Tift Merritt appeared on a roll after releasing "Bramble Rose" in 2002 and "Tambourine" in the summer of 2004. The North Carolina singer was among the leading lights of the so-called alt.-country crowd and attracting glowing reviews, even a Grammy nomination for best country album. But she would not have landed a role with "Where's Waldo?" because unlike the cartoon character, Merritt seemed pretty much nowhere to be found for awhile.
That is until she released her new collection of songs, "Another Country," in late February. And instead of being on the Lost Highway label where she got her start, Merritt switched over to Fantasy/Concord, the home of John Fogerty. "It's feels like a long time. It definitely feels like this record was a long time in the making and in the coming," says Merritt in a phone interview from New York City where she recently moved. The 11-song disc combines country, bluesy sounds and the voice of a French chanteuse. "I just don't want you to think I was home being lazy."
The title of the CD in this case says quite a lot. "Another Country" is not only a song on the album, but describes where Merritt has spent a chunk of her time in recent years. That other country was France, and spending time there clearly informed "Another Country."
"(With) the record industry these days, the cycle of working for a young artist is an incredible thing. We were on the road with 'Tambourine' for a year, and then I took some time off and was gearing up to going back in the studio, and by the time I did that, I was dropped," Merritt says of her Lost Highway deal. "I hate that the time passes so fast, but at the same time being on the road for a year is not all that conducive to writing good things, at least for me. I just think it's really hard to have perspective on yourself that's accurate when you're giving so much of your energy and perspective away on stage. Then everybody is being so nice to you, it's not an honest place."
With time on her heads and some breathing space needed in her head, Merritt took a break. "Kind of is not the word," says Merritt when asked if she needed a detour from her musical life. "I was feeling really burnt out. I was doing a tour in Europe. I just thought, I don't really know what's next. Everything was kind of finishing up. I'm just going to go to Paris and regroup. I thought it would be a vacation, but I ended up being really happy and feeling free and revitalized and writing away almost immediately. I had this excuse to go home, and say, 'guess what, I'm not coming home for awhile.'"
"I had been there very briefly. I love the French thing. I'm not fluent, but I speak okay. I think it's really musical language. I've always been passionate about that...I literally Googled "Paris apartment and piano,' and I found an apartment with piano in it, so (I decided) I'm going."
Starting in summer 2005, Merritt went back and forth between the U.S. and France. It was not hard for Merritt to fade into the background in Paris, which suited her just fine. "It definitely initially was an extremely anonymous situation, which was great. I knew one person. I didn't wear any make up. I pulled my hair back every day. I was just the opposite of being on stage, and I was just free of all the things. I just stepped outside my life for awhile. Not only was I anonymous in a big city, but I was just gone really (from my regular life)."
Merritt did not go to the City of Lights with the intention of writing songs. That notion did not last very long though. "It really surprised me," she says. "I had some strange instincts about it because I did rent a flat with a piano. I never felt more in life that I had nothing to say. I was really surprised when I started writing the way that I did."
Why did that happen? "I think it was a combination of powerful things. One was that France is really inspiring, and another one was that I had put my life in this wide open place that I could just give myself very fully to creativity. I had stored up all of these things when I was on tour. There's so much history and so many ghosts in Paris. It was very easy to believe in (things) that I was feeling that Paris pays attention to its intimacies and its details."
Merritt thinks she took a step forward with "Another Country," satisfied that she mixed it up musically even if some might gripe about the musical diversity. "Bramble Rose" enjoyed a country vibe, while "Tambourine" adhered to a soul/rocking sound. The new disc is softer and reverts to the country/rootsy sound, particularly in the instrumentation.
"I do agree that I took a step forward with this record and was able to emphasize a lot of different kinds of musical elements and choose something that is my own more than ever before. I really disagree that that this is record is this genre, that genre. I believe in roots music period. I don't believe in segregating the blues from country because they're the same thing. I think it's as creepy as regular segregation," she says laughing. "I think that folk and rock and soul and country are all fingers of the same hand. It's really a detrimental thing to try and say use this one and not the other one. All my favorite artists were Ray Charles and Van Morrison to Carole King did not obey the rules of genre. It's silly."
"I know that those two records ("Bramble Rose" and "Tambourine") are very different. I know that. I'm always surprised that's a bad thing or a confusing thing. I think an artist should strive to be more than the same tone over and over."
"What was really great about this record was nothing was a means to an end. The songs were very clear what they called for, which was a very natural, not overwrought, thing. If there were any sort of forward thinking of my part about that I wanted to make a sound that was unique and my own."
Merritt readily acknowledges that the sound is different from "Bramble Rose" and "Tambourine." "After being so long on the road, 'Bramble Rose' was a really quiet kind of record...'Tambourine,' was all out kind of record because I wanted to throw it all out on stage. With 'Another Country,' the material was really personal, and it wasn't ever about show business at all. I wanted the sonic quality of this record to be an invitation, to not be something that bowls you over, that did not dance in your face that this is just what I think. Will you join me? It's a bit of an extending of a hand. So, I did want a gentler sound."
"What's the point of all of this if you're not speaking in a really direct way, one singer, one song for one listener. I think that direct communication is really important."
Being personal, was it hard to put these songs out to the public? "Because I was so far away, and I wrote about my life more candidly than I ever had before because there was no one there to hear the songs, you always feel that way when you play a new song - you always feel, 'I'm just putting myself out there, and I'm making a fool out of myself.' That was definitely a scary moment."
