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 – 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.