“You Leave Having Traveled a Distance”: An Interview with Tift Merritt
One of the artists who made alt-country cool opens up about the journeys she traveled on her new record, Traveling Alone.
Ask Tift Merritt how she envisions her latest album, Traveling Alone, and she responds with a mixture of the concrete and the symbolic -- appropriate for a songwriter who has mastered the art of conveying the seemingly indescribable in specific, descriptive terms.
"I wanted this record to be a journey, for each song to be a cowboy town you kind of came into that had a particular feel and you weren’t the same when you left as you were when you got there. And I think that that kind of thing is what good art does, whether it’s a painting or a song. You arrive in one frame of mind or one place of heart and you leave having traveled a distance and having had an experience that means something to you that deepens you or changes you."
Merritt’s last three albums have all been titled after the imagery of distance and space. Another Country, See You on the Moon, Traveling Alone -- each of these titles conveys being somewhere else, somewhere far away from home, somewhere completely foreign.
Merritt insists, however, that this was not a conscious choice, that the imagery and themes emerged subconsciously. “I don’t think that I realized,” she muses, “that all of them are about distance and space. But I think you need a concrete, real-world metaphor to talk about inner life without feeling like a jerk.”
That Merritt’s songwriting so effortlessly weaves in metaphors and symbols reveals both her artistic talents and the broad base of knowledge from which they draw. Merritt, after all, stunned with her debut, 2002’s Bramble Rose, an album that helped advance alt-country from an often-forced blend of rock and country to a more natural emphasis on musical authenticity and lyrical simplicity. The critical response to that album was overwhelmingly positive, making Merritt a de facto leader of a movement that she belonged to by the sheer coincidence of having similar influences.
Merritt responded to this adoration, of course, by taking things somewhere else, somewhere different, by putting some distance between limiting expectations and artistic growth. 2004’s Tambourine saw Merritt making forays into Memphis soul, Springsteen-inspired tales of small town decay, and sultry R&B that sounded more from the sixties than the aughts. She followed this up with 2008’s Another Country and 2010’s See You on the Moon, two albums in which she proved equally at ease and adept at folk, rock, country, soul, and even disco-tinged R&B.
Yes, in the course of a decade, Merritt has traveled great artistic distances, so it’s no surprise that her latest album, Traveling Alone, captures her once again seeking out new territory. While the Americana influences remain, the sound is completely different from that of any of her previous albums. Gone are the meticulous studio calculations, the layers of instrumentation and overdubs. Instead, Merritt took her musicians into the studio and recorded the album in the space of eight days. The result is an album that fills and warms the room.
“We absolutely wanted that," Merritt says, referring to the album’s sound. “We wanted that thick, warm, deep, rich sound, like you were able to be in the room with us. And I think that when you do allow for that space, all the instruments are allowed to bloom more fully. All the musicians who are playing are very special and, on purpose, we wanted to capture that."
“Very special” is, perhaps, an understatement. For this album, Merritt put together the musical equivalent of the Olympic basketball team, recruiting a who’s-who of players and assembling them for a common goal. She began with Eric Heywood, a guitarist/pedal steel guitarist who has played with Son Volt, the Pretenders, and Ray LaMontagne. From there she recruited John Convertino, the drummer from Calexico. And then she enlisted Marc Ribot, who has recorded and performed with everyone from Tom Waits to Wilson Pickett to Allen Ginsburg to Elton John to Robert Plant to Elvis Costello -- just to name a very few. Merritt calls Ribot “kind of the best guitar player in the world".
“I wanted to surround myself with what my dream cast would look like," she explains. “I just think it was time to do that." Her reasons, however, were not only artistic, but also practical. “And I also didn’t have enough money to stay in the studio for too long”, she confesses, laughing. “So I wanted to challenge myself to hold my own with the dreamiest cast I could think of."
This isn't the first time that Merritt has found herself surrounded by an all-star cast. Ethan Johns produced her first album, George Drakoulias her second and third. On Tambourine, she was backed by the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell and Jayhawks' Gary Louris, while Charlie Sexton and Doug Pettibone traded guitar duties on Another Country. My Morning Jacket's Jim James guested on See You on the Moon and Tucker Martine -- named by Paste in 2010 as one of the 10 Best Producers of the Decade -- took over production duties. That such icons line up to support Merritt is a testament to the respect she commands in the industry.
This time around, though, Merritt was largely at the helm, mainly because she had a limited amount of time to capture her album. Without the luxury of spending countless hours adding layers and flourishes to the tracks, she set out to enlist the right people and let them do their thing -- which was to bring out the best in her songs.
"I think the great thing about this cast is their generosity, musically, and their heart. They’re so encouraging and supportive. They’re reaching so far within themselves and doing it, naturally, to get the best out of you as well. And knowing what you’re capable of deepens and grows. It’s super exciting to realize that’s happening and feel that."
When asked if guiding such a stellar cast was an intimidating experience, Merritt answers with her usual blend of modesty and confidence. "You have no choice but to trust yourself and do your best," she says after a pause. After considering the question a moment longer, she adds, "Luckily, I have been in the studio and know my way around the studio and know what I like. It’s much more a mental challenge within than anything."
