Just the Elemental Essentials: An Interview with Tift Merritt

[21 June 2010]

By Michael Franco

The last time Tift Merritt spoke to PopMatters was in January of 2008, and her life—both personally and creatively—had just passed a crossroads. Having just finished recording Another Country, Merritt had also just returned from a self-imposed exile in France, where she took time to reevaluate her life and career. “Another Country was a big moment for me that was framed by some big questions,” Merritt recalls, “and I ran away.” 

In the end, the time away from home reignited her passion as an artist and resulted not only in a new album, but also a new approach to her music. Another Country sounded nothing like its predecessor, 2004’s Tambourine. Whereas that album was bold and brassy, Another Country sounded smaller, more restrained and intimate, well suited for its themes of finding happiness in simply being.

Since the release of Another Country, Merritt has experienced quite a bit. For one, she and her band spent a lot of time touring in support of that album. In addition to that, she found time to record a live album, Buckingham Solo, recorded in England in November of 2008. And if all that weren’t enough, Merritt also married her longtime collaborator and drummer, Zeke Hutchins.

If the experience in France taught Merritt anything, however, it’s to take life in stride, to keep moving forward and not fret too much. “In a funny way, it isn’t that much ground to cover,” she says, dismissing any notion that she’s had a momentous couple of years. “You can always boil down the life of a musician to touring, playing, and writing. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since then.” 
Not only has Merritt been touring, playing, and writing; she’s also found time to record the material written along the way. The result is See You on the Moon, Merritt’s fourth album of new material, and one that captures her securely within her own voice, confident and assured of the creative direction of her music.

Sonically, See You on the Moon maintains the scaled-back approach of Another Country, putting the emphasis solely and squarely on the emotions of the songs. “I wanted to take the clarity and the simplicity and the purity of the experience I had running away,” Merritt muses, “[and] use that and take what I learned and find it without running away.”

Part of finding the right sound for the album, Merritt explains, was scaling back both the instrumentation and production, thus giving the songs more space. “As a musician,” she notes, “it’s just so easy to go into the studio and go, ‘Now put more of this!  Put more of this!’  It’s so much harder to be—and so much more powerful, I think—to be more elemental and say, ‘No, we don’t want ten things. We just want the three things that are really powerful.’”

“I just wanted to make a record with more grit and more open space,” Merritt elaborates. “The main thing that I was thinking about was that I just wanted to be very direct. And I just wanted to have, you know, as little ‘blah, blah’ and as much direct, real strength as I could. And I started that while I was writing. It was sort of a conversation that I was having with myself as I was writing, like: no angst, no extra stuff that doesn’t need to be there, just the elemental essentials.”

By stripping down her new songs to just these elemental essentials, Merritt was able to not only give her new songs more space, but also more impact. Without unnecessary sonic clutter, the songs exude a naked confidence, an assertiveness that would have been buried under additional layers of instrumentation and vocals.  Organic and raw, the album sounds like a band should, like five people with nothing more than instruments creating something real.

Thematically, See You on the Moon is broader in scope than Another Country—or any of Merritt’s previous albums, for that matter.  Her songs, for example, have never ventured into the realm of social issues or steered into the existential territory of death and its implications on life—two issues Merritt addresses on the new album. If the raw grit of the album’s sound is proof of Merritt’s maturity as an artist, it’s matched by both her desire and ability to deal with the ultimate realities of life.

“After Tomorrow”, for example, is written from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the good fortune of looking forward to the future, one whose life story has been concluded before it ever really began. Merritt explains that she wrote it about youths who were destined for a life of crime—youths who, in essence, were denied by fate the chance at a normal and fulfilling life.

“I sat next to a juvenile public defender on a plane that I had known in college. We caught up and he told me all about how he was defending these children who—by the time they were 15, 16, 17 years old—were going to prison for the rest of their lives.”

“I said, ‘What do you find that these kids have in common?’ and he was telling me about their backgrounds and that a lot of these kids that he is defending… were brought up in such a horrible situation of violence and poverty and crime that they were completely running on survival instincts, for their whole lives, and they didn’t understand how to think ahead because that was just a complete luxury.”

Discussing the issue, Merritt becomes noticeably disturbed. “And I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to write something about this for people who don’t have a voice.’  And I just thought about the immediacy of not being able to think after today, together with the idea of going to jail for your whole life. Or some of them are getting the death penalty—juvenile death penalty.”