"There was a nice sense of relief...I can't talk about my life in a way that is a journal entry that everybody knows Zeke and I have a fight when I got back from the grocery store last Tuesday," she says referring to drummer/boyfriend Zeke Hutchins. "It's not that. I do think it was really great to find going that open (road) was not really any different. It was very freeing. Nothing broke, and I didn't make a fool of myself, and everything is okay."
"My Heart is Free" is written from the perspective of a dead soldier. "I had a cousin who was killed in France in World War I. He was a young writer. I've always felt very tied to him for reasons beyond logic. Being in France, I just thought a lot about him. I think as a writer, you can't help but want to comment on the world around you in a pertinent way...but I'm not really comfortable with proclamations and angry deductions or anything like that. But from a personal standpoint, it was the most effective contribution I could make - his point of view from a dead soldier about what war must be (like)."
Not only is "Tambourine" stylistically a mix, but linguistically as well. Merritt closes with "Mille Tendresses," French for "Thousand Tendernesses." She wrote and sang the song in French. "I had my friends help me help me make sure I didn't say anything bad."
"I just noticed that anything important in life happens with really really small and tender exchanges that we have. That's where I want to live. That is where I hide myself in this world."
"It was so fun. It's hard. You feel a little bit like you did in second grade where there's something that you really want to say, and you're trying really hard, and it comes out really clunky and goofy, but I love to sing in French. I was there long enough that I was thinking in French. It just felt really natural to give it a go."
"It's great because any time you're on new territory, you're really free," says Merritt, who says she wrote the song initially in French. The liner notes contain the song in English. ("It really isn't as nice in English," says Merritt)
Not all the songs were written in France. "Keep You Happy" was penned in New York. "I was kind of going back and forth, so a lot of them were worked on in both places. Starting (a song) is such an important (thing), and finishing it is a really different kind of thing. So the things that didn't happen in France were technical...and maybe some icing on the cake, but this record was really written over there, conceived over there...the process belongs there."
Merritt moved to New York in October 2007, living in California prior to that. "Most of the people that I'm working with are in New York," says Merritt, explaining the move with Hutchins, adding, "We both love it, and we see so much music...North Carolina is our home for sure...(but) I think it's such a privilege for an artists to be where all the other artists are."
"Every time we were going home (to North Carolina), we were getting weirder, and it felt like we had two speeds in our life - on tour and not on tour...We don't have children. We have a weird schedule. We have a weird life. We belong with the bohemian new Yorkers," she says jokingly."
It wasn't always that way, of course. Born in Houston, Merritt moved to Carolina as a kid. She played small clubs in the Raleigh and Chapel Hill area. In 1999, she released a 7-song EP with country band Two Dollar Pistols.
She eventually signed with Lost Highway, an edgy wing of Universal Records based in Nashville. "Bramble Rose" received much praise, and "Tambourine," produced by George Drakoulias with help from Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers, earned a country album of the year Grammy nomination.
Life seemed good, but it didn't turn out that way at least for the short term. Lost Highway sank a chunk of money into Merritt and didn't receive the financial return. "I don't really know what was in their minds what wasn't working or what did work, but I think everything really turned out for the best. I was nominated for a Grammy. Was I disappointed (about the split from Lost Highway)? Yes. I tried my best, and I'm sure that they did too, and obviously it wasn't working."
Merritt doesn't spend all her time in music. She now has a radio show, The Spark, on a National Public Radio show in Marfa, Texas. The idea is that Merritt interviews other artists. The first four interviews of the show that premiered in January were with author Nick Hornby, poet CK Williams, painter Wolf Kahn and the bluegrass band Nickel Creek.
"I just got lonely on the road, and I wanted a way to speak to other artists and find out what was really going on in their lives and how they make their work," says Merritt, explaining the genesis of the show. "The road can be such an isolating place. I was crossing paths with interesting people, but just briefly and quickly and I couldn't get the gumption to ask them what I wanted them to ask them. I think that artists are kind of portrayed as perfectly formed geniuses. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the hard stuff and the honest part of what being an artist over a lifetime is like. I want to learn about that from other artists. I go into these not so much as a journalist, but as a student."
"I love it. It's incredible. It's wonderful. I got inspired by these other people and what they've accomplished and what they think about and how they struggle, what they think. It's just amazing, and it's so amazing to become intimate with someone else's work and someone else's life in this focused way and then to get to talk to them. It's really inspiring. It consistently shows me that life is not easy for anyone, and you have to be brave."
"I get to do whatever I want," says Merritt, adding, "It's really my little thing. I do it on my computer, and I edit it myself. It's really fun."
Close to four years is a long long time to be away in the music business, especially in this day and age where everything seems in a tizzy. Acts seem to have very little longevity. The idea of career development seems all but out the window with labels looking for the pay off now.
How does Merritt feel about finally going back into the fray? "It's always a little scary when it's suddenly out there to be judged. It doesn't matter how strong you are. You have this awareness of that. I did my part, and I don't really have any control over the rest of it. I just really keep my head down and keep working."
Merritt and her band hit Europe in May and then tour the U.S. this summer to remind music fans of her presence. "We'll be putting miles on that van," says Merritt.
And with the change in "Another Country," Merritt emphasizes the need for an artist to stay true to their muse. "I think there is a lot of temptation in the world. I don't mean to sound like a Baptist preacher or anything. I think that if you trust yourself and you have people around you who cultivate that in you and trust you too and want you to trust yourself, then it becomes very clear and very obvious. If you don't trust yourself, and you don't have people who trust your instincts either, it's really hard."
"I'm in a really good place."
"It's been a really great thing, and it's been one of those processes - you know when you're doing the right thing it gives you more energy."