working on a new album with Steve Earle at the controls and conducting an on-stage career retrospective interview next week in Cambridge with journalist Steve Morse. I only hope I’m able to age so gracefully.

Local Rhythms – Green Again

375px-shamrocksvg.pngWhen I married a Irish-blooded girl named Patty with a March 17 birthday, I surrendered my right to question the American fascination with St. Patrick’s Day.

Still, don’t you wonder why you’ve never seen a “Kiss Me, I’m German” badge? Why isn’t everyone Mexican on Cinco de Mayo? All this green Gaelic gaiety makes little sense, but why quibble with it, particularly this year?

The beer’s great and the music even better. Why not make the first full weekend of daylight saving time a three-day affair? Make that four – many venues are doing just that.

The fun starts Friday, with Gypsy Reel at Skunk Hollow Tavern, and the Irish Rovers at Keene’s Colonial Theatre.

On Saturday, the Claremont Opera House kicks up the clover with Woods Tea Company, who are proficient in Celtic music as well as sea shanties, bluegrass and old-fashioned storytelling.

The same night, Boys of the Lough, as genuinely Irish as it gets, take the stage at Lebanon Opera House.

Lord of the Dance extends its long run at Lowell’s Memorial Auditorium on Sunday. The step dance opera, created in 1996 by Riverdance expatriate Michael Flatley, now has four separate troupes touring the world.

The serious offerings on Monday all start with a traditional Irish breakfast at sunup – Killarney in Ludlow, Strange Brew and Wild Rover in Manchester, and Salt Hill in Lebanon.

In some cases, though, that’s impossible. The Saw Doctors, who tore the house down in Lebanon last year, play at Northampton’s Calvin Theatre. Maybe the bar in front opens at 6 AM, but I doubt it.

Salt Hill has a typically full slate, with music at both locations beginning at 3:00. O’hanleigh, the fine Middlebury combo that played Lebanon last year, starts things off in Newport and then moves over to the Green to take things into the night.

The Tuohy brothers have also invited Guinness reps to hand out goodies, like a logo snowboard. At the end of the night, someone will win a trip for two to Ireland. It’s the best Irish the area’s got.

Gully Boys celebrate at Firestones, with a promise to drink while they work and keep things loose. The Quechee restaurant isn’t exactly famous for their corned beef, but hey, everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, right?

Here’s the rest of the week:

Thursday: Karan Casey, St. Anselm College – Founding member of Solas, vocalist Casey will give those seeking an even earlier start to the green weekend exactly what they need. She was born in County Waterford and schooled at Dublin University, but as a youngster she took her cues from Ella Fitzgerald. It was only when she came to NYC in 1993 that she latched on to traditional Irish music. In addition to her Solas work, she contributed to “Seal Maiden – A Celtic Musical” in 2000.

Friday: Lydia Gray, Bistro Nouveau at Eastman – The bossa nova singer surprised us with an album of pop music, including surprising choices like Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” and “In Your Eyes,” as well as a few Beatles songs tastily re-worked (my favorite is the skiffilized “Something”). Bistro is one of the better places to see Lydia and long-time accompanist Ed Eastridge, whose nimble guitar touch complements Gray’s voice like Grenache pairs with Chocolate Decadence.

Saturday: Joe D’Urso, Blow-Me-Down-Grange – A folk rocker in the mold of Petty or Springsteen continues the successful Plainfield concert series (last month’s Molly Cherington homecoming was a sellout). D’Urso has shared the stage with Springsteen, and he also chares his charitable instincts, raising money at last October’s “Empty Bowls” show in Meriden for World Hunger Year and the Claremont Food Pantry. Kansas singer-songwriter Jenn Adams opens

Sunday: Dropkick Murphys, Paradise Boston – Without a doubt, the hottest ticket in town this time of year is this band of Celtic punk rockers’ Boston area shows. Tickets for their hometown sets, at the Dorchester IBEW and Paradise, were gone in seconds. So the band scheduled two shows at Lowell’s Tsongas Arena, which holds an exponentially larger number of fans, but at press time they were sold out too. Still, if you want to look for tickets your chances are definitely better here.

Tuesday: Tift Merritt, Iron Horse – Merritt’s third album, “Another Country,” is aptly named. With each outing, the Americana chanteuse finds new directions, this time with Eagles-flavored country pop (“Something to Me”), the gospel-infused “I Know What I’m Looking For Now” and the irresistible “Broken”. Tift deserves a bigger audience; hopefully, her new hometown (New York City) and record company (Fantasy) will help deliver it.

