A significant number of artists would be happy to notch two great consecutive albums. With the release of her latest, "See You on the Moon," Tift Merritt has managed to release four stone winners in a row.
She accepts with a demure, but clearly grateful "Wow, thank you so much," but perhaps holding back from self-congratulation because she's still striving for greatness from a personal perspective.
Later, Merritt apologizes for eating watermelon in the middle of the phone call. Her apology is both unassuming and sweet and indicative of her completely open personality.
Those are qualities shared by the albums she has released. From her acclaimed debut, 2002's Americana-laced "Bramble Rose" to her soulful and twangy 2004 follow-up "Tambourine" to her magnificent third album, 2008's "Another Country," Merritt has blended her unassuming sweetness with a penchant for very personal storytelling and an old-soul wisdom to create a catalog of startlingly intimate, yet beautifully universal songs.
"That's just the way I do things," says Merritt of her writing style. "I wouldn't know how to do it any other way. I'm not going to ask people to listen to things that don't matter to me. Why would it matter to them? As much as I believe in writing from such a personal, first-person point of view, I believe in songwriting, too, and I believe by the time you give something away, it becomes something of its own. It's not just about me anymore. It's not a page from my diary, it's just a picture. I don't feel any reason to hide."
"See You on the Moon" may be the pinnacle of her career to date in that regard. The album is a triumph of Merritt's emotionally invested songwriting and her band's uncanny ability to translate it into a soundtrack that perfectly matches her mood, from heartbreak to joy and every stop in between.
Between Merritt, her stellar band (husband/drummer Zeke Hutchins, guitarist Jay Brown and bassist Scott McCall), atmospheric producer Tucker Martine and guests including violinist Eyvind Kang, pedal steelist Greg Liesz and My Morning Jacket vocalist Jim James, everyone involved in making "Moon" was experiencing the best and worst life has to offer, which are documented on the album they made together.
The process of making "Moon" began with Merritt's songwriting, which took a slightly different turn from her last album, "Another Country." For that one, Merritt retreated to an apartment in Paris to contemplate her next steps after breaking with Lost Highway Records and removing herself from the touring grind. She fully intended to take a break from music entirely, but the apartment she sublet had a piano and before long, the songs started flowing spontaneously.
Although the physical process and the intent of songwriting was different between "Another Country" and "Moon," Merritt insists that the songs shared a similar evolution creatively.
"I feel like I learned so much from the time that I disappeared and wrote and made ‘Another Country,'" says Merritt. "I feel like I wanted to take that pure place and keep going with it without having to flee my life to do it. It was as simple as I had a month off from tour a couple of times, and I went away to write by myself with an idea in mind that I wanted to write on a really elemental level. I wanted to get past anything superfluous or not useful or angsty. I just wanted to be open and get right down to it and not have anything there that wasn't important. And I think we stayed with that tenet once the songs came and we went in musically. I feel like maybe hopefully the pond got deeper without us understanding it or laboring over it on this record."
It was during Merritt's second writing session that "Moon" began to reveal itself as a developing album, and she started to glean that the album was not only coming together, but might actually be about something in a larger sense.
"I came away with Feel of the World and See You on the Moon and Things That Everybody Does and maybe Six More Days of Rain," says Merritt. "I think when you're writing, the heart of the record needs to present itself and its pulse, and I feel like once I had those songs, I really knew what was going on."
Feel of the World is certainly one of the songs that defines the heart of the CD. Merritt began writing with the intent of detailing the physical things that her terminally ill grandmother might miss and as a way of coming to grips with the fact that she couldn't be with her in her final hours. The song veered down an unexpected and profoundly moving path.
"My grandmother was dying, and my father, who I'm really close to, was at her bedside," Merritt recalls. "I was thinking about the two of them and wishing I could be there and do something to help or just be present in that moment, and I guess the only way I could do that was to write about it."
"I just started thinking about my grandmother's life and the tactile things of the world that feel so good, like good paper or a good wood dinner table or the rough hewn edges of the world. I ended up writing this song and when it was finished, I realized it was really about my grandfather, who died in the '70s, reaching out to my grandmother. It was him, saying ‘I'm right here, I'm waiting for you.' It really meant a lot to me on whole bunch of different levels to be part of that interaction. I don't know exactly where that song came from, and I don't feel ownership of it. I feel like I'm a part of it, that's all."
The pain of losing her grandmother wasn't the only extreme emotion that Merritt was experiencing. On the other end of the scale, she and Hutchins were finalizing their wedding plans as were Brown and his girlfriend, while producer Martine and his girlfriend, singer/songwriter Laura Viers, were expecting their first child.
Combined with losses yet to come, these emotional peaks and valleys helped inform the decision to add two covers to the set list: '70s singer/songwriter Emmitt Rhodes' Live Till You Die and Kenny Loggins' classic Danny's Song.
"We‘ve always loved Emmitt Rhodes," says Merritt. "We had a bootleg of his album in the van when we were driving around for ‘Bramble Rose.' And not to be trite about it, but there was some living and dying going on in this record. And I always felt that to have a female singing Live Till You Die would be really different. As a singer/songwriter, it sort of sums everything up. ‘I have to say the things I feel/I have to feel the things I say.' I had a couple weeks before we went in the studio, and I was sending (Tucker) little pieces of stuff, like, ‘Do you like this? Should I try to finish it?' And he just responded so much to Live Till You Die. And when we got in there with the band. it just felt like this greasy, Big Star-ish kind of thing. Anytime we can the have the greasy stuff, we want to keep it."
Danny's Song evolved spontaneously out of a studio conversation, but was definitely tied to the emotion surrounding the sessions. Merritt was breezing around the studio in borrowed roller skates when someone made a reference to Melanie, which led to a reference about Anne Murray, which led to an unkind criticism of the Canadian pop chanteuse.
"Tucker and I were like, ‘You're crazy!'" says Merritt. "He had Danny's Song on his computer and pulled it up and played it for everybody. They we were watching YouTube of ‘Snowbird' and all this '71 footage of Anne Murray. Tucker's girlfriend Laura Viers, who's an amazing songwriter, was pregnant, and I was getting married to Zeke and Jay was getting married to his girlfriend, and we all kind of teared up at Danny's Song."
"When it wasn't our turn to do something in the studio, Jay and I figured it out and started practicing it. Tucker said, ‘Okay, you have 30 seconds to go in and sing that song on that microphone.' We thought it would be a fun outtake. And the more we played it for people, everybody was like, ‘What, are you crazy? You have to put this on the record.' By the end, there it was. It really did fit."
The thematic element to "Moon" is important to Merritt's satisfaction with the album.
"When I step back from it, I think there's a lot of the larger cycles of life in this record," says Merritt. "A lot of happy and sad things were happening at the same time; people were dying, people were getting married, people were in the midst of their lives and people were losing their lives. It seems a little arrogant to have thought, ‘Oh, we'll make a record that tackles that,' but I think we made a record that echoes it a little bit. We all lost our grandmothers and we were all getting married; the duality of that was in our subconscious. I don't know that anyone else would hear that, but I think it's that period of time to us when we look back on it."