Heartache Is an Uphill Climb: An Interview With Tift Merritt

Photo: Alexandra Valenti

Tift Merritt opens up on the joys of motherhood, life on the road with her new daughter in tow, and what the future might hold for them both.

Tift Merritt

Stitch of the World

Label: Yep Roc
Release Date: 2017-01-27

This past year was one of great change and transition for Tift Merritt. Not only did she find herself leaving her long-time home of New York City, but also welcoming the birth of her first child, a girl, Jean, in the spring. Proving Thomas Wolfe wrong, she moved home to be closer to family, leaving New York behind to return to her North Carolinian roots, new daughter in tow.

"Having Jean is the best thing that ever happened to me and probably ever will," she said. "I feel very lucky that I have this little bright spot in this very dark year."

It's been nearly 15 years since her breakthrough recording, Bramble Rose, an album recently reissued by new label home Yep Roc, and in that time Merritt has found herself collaborating with an increasingly diverse group of musicians. From her country roots to her more progressive, traditional pop work with Simone Dinnerstein to work as a sideman for Andrew Bird and Hiss Golden Messenger, Merritt has constantly sought to expand her musical palette and, in the process, her own creative output.

"It's given me some additional confidence to hold my own in these different situations," she said. "You learn by pushing yourself to new places. And you can certainly do that by yourself, but adding someone else to the pot can really push you forward in ways you never could've anticipated. I feel like I became a much better guitar player and musician when I was in Andrew's band because I took my job as the rhythm guitar player so seriously."

And now, as working musician and mother, Merritt is perhaps most excited by the prospect of being able to share the creative world and tradition in which she operates with her daughter. Not only does Jean now join her on the road, but was also something of an active participant while still in utero. "That was interesting because the guitar would be right up against her and she would always sort of kick around," she says with a laugh. "She really enjoyed the motion of the music."

This enjoyment of music is not something Merritt feels compelled to push on her child, rather it affords her the chance to expose her daughter to the music, art and literature that she herself has loved. "What I've been trying to do when we get up in the morning is just put a really good record on," she said. "It's like, 'Oh my gosh, this is the first time you're going to hear John Coltrane!' We listened to A Love Supreme together and it blew her mind."

Having been exposed to a wide range of music by her own parents, Merritt sees the importance of offering a variety of art and culture to Jean. "You have the chance, as a parent, to show your child the wonderful things instead of the watered-down crap," she laughed. "I can't listen to the news anymore (because of all that's going on), so it's more, 'What great record can I put on for my daughter?'

"I used to think about, when I was first starting in music, just in terms of defining what I did to myself. But now I think it's even more important when you are listening to or reading something, is it appealing to the most common denominator in you or is it lifting you up? I don't want to appeal to the lowest common denominator and I certainly don't want my daughter exposed to that. So I just try to bring to her things that will lift her up."

Merritt acknowledges that, with the arrival of Jean, her priorities have shifted in more ways than just what music to play around the house, books to read and culture to consume. And while Jean does accompany her on tour these days, Merritt's own time spent on the road has seen a significant reduction. "I haven't been on the road like in the van or down in the dirty trenches," she admits, "but I have done a lot of traveling with her, just the two of us, and so far so good. She's a really good little traveler, and it's a fun way for us to spend time together."

But she does realize this may be a fleeting approach, something that she would be fine giving up for her daughter. "If this ever feels at all like I'm dragging her around on behalf of my cockeyed dream I'll stop," she indicated. "But for right now it's something that she and I can do together and she is up for the adventure. But I'm not going to tour as I did before, which was really being a road dog and that is something I can't do to her. And, honestly, as a grown woman it's probably not something that is really healthy for me either."

Yet despite this, Merritt will be hitting the road this winter and spring, albeit in an abbreviated fashion, touring behind the release of her latest -- and possibly best -- album, Stitch of the World. "Hopefully this will mean that my live shows are maybe a little rarer but higher in value," she said, before adding, "It's scary because you really have to get out there and fight for your place in the music industry these days and, jeez, I'm not going to be able to do that like I used."

In 2015, Merritt made a conscious decision to take some time off from performing. "I took a year off when I turned 40. I'd just been on the road too long and things were a wreck." This time off prompted a refocusing of her creative efforts, devoting her mornings to writing, afternoons to practicing her instrument and evenings embarking on a combination of the two. "I had a writing routine and, lyrically, that was really wonderful. So, lyrically, that's what you're seeing is getting up every day and working on my lyrics."