Thematically, Traveling Alone is a coming-of-age album, capturing that moment in life when the rash confidence of youth gives way to the realities of time. The narrators in the songs finally have enough distance behind them to gain some perspective, to put things in some kind of meaningful context. The resulting view is not always comforting, but at least it's accurate -- unskewed by naiveté or foolhardy desire.
This reckoning with age reflects where Merritt found herself in her own life. "You go, 'Oh my God, how did this unfold so fast?'" she explains, referring to the inner crisis that comes along with the gradual fade of youth. "'How did I get here and I wasn’t even looking?'" These questions led to the unifying and overarching theme of the album.
"You know, I think I did find myself alone,” she adds. Realizing that she no longer had the luxury of endless time to become the person she has always envisioned herself being, Merritt came to an inescapable conclusion. “When I was thinking about [the theme of the album], I was thinking about, you know, I have to be a person that I respect. I have to be the person that I want to be, right now. Right now. I have to be the artist that I have always wanted to be -- right now."
Merritt knew, though, that such realizations mean nothing if not translated into meaningful, measurable action. For her, this meant no longer cutting herself any slack
-- personally or artistically.
"For me, what that meant was not letting myself off the hook and not making any excuses. Not putting it off any longer. And the kind of vigilance and discipline that we’re all capable of having, I really wanted to rededicate myself to that. I wanted to dedicate myself completely to the things that matter to me and let everything else go and I think that’s a really rewarding thing. Time can water you down and it’s totally up to you to not let that happen."
This struggle between doubt and determination was compounded by the fact that Merritt found herself without a manager or label. While this is practically a rite of passage for artists guided by the integrity of their craft, Merritt admits that the situation rattled her confidence nonetheless.
“That kind of thing happens to artists all the time and it’ll happen again and it’s part of life. You know, that’s why being a good artist is not for the faint of heart. It’s just a part of it. But, for me, it really was kind of a moment where I was like, “Maybe they just think I’m not any good.’ That does cross your mind."
Ultimately, the perspective that comes with experience did provide Merritt the wisdom to put the situation in context, to not let the doubts crush her. “[Not having a manager or label] was incidental. It was like one of the side dishes at the meal,” she explains, then laughs at the simile. Perspective also allowed Merritt to look back on her career and see the faith that her peers have placed in her talents. “I think what was interesting about it was I have had the good fortune to have people around for my career with high hopes, and that’s a gift."
Having tamed her doubts, Merritt channeled them into her music. "I think you have to ask questions that are scary to ask", she asserts, "and you cannot apologize for that and you cannot worry what anyone else thinks about your journey. I think that’s something that has always been true, but it just deepens over time. You know, maybe the belief gets sharper. There are a million ways that you can wear your experiences."
Traveling Alone, indeed, explores how one wears experiences. Each track examines the transition from the inevitable momentum of youth to the determined motivation of maturation. The narrators are standing at the junction of where the former meets the latter, wondering what it all means, trying to differentiate the real from the trivial.
In "Small Talk Relations", for example, Merritt critiques the superficiality that infects and consumes life, though she insists it's not an indictment of modern life. "All superficial things make me depressed. It’s not modern life in general. I think any age has distractions of its own kind. I don’t think that that’s a new thing or some kind of travesty of our age in particular. There are a lot of distractions and it’s easy to get distracted."
Eventually, Merritt notes, these superficial distractions become the substance of one's life, crowding out any meaningful interactions with other people. "If you’re not distracted there’s this kind of inherent loneliness or emptiness. You know, some people have small talk relations that give them a lot of energy, but to me it’s kind of taxing."
The highlight of the album, though, is "Drifting Apart", a beautifully heartbreaking duet with Andrew Bird. Rather than depicting the drama that accompanies a breakup, the song is a hauntingly rational post-mortem of a relationship that has reached a long, torturous end. Merritt describes it in similar terms: "I wanted to have this feel of one woman and one man talking to each other, sort of after anger, beyond anger, where it’s just kind of a place of spoken fact and no longer a place imbued with emotion."
Though the song works perfectly as a duet -- so perfectly that it seems it was created with that purpose in mind -- Merritt did not envision it as such. "No I didn't. I just wrote it and then I remember that I thought I should try it as a duet. I think whenever you’re thinking of speaking directly to one person it’s a nice idea to have another person speak". Bird doesn't so much speak as he soars, fluttering in a falsetto worthy of Roy Orbison.
As for the title track -- which not only offers the most focused exploration of the album's theme, but also serves as the album’s thesis -- Merritt still grapples with its layers of meaning.
"I think you could talk about it for a very long time and all of the different things that traveling alone means. I think sometimes it’s a very lonely thing. I think sometimes it’s a very independent, strong thing. I think the implication is not always…" Here Merritt trails off, perhaps pondering how an act or state of being can denote both vulnerability and strength.
In the end, Merritt sees the phrase as symbolic of navigating one’s own experiences and feelings. "I think also that traveling alone is also a metaphor for inner life, emotional life, the places that nobody sees. It’s true for any life, but it’s definitely true for the life I know best, which is my own. As you grow, what you thought mattered doesn’t really matter at all. And that’s a lovely surprise. All the noise dissipates and you just don’t really have any time for anything but the real things and the real substance. And that makes life really simple."
Perhaps, then, traveling alone isn't a solitary experience after all, but one that is universal -- maybe even, ironically, collective. Maybe the distances we all must travel are what bring us closer in the end.