Wednesday: Wise Rokobili & Tad Davis Open Mike, Skunk Hollow: The economy may be in recession, but there’s no shortage of opportunities for budding musicians to expose their talent. This weekly gathering in Hartland Four Corners has been around quite a while; the current hosts are sort of new. So pick up your guitar, Casio keyboard or blues harp and come join the fun.

Local Rhythms – Bring Back MTV’s Better Days

mtv_low_res.jpg

I miss Unplugged.

 

Once upon a time, before it became a halfway house for has-beens, MTV actually mattered. “M” meant “music,” and when a new episode of the occasional acoustic series hit the airwaves, I was in heaven.

 

There’s something about stripping a song down to its’ bare essence that moves my soul. I don’t mean to sound ethereal, but there’s no other way to describe it.

 

A Marc Cohn track from his third album provides a good example. The studio recording of “Lost You In the Canyon” is tricked out with cell phone beeps and jagged fuzz tones; the meaning is buried beneath.

 

Cohn is backed by a single guitar on a live version of the song released a couple of years ago. When he sings, “I can’t fix this bad connection, in the wires or the blood,” the ache of his alienation is palpable.

 

Nirvana’s “Unplugged” appearance had the same effect. Hearing the previously indecipherable lyrics of “Come as You Are” and “All Apologies” in all their naked desperation, with Kurt Cobain’s suicide still in the news, was chilling, gut wrenching.

 

Of course, as MTV devolved into self-parody, “Unplugged” followed a path much like the American automobile industry, adding tail fins, chrome and fat pipes to a form that really didn’t need fixing.

 

When Mariah Carey brought along a 20-voice choir, the show began to jump the shark.

 

It took one of my heroes, Bruce Springsteen, to send it off the rails by refusing to perform without electricity. That’s ironic, considering the great acoustic album he made a few years later, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

 

But there were still some superb “Unplugged” moments left, like Eric Clapton’s reinvention of “Layla,” the Rod Stewart/Ron Wood reunion featuring “nothing but old songs,” and Bob Dylan’s visceral set in 1995.

 

However, for each of those there was a Hootie and the Blowfish with a string quartet, or some hip-hop ego fest crowded with so many band members, there was barely room for an audience.

 

These days, if you want to see music pared down to the basic elements, you’re better off ordering DVDs from Amazon than checking the television (well, maybe the occasional PBS special or boutique HD channel).

 

A few artists still go out of their way to deliver it unadorned, like my favorite lyricist Jackson Browne, who just released his second “Solo Acoustic” CD. But mostly, it’s a memory.

 

OK, enough nostalgia – what’s new?

 

Thursday: Dartmouth Idol, Hopkins Center – The next Jordin Sparks or Taylor Hicks might be crossing the Dartmouth Green as you read this. At least that’s the premise of “Dartmouth Idol” – four women and two men facing off in a talent competition. The winner gets 500 bucks and the chance to record a two-song demo. Check out the finalists on dartmouthidol.com – they’re good, in particular the scale-climbing vocalist Kaitlyn Sheehan ’09.

 

Friday: James Hunter, Lebanon Opera House – I caught this British soul man at last year’s Green River Festival, and it’s not a stretch to say he stole the show. With a crack horn section behind him, Hunter has the silky smoothness of Sam Cooke in his prime, wrapped in a bad boy persona. Van Morrison calls him one of his favorite singers, which is no surprise – Van and James are cut from the same cloth.

 

Saturday: Session Americana, Middle Earth Music Hall – The closing of the best, make that the only, area club dedicated to music is but months away unless a buyer is found. But owner Chris Jones is going out in style with some great shows. These low-fi masters crowd around a small table, with one ambient microphone for amplification, and swap songs with abandon. Some of the best musicians in New England make up SA; collectively, they’ve worked with everyone from Morphine to Patty Griffin.

 

Sunday: Shawnn Monteiro, Center at Eastman – I plugged this excellent singer’s last area performance and misspelled her name, so no mistakes this time around. Monteiro has gorgeous phrasing, her voice wraps around a tune like syrup on ice cream; it’s that delicious. In particular, her version of “The Nearness of You” sheds new insight on an American standard.

 

Tuesday: Adrian Belew Power Trio, Iron Horse – Belew’s reputation is bolstered by stints with King Crimson, Bowie and Talking Heads. But the guitarist has made a busload of great records all his own. These days he’s working with Eric and Julie Slick, a brother and sister team he met at the real-life influence for the Jack Black film, “School of Rock.” His 1989 video, “Oh Daddy,” made me a fan.

 

Wednesday: Gillian Joy, Canoe Club – She’s a new face at Hanover’s most music-friendly club, a piano player with a solid Southern Maine following. Gillian Joy’s playing has been compared to George Winston – subtle but skilled, nuanced yet strong. Canoe Club impresario John Chapin calls her “totally promising,” which is enough for me.