I Felt Like Another Country Myself: An Interview with Tift Merritt
PopMatters talks to Merritt in a revealing and engrossing discussion. She gives insight into her art, her career, and how the two are sometimes at odds with one another.
With the release of her last album, 2004's Tambourine, Tift Merritt was poised to become an established musical act. No, she was never on the verge of selling millions of albums and gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, but she was within striking distance of something more meaningful for an artist who puts artistic integrity above everything else. Like fellow Americana artist Lucinda Williams, Merritt was on the brink of becoming that rarest type of singer/songwriter -- the kind who remains just underground enough to retain her credibility but is also admired by everyone with any taste whatsoever.
Just a couple of years earlier, Merritt had released her debut album, Bramble Rose, and while it was critically adored, it did little to move her outside of the alt-country category that she was shoved into from the outset. By contrast, Tambourine was a daring display of musical knowledge. Moving effortlessly from genre to genre, Merritt proved that -- at their roots -- country, folk, rock, and blues have few discernible differences. She was also working with some of the best players in the game: Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, and producer George Drakoulias.
Hence, when Tambourine came out, the critics were unanimously impressed. Eventually, the album went on to earn a nomination for Country Album of the Year, and while she didn't take home the award, Merritt had already made her point. And yet, despite all the critical accolades, despite all the fan enthusiasm on the road, despite being recognized by that most mainstream of bodies that only acknowledges true artists when their output will not be denied, Tift Merritt found herself pretty much right where she started -- still on the cusp of something bigger, but not quite there. Worse, all the praise from critics and fans alike didn't translate into lucrative sales and Merritt's label, Lost Highway, decided to cut her from their roster.
In the end, however, everything worked out for the best. After touring Tambourine relentlessly, Merritt found herself in Paris, where she planned to take a brief timeout. Instead, she found herself rediscovering her passion for life -- and music. Thankfully, the flat that Merritt rented was furnished with a piano, and as the everyday joys of life revealed themselves to her, she began writing new songs. Unlike those on Tambourine, these songs were less brassy and more intimate. Chronicling Merritt's journey into self-discovery after the dissent into disillusion, the tracks coalesced into Another Country, her third album.
Now signed to Fantasy, Merritt is finally where she wants to be in her career. No longer thinking about her art in terms of career moves, she's making music that reflects where she's at in her life. Indeed, while Tambourine was bold in its sonic scope, Another Country is easily Merritt's bravest album. A much quieter affair, it reveals so much more about her as a person. Lyrically and musically, it also shows that being subdued can be a powerful statement. Recently, Merritt also began hosting her own radio program, The Spark, in which she interviews artists to discover their everyday lives and rituals. As evidenced by her interviews with these artists, Merritt is intrigued by the process of creation, both in terms of how it happens and what it means for living and surviving.
PopMatters recently talked to Merritt, and the discussion was both revealing and engrossing. During the conversation, she gave insight into her art, her career, and how the two are sometimes at odds with one another.
What happened with Lost Highway?
They dropped me.
They dropped you?
I read online that you two had "parted ways".
That's the polite way of saying... (breaks into nervous laughter) "They dropped me!"
That surprises me because they're known as a label that fosters true artists, particularly Americana artists, and your last album was critically praised all around. You were even nominated for a Grammy, and then you got dropped? How do you reconcile that as an artist?
You know, I think it... (pauses) Gosh, I could say so many things to this question! You know... How I reconciled this as an artist is that I really think everything worked out for the best. At the end of the day, I just didn't make them enough money. (long pause)
Yeah, I'm here. (laughs) I'm trying to be really good!
No, I understand that you are being careful about what you say.
I do think, in the end, I had these songs, and that if that wasn't the right place to put them, then I'm really glad that I didn't put them there. I think everything really does work out for the best.
What effect, if any, did that have on your new album? I know you went to Paris, and from what I could gather from reading, it sounded like you were tired and you were going there to retreat and recover.
Well, what was kind of lucky about the way everything happened was that I took this time off and started writing. And I was so tired and burnt out that I really didn't think that I was going to write anything. I was just going to go to France and hang out and take a vacation, and then I ended up staying. I was tired enough that I was kind of like, "Maybe this isn't what I should do anymore." And then I just ... sort of accidentally, all these songs came. And I had this really wonderful time being in France and drinking good coffee and getting lost in the streets and really not taking anything about day-to-day life for granted -- and writing about that, too. I was so happy, and I think that that period of time really nurtured me to an extent that, when I came home, these songs -- I knew I had to take care of them, and they kind of took care of me. So, musically it didn't really end up affecting the album very much at all, except that I just had to have this quiet confidence to see everything through.
I'm surprised you said that you were so tired that you actually thought about quitting. Was that really an option on the table at the time?
