Tift Merritt strolls toward the Hudson River in her quiet West Village neighborhood. Having moved here just a few months earlier, the North Carolina singer-songwriter is a newcomer to this tree-lined street with a century-old bohemian heritage.
(Fantasy; US: 26 Feb 2008; UK: Available as import)
With the blase sophistication of a seasoned New Yorker, she notes the red brick compound where celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz lives and works, and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s raspberry-colored high-rise. But her face lights up with a newcomer’s awe-struck glee when she rhapsodizes about the city’s cold-weather palette or points out the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street at West 11th.
“Yeah, that’s where the Village Voice was conceived, and where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death,” Merritt says. Then she adds with a laugh, “We hope to avoid a similar fate.”
Generations of artists and performers have gravitated to New York, some to live in a cultural mecca amid the Leibovitzes and Schnabels and legends. Others come with larger-than-life dreams, the 8 million-to-1 chance of being discovered, for reinvention or escape.
Merritt’s reasons were more pragmatic than dreamy. With her third album just released (“Another Country,” on Fantasy Records, arrived Tuesday), a national tour about to start and a new monthly public-radio show, New York simply made more sense than North Carolina, her home base since childhood.
In New York, the apartment she shares with drummer Zeke Hutchins is a few minutes away from her manager’s office. She can get just about anywhere she needs to be faster from New York than Raleigh.
But there’s also the irresistible confluence of only-in-New York energy. Merritt had barely arrived when she found herself on the “I’m Not There” Bob Dylan tribute concert at the Beacon Theatre in November with Joe Henry, My Morning Jacket, Yo La Tengo and other alternative-rock stars.
“We were literally moving stuff into the apartment when we heard that a female singer had to cancel,” says Merritt, 33. “My manager called to ask, I got on the show and there was no pressure. It was great.”
The New York Times agreed, saying she had “the night’s purest voice.” Variety called her performance “the program’s most gripping.”
Of course, Merritt got plenty of love from her old hometown, especially after she earned a Grammy nomination for “Tambourine,” her 2004 album. She advanced from selling out local clubs to such prestigious engagements as opening the North Carolina Museum of Art’s summer concert season and performing with the North Carolina Symphony.
Behind the scenes, however, were struggles with her label, her manager and the industry itself. She abandoned music, went to Paris and finally found herself in the place she needed to be.
“In France, I discovered that I love writing in the city,” Merritt says. “There’s such an intensity to being in the city that matches the intensity of what you’re experiencing in your head. So you go out on the street in this haze and you’re met with an equivalent amount of energy. As opposed to going through the aisles of the grocery store down there, feeling like a freak in dreamland.”
At a small cafe near her studio apartment, Merritt settles in over coffee and croissants and talks about the decline that began, as all declines do, at the top. Her Grammy nomination, for country album of the year, felt like validation and fuel for a commercial breakthrough. But the breakthrough never came.
“The label thought the Grammy nomination was a fluke,” Merritt sighs into her coffee. “That made me feel good the first time I heard it.”
From a distance of 2 ½ years, she can see the honor’s downside. “Tambourine” (on Lost Highway Records) didn’t sound Nashville enough for country radio. Yet with Grammy branding it country, other formats ignored it. Sales stalled at 68,000 copies - 11,000 more than 2002’s “Bramble Rose,” but well short of expectations.
“The hardest part for me was feeling like I was just back in the van spinning my wheels,” she says. “I’d become more of a performer than a writer, and the focus was on just doing the same 13 songs every night, over and over. There was no way we could work any harder, but I couldn’t see that it was getting us anywhere.”
One night, Merritt poured herself a glass of wine and did a Google search on “Paris,” “apartment” and “piano.” She found a place to sublet and flew to Paris in summer 2005.
“I went off to France really thinking I might not do this anymore,” she says. “Maybe I’d teach, write novels, figure out something else. But I had not anticipated writing anything at all because I felt empty, like I had nothing to say.”
But Paris turned out to be what she needed to rediscover her voice as a writer. Listening to Merritt talk about the experience brings Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” to mind: I was a free man in Paris/I felt unfettered and alive/There was nobody calling me up for favors/And no one’s future to decide.
“France was very opposite of the show-business experience I’d been living,” Merritt says. “I was anonymous and alone. I wore no makeup, wore the same clothes every day. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was like I had a chance to catch my breath, and I suddenly went back to what I really am: a writer. It surprised me, and it was a relief. Although it wasn’t, `Everything’s OK now because this is gonna be a hit!’”
Most of the songs on “Another Country” emerged during several stays in Paris. The lyrics sound like the musings of someone in crisis, with song after song about loneliness, longing, trying to connect. “Broken,” the first single, concludes with a murmuring coda that could be the theme for the project: “I think I will break but I mend.” The title track likens love to a faraway country because sometimes you have to go a long way to find what you’re looking for.
“It became clear very early on that `Another Country’ was the umbrella this whole thing came under,” Merritt says. “I’m just following a tradition, the American expatriate in Paris. You feel that when you’re over there.”
