Amongst a crowded crop of eminent Americana songwriters, Tift Merritt is a revelation.
Tift Merritt’s handmade songs have a rooted-in-the-soil vibe that’s attributable to her Southern upbringing – Tift was born and bred in North Carolina – all the while her lyrics reveal deep introspection reflecting a vagabond existence as journeywoman musician. Songwriting-wise Ms. Merritt is a marvel. She is in possession of a voice brimming with purity a yet also punctuated with a chaser of brandy- coated huskiness.
On Tift’s fifth and finest album Traveling Alone, arrangements and production are subtle and spare only serving to highlight her compelling melodies and lyrics. With a band of session superstars comprised of guitar-god Marc Ribot, pedal steel wizard Erik Heyward, and longtime co-conspirator Jay Brown on bass, the musicianship is immense, so keeping the proceedings streamlined was an accomplishment. Despite all the individual mega-talent, the band simply gel. Traveling Alone explores some universal questions and like any artist of substance, Merritt travels deep.
She greets Acoustic with the warmth of a crackling fire on this biting winter day and when she smiles, the freckles scattered on her nose are like tiny constellations. And what’s not to like about an adult who has donned roller skates in the recording studio?
Is there anything quintessentially southern about you?
Definitely. I think there are a lot of things that are southern about me. I have a real southern family; I have a sense of place about myself. Another trait is that I’m real particular. My mother had a particular way of doing things, too. I like the grittiness of the south. It has realness about it and it’s not a veneer. I like the strength of Southerners.
I read that your father was highly influential in terms of your musical upbringing. Was there one genre of music that had a profound effect on you?
My dad was into all kinds of music from Dylan to Percy Sledge to Otis Redding to Dolly Parton. He gave me Blonde on Blonde and that had a vast effect on my life. I also have a lot of first records by women like Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. I was trying to find the answers to my own questions through the work of others and those songs stay with you throughout your own life.
When you inspire glowing kudos from artists such as Emmylou Harris, is that just too surreal to process?
It is and it’s also very flattering. Emmylou is someone who, for decades, consistently broke new ground performing at such a high level. So when people tell me that people such as Emmylou Harris compliment me, I immediately think I need to go right back to the studio and that I have so much work to do to meet that excellence (laughs).
How do you summon the songwriting muse?
Well, it always helps to have a guitar in your hands (laughs).
David Crosby said the very same thing to me in these pages!
When you have the tools and that repetitive motion of playing it only helps. I love to play and practise all of the time. Mulling over the really big questions in life inspires the lyrical side.
Is songwriting a skill or a talent?
I’d imagine it’s both. I’ve tried to take up painting but I’m not able to express myself visually. This is my tableau.
Most of the aforementioned women you admire had much emotional upheaval, either growing up in abject poverty or deep loss in their personal lives in the distant past which informed their music. Yet on the face of things you seem to have experienced a charmed life in comparison…
I had a wonderful upbringing and have a wonderful husband (drummer Zeke Hutchins) and I’m very grateful for so much. Yet that doesn’t stop me from asking the big questions. Eudora Welty (writer) is someone I always admired. She didn’t have to fill her life with drama to feel and explore the topics she wrote about. We’re all making our way through life and have our own struggles.
Is Travelling Alone a metaphor for the journey that is life?
For me, it’s the journey of our inner life. When I was writing this record I tried to give that emotional journey a physical context.
What comes first, melodies or lyrics?
They have to come together for me.
Are your songs sometimes born from divine inspiration?
I think there is a lot of sacred in the quotidian, but we all do things like that every day.
Do you still write on piano first and then transfer songs onto guitar later?
There are no set rules. I mean, they do different things in your hands and bring out different qualities. So I just follow whatever comes. I think I’ve been writing a lot more on guitar lately, but when I’m really working on a song intensively I’ll often be trading back and forth on the piano and the guitar.
When you present your songs to your band are they already demoed?
For me, a demo is so static. Instead we all get in a room and make some noise and have a musical conversation. It’s fun, easy and natural. It’s up to the song to do most of the work.
I have amazing musicians surrounding me and that makes a huge difference so then the question is always whether or not the material is good enough. I think a big part of being a musician is getting out of the way of the song and it’s about the give and take. It’s never about one person. It’s about leaning into it and going in and out of the intensity. When I was in the studio I was pretty floored by what we did, but it’s not ego-driven. I feel like everyone who is on this record is kind of a minimalist, and also capable of playing with such tenderness and guts. Everyone contributed so much, and was so caring and heartfelt. It was really a family affair, a special time. Marc Ribot is my favourite guitarist, he’s incredible and it was the realisation of a dream having him there.
You worked with producer George Drakoulias on Travelling Alone and he’s known to have a strong imprint.
He focuses on the groove and I loved what he did with The Jayhawks’ You Gotta Sin To Get Saved. So it worked perfectly. I didn’t want to be given delicate treatment for this album.
Your husband is often, but not always, your drummer. How do you make it work touring and sharing a life together?
It’s hard (laughing). We’ve been together for a long time and we grew up together, encouraged each other, we’re each other’s confidante. You have to cheer the other person on, trust them. The best thing about working together is travelling together.
What inspired you to live in New York City?
I live in Manhattan and I wanted Zeke to get that Manhattan experience. I just love the energy. My life is framed in a lot of ways by my records. I look back on my first record and think I made it by the skin of my teeth. Firsts are really important to me. I also lived in Paris. It was a happy accident for which I’m very grateful.
You have a fondness for Gibson guitars. You also have a lot of holes in your B25 (Willie Nelson similarly wears down his guitars). What are your preferred tunings?
My B25 has those two holes in it from ten years of being on the road. I dig in a little when I strum, I guess, especially with the band. All my guitars have a bit of similar wear. I love old Gibsons from the 60s – they are great strumming guitars, warm and rich and just right for playing rhythm. The fretboards are also pretty thin and I have small hands so it just suits me. I have my red B25 1969 (aka Little Red) which is my go to guitar. I also have a 3/4 B25 1963 high-strung that I write with, and wrote most of Traveling Alone on. I love the high-strung strings. I have a 1971 J-45 which is a back up guitar and I have also borrowed a 60s F20 which I put in DADDF#D for Traveling Alone.
What do you derive from hosting your radio show / podcast, The Spark?
I love learning from other artists – people who are usually making their own way with unique work are usually also making very unique lives. For instance, Roseanne Cash told me that when she transitions from art to real life and feels lost, she relies on her manners as a bridge back. The painter Anna Schuleit told me that handwriting inspires her to make a mark that is personal, as little as we use handwriting nowadays. Composer Richard Einhorn told me that you have to keep your life in order and free from drama to have the energy to make great work. All these people wrestle with the same questions I do and bring their own insight to them. I think it is important to collect those thoughts.
When you’re not making music what do you enjoy?
I make guitar straps out of vintage French ribbon. I have a ribbon fetish (laughs).
Listen to Tift’s radio podcasts here: www.marfaspark.com/note4.htm Tift’s fifth album Traveling Alone is out now.