"Writing in the morning and caffeine really go hand-in-hand," she indicated, "so I feel like that is a great time to write and revise. As things mellow down a little bit, I move into making noise. Then after all that, when I can't get anywhere new, I just try to rehearse and play. I spend time with words and then I spend time with my instrument."

A former creative writing student at the University of North Carolina, Merritt has rightly so long been praised for her lyrical acumen. Hers are songs populated by palpable, relatable characters with a depth and resonance more in keeping with a literary tradition than that of your average singer-songwriter. "You hope and pray every single day that inspiration will hit you or that you will be listening when it does," she said. "But I believe in the elbow grease of it all as much as anything. So I get up and write sort of in a free way as long as I can before looking back and revising things."

Yet this approach can be traced to her own early influences and appreciation for the golden age of the singer-songwriter, a long-standing musical lineage and tradition of which she can confidently consider herself a member.

Indeed, there's a timelessness about the music on Stitch of the World that, much like the rest of her catalog, places Merritt in the aforementioned longstanding tradition of singer-songwriters whose material manages to transcend the era in which it was created to remain relevant weeks, months and days later. This is a concerted effort on her part to write in a way that isn't beholden to a specific moment or time not only in her own life, but within a broader pop cultural context.

"I'm really proud to be a part of the tradition of music," Merritt admits, "but the world of pop culture is always very concerned with what is of the moment, what is now. For me, I have to tether those two questions. I'm never totally consumed with what is now, but I'm also very aware of what is now for me and where I want to go now. Which is I want to be part of a tradition, but I want to bring it to a new place. I don't want to dress it up in whatever I think 2017 is supposed to be; it has to be more authentic than that. Looking backward for the sake of being retro is not substantial enough, you've got to kind of tether those two things together and bring the tradition into your world or into the moment in a way that feels real."

This approach has long informed her recorded output, but has never been quite as evident as on Stitch of the World, an album that proudly wears its lineage and influences on its sleeve. Taking her experiences with Dinnerstein, Bird and Hiss Golden Messenger, along with a restless spirit in need of new and different ways to tap into her creative expression, Merritt opted to take a slightly different approach when working up the songs that would make up the bulk of Stitch of the World.

"I think musically, I was in a couple of different places that were really beautiful and I feel like I wanted to move into a new place sonically," she said. "I was just really bored with old chord progressions or old ways of looking at an instrument. So I was working a lot with open tunings, not knowing where I was in terms of a chord structure and just playing with the space and the melody and the countermelody and trying to sort of up my guitar playing to create a different sonic world."

And with Stitch of the World, she has done just that, expanding her musical vocabulary while remaining true to her established artistic aesthetic. From the album's first single, "Dusty Old Man", it represents an artistic shift with a greater emphasis placed on the songs as a whole rather than simply lyrics with accompanying chords or vice versa. "My Boat", in particular, finds her embarking on a more socially engaged approach to her lyrics. It's an inclusive anthem that speaks volumes within our current socially divided climate. "No one will be denied on my boat/no getting ahead or falling behind on my boat," she sings, mentioning friends and her newly-expanded family along the way.

When asked about using her voice in the face of the coming administration and its culture of fear Merritt had this to say: "There are times when I feel very helpless and small -- I think we all sometimes feel like our lives don't matter or our words don't matter. And then other times I think, 'My god, this is really important to just sing about love and to sing about integrity and to sing about why compassion matters, about what's wrong and what's right and to point out joy.'

"It's really important to me in my day-to-day life right now and I'm sure that my work will reflect that and amplify that. It's an interesting thing because I feel sometimes that the world needs some protest songs, but I don't make things out of anger very well. It's a lot like navigating day-to-day life right now in that it can fill you with a lot of different emotions and it can be really disorienting, but it's really important to remember that we're certainly not the only people in the world who have lived through strange, uncertain times where we don't agree with everything that's happening. So you've got to give that a voice."

Regardless of where the coming years might see her music taking her, it's clear Merritt has contentedly found herself in a place of great happiness and maternal bliss. Assessing her career and life to this point, Merritt is quick to demure, showing her maternal shift in priorities, "I might be a mediocre musician, but I'm a really good mom and, boy, that makes me feel like a million bucks."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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