After coffee, Merritt catches a subway for the Museum of Modern Art. On the way, a steady stream of messages trickles in via her iPhone, including one with welcome news from her manager: KGSR-FM in Austin, Texas, is playing “Broken.” Last time she couldn’t crack the playlist at this influential station.
So far, all the news about “Another Country” is good, including a four-star rave review in Paste magazine. Whether the album gets any further than “Tambourine” or “Bramble Rose” is up to the fates. But Merritt is ready to do her part.
“I’m scared about doing it, and about not doing it,” Merritt says about firing up the endless-touring cycle again. “About what will or won’t happen. I’m getting back in the van. That’s all I can say.”
With the tour looming, today might be her last chance to visit MoMA for a while. Being in New York rekindles artistic interests other than music - fiction (she studied creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill), photography and even painting. Merritt moves through galleries devoted to Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns, noting favorites. She pauses before French painter Edouard Vuillard’s “The Park,” an 1894 painting that depicts an idyllic scene in Paris.
“It’s really like this in the parks over there,” she says, smiling at the memory. “The streets and sidewalks are lined with chairs. You see people sleeping, reading, sitting with their jackets off, playing chess, even making out. It was amazing, the days over there. So much intimacy. I can sound over-the-top silly talking about it.”
In an upper-floor gallery, Merritt walks directly to “The Italians” by American abstract painter Cy Twombly. Wild marks cover the 6-by-8-foot canvas and give it the look of a graffiti wall.
“This is what a lot of his paintings are like,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a word or a piece of a phrase on this huge canvas” - such as the word “ROMA,” scrawled in the painting’s upper right corner. “It’s like he’s writing a letter. I love how the words and the paint interact, so passionate and emotional.”
Merritt’s fascination with Twombly inspired her radio show, “The Spark,” which is transmitted from the artistic outpost of Marfa, Texas. On the program, which debuted in January with author and “ambassador of goodness” Nick Hornby, Merritt talks to other artists, peer-to-peer, about their methods and inspirations. In coming shows, she interviews poet C.K. Williams, landscape painter Wolf Kahn and bluegrass trio Nickel Creek.
She would love to talk to Twombly, the man behind the complex painting that’s reduced to a clinical description in the text on the museum wall.
“This is the man, the reason why I started the radio show,” Merritt says. “He’s this 79-year-old man and I can’t find anything remotely human written about him. When I told my mentor at UNC about it, he said, `Why don’t you? He’s probably lonely in his studio.’ And I decided he was right. Young artists need to know what he thought about this, and what he sees when he looks at his work - and how his wife gets the crayon out of his shirt.”
She pauses to laugh, then turns back to the picture.
“I can’t explain why I see something of myself in this painting,” she says softly. “But I do. I could sit in front of this for days.”
In Merritt’s apartment, there’s a to-do list on the bulletin board by the door. Some of the items - “label,” “manager” and “songs recorded” - are checked off. “Paris apartment,” “finish college” and other items remain. But Merritt and Hutchins, her business partner as well as drummer and boyfriend, have accomplished amazing things over the past year.
Along with recording “Another Country,” they struck new deals with Fantasy/Concord Records - label home to John Fogerty and the late Ray Charles - and manager David Newgarden, whose clients include Robert Pollard/Guided by Voices, Cibo Matto and other rock acts. Newgarden says he hesitated to take on Merritt until he learned that she wanted to move away from country music.
Merritt was somewhat miscast as a country singer, and “Another Country” should move her into the “pop” category for good.
“I guess this album is my departure from Nashville,” she says. “Which is ironic, given the title and the fact that it’s my follow-up to a country Grammy nomination. So what do I do but go off to France during the `Freedom Fries’ period and write this. It’s going to confuse people.”
Merritt recorded the album in Los Angeles with “Tambourine” producer George Drakoulias and the core of her regular band: Hutchins, bassist Jay Brown and keyboardist Danny Eisenberg. If “Tambourine” was Merritt’s “Dusty in Memphis” blue-eyed-soul move, “Another Country” would sound at home in Laurel Canyon, somewhere between Carole King and Bonnie Raitt.
A move to Los Angeles would have made sense, given the album’s West Coast laid-back vibe. But Merritt decided New York was a better fit.
“I want to be in the real game - to take it seriously and be where it happens,” she says. “Maybe I can advocate better for myself if I can pop in on people for coffee. Somebody told me once, `Don’t go to New York to find yourself or your voice, find it somewhere else and bring it to the city.’ Which was great advice.”
She doesn’t know how long her New York sojourn will last, in part because she’ll be on the road for most of 2008. She thinks about children, and she’d like to go back to Paris and live there awhile, too.
Whatever her mailing address, there’s little doubt about where home remains.
“North Carolina is still such a huge part of our lives, it almost doesn’t matter where we live,” Merritt says. “As much as we tour, we’re never home, anyway. Six months from now, we will probably have spent more time in North Carolina than New York.”