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.

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.