Another track that addresses the emotional impact of facing death is “Feel of the World,” a song Merritt wrote from the perspective of her paternal grandfather—whom she never knew—speaking to his ailing wife, Merritt’s grandmother. “My grandmother spent several months kind of lingering. My dad was with her, had gone out to be by her side, and she was hanging on but, in a way, she was already gone. I was in France and I was so far. Everybody said, ‘Don’t come. Just stay where you are.’  I just started to think about her and it was late at night and I wrote this song in a handful of minutes. I mean, you know, minutes.”

“When I looked down and I realized that I had written this song about her life and about life or being alive, or whatever, I just realized that this is my grandfather’s song. Not really my song—this was through his eyes. And I dreamed that night that—I had written four verses—and I dreamed that the third verse was supposed to be the bridge, so I got up and I fixed it. And I just realized that, whatever it was, it was his way of holding a hand out to her and saying, ‘Let go…  I’m waiting for you.’”

See You on the Moon, however, is not a dark album—just one that deals with the big issues of life. And just as death and injustice are part of the human condition, so are love and happiness—themes also found on the album. One of the more touching, and certainly lighter, moments on the album is Merritt’s cover of the Loggins and Messina classic, “Danny’s Song”. As she explains, the cover wasn’t planned, but resulted from a mixture of studio boredom, spontaneity, and—oddly enough—Merritt’s defense of Anne Murray’s hair.

“It was just funny because we were, as we sometimes do, playing 1970 in the studio and somebody said something about Anne Murray and her hair, or something like that. And we were like, ‘What are you talking about?  Anne Murray is cool.’ And we all pulled up these YouTubes of Anne Murray singing ‘Snowbird’ in 1971. And we were showing [my bass player] Jay Brown how cool Anne Murray is, and her version of ‘Danny’s Song’ came on.”

Merritt and her band immediately recorded the song in the wee hours of the night, unexpectedly surprised by how much they related to the song’s lyrics. “I’m 35,” says Merritt. “Everybody’s getting married and kind of getting to that point in your life where you’re like, ‘Well, I know we don’t have any money but we’re just gonna have to.’  It just takes on a whole new meaning than when you heard it on your parents’ [radio].”

Even after Merritt recorded the song, she had no intention of putting it on the album. When she played it for friends, however, she realized that, like the other tracks on See You on the Moon, her version of “Danny’s Song” was powerful in its stark simplicity. Spare and unfettered, it brings a fresh sincerity to the original. “We kept playing it for people and they were like, ‘You have to put that on the record. You have to put that on the record.’  And we were like, ‘We do, don’t we?’  And it was just this total surprise. You know this record, there’s definitely some death in there and there’s a lot of love for life and that was just this moment that fit the cycle in such a perfect way that we had to put it on there.”

However, while “Danny’s Song” might sound like an odd track on a Tift Merritt album, the biggest surprise is “Mixtape”, a track that blends classic R&B with the slightest hint of disco. As Merritt explains, it was written on a ukulele on a lark, inspired by the joy a music aficionado feels in making someone a mixtape. “I found these mixtapes and I just remembered how charged they were and how much some of that music charted my course. Like I had one friend make me a mixtape of, you know, Big Star and Alex Chilton, the Jayhawks… All that music has just become a part of me, and I was just thinking about that. I was thinking about how a playlist is really so inadequate as opposed to a mixtape because it takes seventeen days to really make a mixtape with a homemade cover that you like and that you’d give away.”

“I wrote this little riff on the ukulele and it was just… Actually, Zeke started it…  It was just this sweet little collaboration. Sometimes when you’re writing on a ukulele, you’re in a totally new land, rhythmically or melodically. When we got into the studio, we were like, ‘Oh God, this is a weird song. How do we do this?’ We wanted to keep the introversion of it. You know, making a mixtape is an introvert’s pleasure. It needed to be something that felt like, kind of little in a way, like kind of introverted and sweet.”

When asked if the song does sound a bit disco, Merritt breaks out into laughter, but concedes that it does. “We really didn’t want to play up the disco. We were like, ‘Well, you know, we can’t take it totally disco cause that definitely won’t be the introvert making the mixtape.’ We didn’t want it to ever get showboaty. And we were just kind of like, ‘Well, let’s try it. Let’s just keep Bill Withers in mind.’”

On the whole, then, See You on the Moon is easily Merritt’s most diverse and artistically mature song cycle, an LP that both perfects and expands upon the earnest Americana she has explored over the course of her career.

“I think these are songs that,” Merritt says before trailing off, searching for the right words to portray them accurately. “There’s a lot under the water that you can’t see,” she concludes. “Does that make sense?” 

Both sonically and thematically, that makes total sense.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/127081-just-the-elemental-essentials-an-interview-with-tift-merritt/