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Tift Merritt rocks the soul with a "Tambourine"

By Brian Baker, September 2004

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"I love that record," Merritt says emphatically of "Bramble Rose." "You go into the studio to make your first big release, and you've been playing in bars your whole life, it's easy to get a case of 'I must make something important. I must be a serious artist.' Honestly, I think my live shows have gotten louder and louder as I've gone along."

Given the sonic genesis of Merritt's live presence, coupled with her recent listening habits, the outgoing boldness of "Tambourine" was a foregone conclusion. There was little doubt in Merritt's mind, as she began to assemble the songs that would comprise her second album, that this record would be very different from its predecessor, which had its own fascinating timeline.

Merritt and her band, the Carbines, had been wowing locals in the Raleigh, N.C. scene for some time when fellow scenester Ryan Adams asked his friends at Lost Highway Records to come have a listen for themselves.

Adams and Merritt shared a management company, and Merritt had opened for Adams on a number of occasions, giving him a front row seat for her quickly evolving live performances.

Lost Highway clearly saw Merritt's potential, signed her and hustled her into the studio to begin work on "Bramble Rose," released in the summer of 2002 to almost universally positive acclaim.

As the extensive tour for "Bramble Rose" wound down and Merritt began contemplating the direction for her next album, the one thing she knew would remain unchanged was her writing process. Merritt readily admits that she is not one to spontaneously toss off songs in the studio while in the midst of recording an album.

"I don't write on the fly," says Merritt. "It's probably immaturity or something in me, but I revise, I erase, I crumple up papers and throw them away, and no one has that much time in the studio. We went in with our work cut out for us."

One of the biggest departures was in the physical make-up of Merritt's accompaniment on the "Tambourine" sessions. Rather than relying on the Carbines again (who were in something of a state of flux during the making of "Tambourine"), Merritt and legendary producer George Drakoulias (whose board work includes the Jayhawks, the Black Crowes and Tom Petty) enlisted the help of some high powered musical talent to serve as the Tambourine band, including Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and stellar band/session drummer Don Heffington, with musical cameos from the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, steel guitar sensation Robert Randolph and Merritt's personal hero, vocalist Maria McKee.

Although Merritt is quick to spread plenty of credit around for the way "Tambourine" turned out, she reserves special honors for Drakoulias, who made an impression on the teenaged Merritt when she heard and loved the Black Crowes' records and McKee's "You Got to Sin to Get Saved."

"George Drakoulias is just a really special person, and he has such an amazing feel," says Merritt with genuine affection. "He's an artist. I'd wanted to work with him for years. I felt really comfortable with his judgment on what the take is or what your performance is and getting it right. When there's so much pressure and lots of people standing around and wanting it to be finished and good enough, he's someone who brings everyone to the next place."

Merritt's admission that Drakoulias was on her radar as a potential producer seems somewhat surprising, given his track record as a big rock producer, but she knew instinctively what he could bring to her sound.

"He's done so much great roots music," says Merritt of Drakoulias. "I knew I wanted to work with him when I heard 'You Got to Sin to Get Saved' when it came out, when I was 19 years old. I know that sounds crazy, but I held that record in my hand and said, 'That's who I want to work with.' And I don't do that kind of thing often, but I had this weird sense. He also has an affinity for being soulful in a way that has a lot of energy. His records have a lot of joy in them. So that was something I knew he could help me with."

Merritt was obviously affected by all of the incredible talent that she worked with on "Tambourine," but she's naturally awed by McKee's input.

"Her voice is unreal, it is just awesome," says Merritt. "She's just so vivacious and fun to be around. You know, it's a scary thing to meet the people that you look up to. It's something that changes you, for sure. I think she's wonderful."

Of course, McKee was just one of the potentially intimidating musicians involved in "Tambourine," and Merritt was equally awed by their presences as well.

"I certainly had times on this record, working with George and Mike Campbell and Jim Scott, who's amazing, and Gary Louris and Maria McKee, and I'd be standing there going, 'What am I doing in this room with these people?' The grounding force that I keep in this crazy business and in any of these situations where I want to run out the back door is that these are songs that I wrote. They're not perfect songs. They're not the only songs, but these are my songs. And if these people have chosen to be a part of that, then I guess it's okay."

With all of the incredible talent involved in the making of "Tambourine," it would have been understandable if Merritt had taken a moment to bask in the glory of having so many respected musicians taking a very real interest in her work. To her credit, Merritt is not one to let the trappings of the industry inflate her ego beyond her ability to get her head through the door.

"It's always such a dangerous thing to make yourself too comfortable," she says with an infectious laugh. "But I certainly had a good time at the party."

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