Yeah, it really was. I think it came from performing so much and I felt a little bit like a monkey. And I felt kind of silly. At some point you're like, "Wow, I'm getting up on stage and dancing around. That's kind of stupid." (laughs) And I just thought that it takes a certain amount of tunnel vision to build a career at this point, where it's kind of all you, all the time. That's not the place I come from as a writer. It's not what I'm interested in in terms of making work. So I just thought, "Maybe I can just be a teacher, write things, find another way to be an artist..." But that definitely didn't stay on the table very long because I knew once these songs kind of came around, and once I was really sitting at the piano, I was like, "You know what? That's silly, too. I have to go back and make things right and make this record."
When I was listening to you interview Nick Hornby [on The Spark], he said something to the effect that he could never not be a writer because that's just what he does, and even if he didn't publish books, he'd still do it. Did you find that that's true in your case -- that you couldn't walk away from music even if you wanted to?
Exactly! And I'm thinking, "Oh shit!" (laughs) At the same time, a lot of what I felt at the time was really just empty, and I was so surprised that I had something to say, because I really didn't think that I did. I was sooo relieved that I was actually still an artist. It was really a nice surprise.
Did you ever find that, by doing what you love for a living, that you had somehow tainted it? That it somehow wasn't a passion anymore?
I felt like ... I can't quite say that it wasn't a passion. Maybe performing wasn't a passion. You know, music is like a really sacred, awesome thing. That first 45 minutes to two hours that you're on stage spending time with music every night is always really great. But that's like two hours a day. Most of what you're doing is like waiting at a bus stop. (laughs) I think that there are a lot of things that come along with being a musician, but I don't want to whine about them. I don't want to complain about my job. What kind of scared me is that I think it changed my point of view as a writer. My point of view as a writer has to be a lot more ego-less than just like being some performer on stage with a hairdo. And I really kind of felt like being on the road in this way was a really limited point of view, and I just needed to get outside of that to make the balance right, I guess.
Your new album is titled Another Country, which means so many things. For one, you're usually described as a country artist, though you're so much more than that...
I'm always kind of surprised how much I'm associated with country music.
Yeah, you're not a country artist in any pop or mainstream sense at all. So the title seems to me a reference that you're getting away from that tag, and also that you went to Paris to write this batch of songs. It also seems to me, though, a much deeper metaphor in that you had to remove yourself and go somewhere else emotionally.
Yeah, absolutely. I got kind of carried away thinking about it all writing that song. The part that resonates the most with me is that I started thinking a lot about how different these other countries are from each other, and then I started thinking about people as other countries and how far apart people can be to each other, and then I felt like another country myself. And then I started to think about how there's a country within where we live and then there's this physical country around us where we live. Just the distances that are hard to cross when life gets off track or really complicated. I did think some about getting to this other place where things would work and there was some irony that I had been nominated for this country album Grammy and I was now in France in "Freedom Fry" time.
(joking) You traitor! How can you call yourself an American artist when you're composing in Paris?
You know, [the title of the album] just seems to resonate on a lot of different levels. But, you know, I just went to this other country and discovered this new place within myself which was probably the most literal and unimaginative version of it, but kind of really true.
I'm intrigued by the song "I Know What I'm Looking for Now" because it is about your retreat to Paris and what it taught you about yourself. The lyrics, though, while telling so much, leave so much to be deciphered. Was there something in Paris you found that you were searching for?
I wish there was this, like, "I know what I'm looking for now" in three words, you know? But I think what I did find was a lot of very, very, very small things in France made me very, very happy. And it was such a thrill to just go and buy coffee and send my mail out and have an exchange with somebody on the street in another language and speak to them with my eyes or we'd speak in a way that we'd have to if we couldn't to speak to each other in words. Just all these everyday, little exchanges. You couldn't take any of them for granted. In fact, it was like this really wonderful adventure. So I think what I found is that everyday life is a pretty magical adventure if you let it be.
If you allow yourself to see it?
Yeah, and it's not the easiest thing. I wish every day was as magical as those, but it's hard. But I think that is what I'm looking for -- I'm looking for that place where you forget about taking life for granted. If you just see how awesome this little tiny things are, and that they really add up to something. And you don't have to put your finger on them to see what they add up to, but they make you feel really good.
One thing I also noticed about this album is that the sound is vastly different from Tambourine. Tambourine hopped from genre to genre, and it was like a tour of Americana. Another Country is more reigned in, intimate, and quiet. Was that a conscious decision or just a product of the environment?
