After years of traveling, a singer-songwriter finds home

Things could have turned out very differently for Tift Merritt. Five years, two albums, and one record company ago, she sat in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, hanging on five words: “And the Grammy goes to …” Her 2004 sophomore effort, Tambourine, had been nominated for Best Country Album. For a second, the Texas-born, North Carolina-reared singer-songwriter stood on the verge of country stardom. Alas, such success wasn’t to be. Merritt left the ceremony sans statuette, and in 2006 she was dropped by her Nashville record label.

As it happens, both were fortuitous events. Merritt never quite fit the traditional country mold—and now that she’s linked up with Fantasy Records, she has more leeway to explore the folk, rock, soul and pop influences that have always informed her music. She traveled to Paris in 2007 to write her new label debut, Another Country, the album that kick-started her career’s second act. It also prefaced a series of major life changes. Merritt has since moved to New York City and married longtime drummer and collaborator Zeke Hutchins—events that inspired her latest album, See You on the Moon.

Produced by Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens), the record reveals an artist settling into her sound. Merritt’s songs are honest, subtle and restrained, blending spare Americana instrumentation with slice-of-life lyrical imagery. We caught up with Merritt as she and Hutchins packed their bags for several months on the road.

You’ve written albums in Paris and North Carolina. Does location affect your writing?

I think you absorb so much of where you are. It kind of flows back through you. It’s a “no man is an island” kind of thing. I really love being isolated and away from normal running-around, day-to-day life. In North Carolina, I lived out in the country by myself. When I was in France, I was there by myself. I went off by myself to write this record, too, at least in the beginning. I really love being in a city when I’m writing, because you don’t feel quite so lonely. Everyone is living in the street all around you. You can walk around and spy on everyone and see what they’re up to and glean information from people on the street.

You play guitar and piano. Do you write on both?

I’m not very good at either one, to be totally honest, but the piano is where I usually write the most. I started this record on piano, but it has a lot more guitar and really came out more on the guitar than Another Country did, for sure. It’s a trad-e-off, back and forth. Usually when I’m writing, I’m sitting at the piano with a guitar on my lap. At a certain point, one of them takes over. And once I work it up with the band, maybe it trades off again.

What was your attitude while writing the new album?

I was at a place where I wanted to write really directly. I wanted my writing to be like a strong right punch. Very straight-ahead, just as tight, tight, tight as possible. As much as I wanted it to come out that way, I wanted the process to be angst-free. I didn’t want to put up with any nonsense from myself. I didn’t want to freak out about it. I wanted to wring all that nonsense out of my writing process, and I think the material came from that.

Did this process lead you to explore certain kinds of topics?

It did, accidentally. Having intentions when you sit down and write is such a dangerous thing. So all I was really trying to do was have an awareness of my own writing process and trying to go from there. I wanted to sit down and write and have no nonsense about it. I wasn’t saying, “I want to write an elemental record.” A lot of elemental stuff was going on around me, and I was able to funnel that through the situation. I got married. My grandmother died. Two other grandmothers of our band members died a week apart from my grandmother. It was a lot of life—different sides of the circle were opening and closing at the same time.

How was working with Tucker Martine?

I really trusted Tucker because he’s always going for an emotional, dark, rich, honest sound. I don’t tend to over-engineer. I tend to think about things more from a perspective of musical choices and parts. If I hear something I don’t think sounds right, I’ll speak up. But I trust Tucker’s engineering so much.

How has marriage changed your working relationship with Zeke?

It has affected things. We still argue about whether the song is too fast or too slow. We’re open with each other about our options. When he thinks I have a stupid idea, he’ll tell me. I like being married, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to. I wasn’t sure how it was going to make me feel. I wouldn’t have gotten married if I didn’t feel it was the right thing. It all goes back to that direct energy. Something is freed up in you. A question is answered, and it’s the right answer, and your energy can move on to something else. Where I maybe felt like I was giving up some individuality, I actually have found solid ground, more individuality, more strength.

Is it touchy to show him a song that was written about him?

I have to give Zeke credit. I don’t think he’s looking for messages about how I feel about him in my songs. He gives me so much freedom and latitude that way. It would be distracting for both of us if we were looking for something that was missing in our relationship in my songs. He knows songs are about a very particular moment. Songs are photographs, and life is a motion picture. No matter how personal my work is, it’s not a complete picture of everything. I’m not capable of that. I’m not going to retreat from the personal. There is strength and creativity in the personal, and that’s where I take my work.

Do you feel you’ve found your identity on this album?

I think that I have. I’ve always made the records I wanted to make. I’ve always been so fortunate and so lucky, and I’ve learned a whole lot, and I don’t have regrets at all. But I do feel like I know what I’m supposed to do, artistically, and it’s not really up for debate.

What was it like being nominated for a Grammy?

It was such a happy time. We drank champagne for a month straight. I think about that time in terms of the gift it gave my family and making them feel legitimate for supporting me and feeling proud for all the times it was scary. That was really special. It’s nice when your record finds that warm reception in the world. But it wasn’t a moment where we had a lot of commercial success. You just have to do what you think is right, and that’s going to take you to the right place. It’d be wonderful if that happens to us again, but that’s up to the world.

–Kenneth Partridge

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