The 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.
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.