No, it really was. I just had kind of had it with that showbiz kind of look-at-me thing. Not that that's what Tambourine was, but Tambourine is a really in-your-face kind of record and a really direct record, sonically. And with this one I just wanted to invite people. I wanted to have a direct sense of intimate communication that didn't point to somebody in the face and say, "Listen to this," but more like extend a hand. I think that's just where I was coming from with these songs. They just kind of are what they are. They're not trying to convince anyone of anything. They're more like inviting you in. So I felt that it would be wrong to put them in too flashy of a sonic dress.
The lyrics are also more personal. On Tambourine, you did write about personal topics, such as love, but these lyrics are closer.
They're a little less oblique this time, I guess. They're a little more transparent. I always think, "My work is always personal and there's always something of myself in there," which is true, but this time I was writing without any sort of consciousness of an audience or a label or the radio or anything. I just didn't even think about how much I was putting myself out there more maybe than I had before because it was just coming from myself.
Looking back, did all of your experiences between the last album and this one give you some freedom to do some things that maybe you were too self-conscious to do before?
I don't know that I would say that. Is it okay if I don't say that? Let me put it a different way. I always thought that it was self-indulgent to ... Well, I don't know. I'm sure it's ... You know, nothing broke when I ... Can I think one second? (laughs)
Uh huh. Sure.
I think France kind of did that for me. In a way Tambourine kind of gave me that gift, too. It was well-received and it kind of allowed me to just kind of go where I wanted afterwards, which was really nice, too. But I think mostly it was taking this really direct step outside of my life and what I thought it should be. The things that I were writing in France, they were about... (pauses) Now I'm not making any sense. But yeah, a wall definitely came down, and probably without me really thinking about it, which was really nice.
Do you normally write at the piano?
Yeah. I write with the guitar at the piano, with the guitar in my lap. But I always like to write most on the piano. You know, it's kind of a rare thing to have a piano on tour, so it's kind of like icing when I get to sit at the piano and write.
How is it writing a follow-up to an album that is so well-received? Is that in the back of your head as you're writing new songs?
You know, it probably would have been in the past but it never entered my mind when I was in France because I didn't know what I was doing. I was just, like, kind of making little things every day. So I think if maybe I had been in the States and had been more plugged into the industry then maybe [that would have been in the back of my mind]. But it was just this wonderful, nice accident that happened. This record kind of came about on its own.
I have to ask -- what's it like, on your second album, to be playing with Gary Louris, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench?
I know! It's crazy, right? It was crazy! It was really funny because that record, in so many ways, was so many dreams of mine come true. I had always wanted to work with George [Drakoulias], I had always wanted to sing with Gary Louris, I always thought Mike Campbell was the coolest guitar player. All of sudden, that stuff happened. It's just so kind of ironic the things that happened after that. (laughs)
I just can't even imagine.
It was really magical. I pinched myself a lot.
And you're playing with Charlie Sexton and Doug Pettibone -- just a who's-who of people you'd want to play with.
Yeah, and I've really been lucky that way.
In the song "Another Country" you say that "Love is another country / And I want to go". What were you trying to convey when you wrote that? That, to me, says so much by omission.
I mean ... I definitely felt far away from love and I felt like it was this place I hadn't gotten to yet. And I wanted to get there and didn't know how.
That song just floors me when I listen to it. It's a beautiful song.
Regarding your radio program...
Was that a good enough answer? Is that a good answer for that?
No, no, no ... I mean, yeah. It absolutely is. It absolutely is. That's a whole other question -- what the author intends and what the listener gets out of a song.
I spent so much time getting lost in that metaphor and kind of boiling it down to something really simple. But it's not so easy for me to talk about in a clear way because I've already kind of gone those distances and said a lot!
That's why I like the song so much. It says so much without actually saying it, and it's open to the listener's interpretation. There's so many levels to it, and that's what I think makes a good lyric.
It's so funny. I interviewed -- this is a good transition into the radio show -- I interviewed Wolf Kahn, the painter, and he was saying that if there's not ten times more going in your painting than you even know is going on, then you're not a painter. And I said, "How can you trust if it's going on?" and he said, "If you've poured yourself in intensely and opened yourself up enough, you can trust that will be there, but more has to be there than you know is going on," which I think is lovely.
Yeah, it is. And the same thing happens with any art form.
That reminds me of Springsteen's new album, and I know you're a fan of Springsteen...
On the song "Long Walk Home", when he sings, "It's gonna be a long walk home / Hey, pretty darling, don't wait up for me," I'm thinking, "Good lord, he just summed up the last eight years of our nation in two lines!"
I know! I got the chills when you just said that. And then the song from Dylan's Time Out of Mind that says, "It's not dark yet..."
"But it's getting there!"
(in awe) Yeah.
Exactly. And that lyric of yours -- "Love is another country / And I want to go" -- that struck me the same way. It says a whole lot by omission.
Well, you know, I really think songwriting is pretty much about editing. You know?
Elaborate on that.
