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."

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