North Carolina native Tift Merritt seems to find inspiration in her surroundings. Both geographically and collaboratively, where she is and whom she is with, play an important role in crafting the mood and tone of her beguiling confessionals and charismatic character sketches. Over the course of her decade-plus career, Merritt has followed her creative muse wide and far, setting up workshops in self-described “places that are hard to see and not easy to send postcards from” like Bynum, North Carolina and Marfa, Texas or jetting towards the city life and living abroad in Paris for a spell. Lately, she’s called New York City home, so naturally the Big Apple played a role in the creation of her fifth studio album, Traveling Alone.
Sketched out on the house piano at TriBeca’s City Winery and recorded in Brooklyn over an eight-day fever pitch, Traveling Alone is an eleven track collection that speaks to Merritt’s vision and outlook. Finding herself without a record label and adjusting to life in a new environment, Merritt threw caution to the wind and set out to make an album on her own terms, free of any constraint, hindrance, or orders from above: “Well, I kind of found myself alone, career-wise. This sounds like such a cliché, and this has happened to every artist in the world. But I didn’t have a label and I didn’t have a manager and I was trying to figure out how to pay for this record. And I thought, this is the moment. I have to become the person that I wanted to become when I was a little girl, right now. And I have to become the artist that I want to become right now. There’s no ‘maybe up ahead…’”
This sense of urgency led Merritt to assemble a “who’s who” of ace musicians for the album sessions. Her “dream cast” featuring Andrew Bird, Marc Ribot, Rob Burger, Eric Haywood, and John Convertino joined Merritt’s longtime collaborator Jay Brown and producer Tucker Martine and descended upon Brooklyn to flesh out these new songscapes. The resulting sound is what one would expect from a gathering of the aforementioned participants: full of lived-in warmth, yet complete with the raw and rough edges that reflect those combined years of mastery. Merritt definitely got her intended sound for this album, as the players sweep in and out of each other’s way, complementing notes when needed and stepping forth with pronounced showcases when called for.
However, for all their musical muscle, the band knows how to keep out of the way of Merritt’s voice and words. The quietly ascending acoustic notes of the opening title track slowly build up to full-blown accompaniment, mimicking the song’s deliberately climbing narrative. The steady, workmanlike playing on tracks like “Sweet Spot”, “Feeling of Beauty”, and “Too Soon To Go” alone pay back Merritt’s investment and the wheels are loosened further on the rollicking “Still Not Home” and “To Myself”. And with much of the album written on piano, it is fitting that two of the album’s most heartfelt numbers, “Small Talk Relations” (the slower tempo cousin of fan favorite “Good Hearted Man”) and “In The Way” feature her pecking away at the keys.
Merritt’s always had the wandering spirit. “You know that ache/Has grown so familiar/How many times do I gotta shoo it from my door?” she gleefully pleads in “Still Not Home”. The answer to that question proves obvious, as the narrator knows full well that the bags are packed and an adventure into the open is about to begin. Merritt herself seems to be one with the narrator and that’s encouraging for music fans because the lack of a label, a band, or a steady locale to call home are all obstacles that will not stand in the way of a musical vision fulfilled.