Early on, I used to write short stories, and then I'd try to write a song, and then I'd try to write a poem all about the same thing. Some things needed a lot of sentences, and some things didn't. And it seems like in a song you've got about three sentences to tell a story. Now the story has about five hundred sentences, but you have to pick out the right three that are going to take the listener, you know, assure the listener of the right things. And everything else is superfluous.
It's almost like writing poetry.
I guess so. I feel like the poets are ... that they're better than me. But I do think it's a question of you give them this piece of information, then this piece of information, then this piece of information. And there's a lot more information you could give them, [but you don't].
Alexander Pope once said that poetry is what was often thought, but never so well expressed. I think that's truly the definition of a poem, but also the defining characteristic of a great lyric. When you hear a lyric and think, "Ah! I've often thought that, but there's no way I could express it that way," then you have a great lyric.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! That's how I feel if I know I've written something good: "That is what I meant to say. I couldn't say it [at first]; it wasn't an easy thing, but that is what I meant to say." And it reminds me of how difficult it is to say what you really mean to say.
That's why I like Lucinda Williams.
She'll just describe something that's in the room and it's profound.
And then you're like, "I knew that, but I didn't know that."
Exactly. You didn't think of it in that context.
Back to your radio show. What is the concept behind The Spark? You're an artist interviewing other artists. Is that the concept?
Well, the concept is that we meet the real people behind great works of art. And I have to learn about how they really live and how they really make their work and how they keep their fire and keep their integrity. And so it's kind of about the mundane and ordinary things about being an artist. And there are so many reasons why I started The Spark and why I love The Spark. Part of it was that I was lonely on the road, and now I get to have an excuse to go talk to the people I admire and talk about what makes them kick, and learn from them. The other thing is that I think that we hear so much about artists or public figures when they're all made up and they're all presentable and this is their work that's finished and here's the spotlight and here's the haute couture clothes that they wear. And that doesn't interest me very much. I really think it's important to know the human things about these people and to know that they struggle through things and they endure things and they doubt themselves and they have messy lives, but their work isn't some fully-formed thing that jumps out of their heads between ten and noon on Tuesday morning.
Yeah, I was intrigued about what Hornby said, that he didn't start writing until he was 25 and he felt like a burden on his friends.
Yeah! I know!
You wouldn't think that Hornby would have that moment. You'd think that he was always brilliant.
Exactly. I think we're so obsessed in our society with this celebrity thing and being perfect and I just don't think that's the kind of thing that makes real ... or what all that stuff has to say. I really fell in love with this painter. I don't know why his work was speaking to me so loudly, but I was really moved by his work and I tried to go see more of his paintings and I tried to read books about him and I tried to read find things online, but all I could find was gobbledygook. I couldn't do anything like that and I thought, "Well, you know what? I want to know how his wife gets the paint out of his shirts, what he's fascinated with, or what his routine is." A young painter really needs to know that. If they can only find this goobledygook about him and they can never find anything human about him, how will they see themselves in him? How will they stop thinking that geniuses are born and not made, because it's really the other way around?
How do you prepare for an interview? You're used to being on the other side; how do you switch chairs and prepare?
The main thing I do is I try to follow my own natural curiosity about it. But the other thing I do is that I really study their work. And I really try to understand their point of view or what they're getting at. I'm not saying I get it right, but I try to. So for Nick Hornby I tried to have some facts about his life but mostly I read his books. And when I interviewed this poet C.K. Williams, I really studied his work. And I usually try to talk to at least one person who is more knowledgeable about this person than me to check my instincts to make sure I'm on the right track. But I'm really trying to figure out what I can learn from these people or what they have to say. So mostly it's about just really studying their work.
It is a daunting task preparing for an interview. It's fun, but challenging.
It is. I can only interview a novelist like once a year! (laughs)
When I was listening to The Spark ... Do you listen to Terry Gross? You have a little of her cadence in your phrasing.
Did I? (shrieks and laughs) Oh she would ... she would really debate that. But I do -- I love Terry Gross. I love NPR. I really do love NPR. I keep NPR on so often. Because sometimes when I listen to music I get all riled up, so sometimes I just listen to NPR and kind of keep up on my politics.
Where do you go from here? You've had critical success and now you've made a personal album and you're embarking on a tour. Where now? Or do you even think about it?
You know, the first thing is that I have to take care of this record and tour this record, and see that through, and I think that's going to take a while. So that's the first thing. I'm hoping it's going to take a while! (laughs) It might be done quicker than I wanted. But then, I don't quite know yet. I keep thinking about what country I should go to next.
Yeah! Surfing in Costa Rica. I do hope it's good honest work that I can respect. I would say a painter, but I suck at it.
Hey, you never know. You can always be an abstract expressionist. Bring it back.