A Q & A with Tift Merritt
by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
On her seventh studio album in 15 years, ‘Stitch of the World,’ singer/songwriter Tift Merritt has churned out another solid set of roots-infused tunes that reach backward, forward, and side to side. You see, Merritt has a lot of musical ground to cover and she does just that, from the throwback folk-country of “Dusty Old Man” to the bluesy jangle of “Proclamation Bones” to the ambient Americana of the title track. With support from Sam Beam, Jay Bellerose, Marc Ribot, and Eric Heywood, Merritt works through numerous styles and explores myriad themes, all with the deft skill and artistic insouciance listeners have come to expect from her.
Kelly McCartney: You’ve enjoyed comparisons to a lot of legendary artists and “Dusty Old Man” certainly echoes elements of early Joni Mitchell. What do you do with those sorts of comments?
Tift Merritt: I reference Bonnie Raitt’s first album as an inspiration of that track. It’s a great, breezy acoustic record recorded with some blues legends at a summer camp in north Minnesota. One of my favorite records. When people compare me to artists I look up to — it is lovely and I’m grateful. But I’m also careful to look the other way. I like being a working artist. I have my work cut out for me. I think, especially in the Internet age, there is a lot of premature referencing of people whose work has made a mark. Time tells the truth about that kind of thing, not Twitter.
You wrote and recorded this album in a several disparate locales. And you recently headed home to North Carolina. How do the different pulses of those places find their way into the songs?
Landscape had some direct influences. “Wait for Me” and “Icarus” were both inspired by the incredible high desert plains in Marfa, Texas. “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” and “Stitch of the World” were saturated with impressions from hiking the California coast. “Eastern Light” and “Something Came Over Me” are taken from the streets of New York City. I like really strong environments — nature returns me to the essentials, and the energy and people-watching in cities always gets me going, too.
Having collaborated with Andrew Bird and MC Taylor, how does stepping out of center stage feel after so many years in that spot? And, now, stepping back up front, is anything different for you?
Collaborating and being a supporting player is such a great way to learn. The spotlight is a certain kind of muscle; it is always healthy to leave it. I really love being in bands and cheering people on and witnessing how other people bring their vision to life. It returns me, always, with greater clarity to my own work and why I do what I do the way I do it! Playing with other people is also great for your chops, not just your heart.
Watching you perform recently, it struck me in very clear terms how, despite the pedestals we put them on, artists are just normal people with cool jobs. From the artist’s perspective, what are the pros and cons of a culture that fetishizes fame in the way ours does?
I don’t think I am famous, but I do think fame can be destructive, as can performing for strangers each night. Traveling too much can be very lonely. I don’t think being the center of attention is as deeply satisfying as people think it is. Doing good work is satisfying, giving of yourself is satisfying. I try not to think about the froth of what’s of the moment; I try to think about how to be a working artist throughout a lifetime. What people don’t realize is that it is very difficult to make any money as a musician these days and that is a complicated thing when you are a parent.
You aren’t overtly political in your music, but anything can be a statement, really, as in “My Boat” or “Love Soldiers On.” Do you see your role as a songwriter shifting at all to reflect the times we find ourselves in?
I did not write “My Boat” (which is based on a Raymond Carver poem) or “Love Soldiers On” for political purposes, but I certainly sing them that way now. The world has taken such a strange direction lately. I think my role as a songwriter is to remind people — myself included — of the beauty, compassion, and hope that remains in the world and help to grow that piece of ourselves in whatever way I can.
‘Stitch of the World’ is out now on Yep Roc Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com