The TX-born, NC-bred, Brooklyn-based songwriter shares a few thoughts on the collaborations that resulted in Traveling Alone.
BY MICHAEL BERICK
As the title of her Yep Roc full-length debut suggests, Tift Merritt is something of a wandering soul. Throughout Traveling Alone she sings about people searching for a place to call their own. In separate songs, she describes people who have “a taste for traveling alone,” “driving without destination,” and waking “on this foreign shore,” while admitting “I’m still not home.”
It’s not like hopefulness is absent here, however. In “To Myself,” Merritt confides that “I want you to myself…you know I want you to stay.” And a sense of optimism grows in the following tune, “In My Way,” when she asserts, “One day I’ll never be lonely/Oh yeah, it will be something.”
These feelings of seeking and finding happiness are wonderfully encapsulated in “Sweet Spot.” This superb, and central, track reveals not only her lyrical themes, but also exemplifies the musical “sweet spot” Merritt and producer Tucker Martine, who also helmed her last album, See You On The Moon, achieve here. Making excellent use of a stellar supporting cast (guitarist Mark Ribot, pedal steel player Eric Haywood, drummer John Convertino, bassist Jay Brown and keyboardist Rob Burger), Merritt and Martine craft a captivating sound that is warmly organic yet embellished with subtly vibrant sonic textures. For example, Ribot’s forceful but never florid playing (check out “Still Not Home”) particularly fortifies Merritt’s bittersweet Americana.
Merritt’s alluring twang-soul vocals — laid-back, lilting and lightly bruised—suggest at times Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement, and she hits an additional high point during a duet with Andrew Bird, who plays a Roy Orbison-like role on “Drifting Apart.” Throughout the disc, Merritt sounds relaxed and confident which nicely balances the sense of uncertainty that her lyrics hold. Filled with straight-from-the-heart vocals, emotionally honest lyrics and sophisticated roots-based arrangements, Traveling Alone recalls Harris’ landmark Wrecking Ball — and stands as Merritt’s long-awaited breakthrough album.
Blurt: How did Traveling Alone come about? Did you have a set of songs already or did the songs evolve more during the recording?
TIFT MERRITT: This album started out as a tiny seed that had no idea what it was going to be. I think you have to start writing without a destination in mind. That’s much more honest. I’d rather let the work speak and announce itself.
At a certain point, I knew I wanted to make a record live off the floor with a really great cast around me, in part because I didn’t have a ton of cash on hand and mostly because that is what is most interesting to me right now as a musician – performance, being in the moment, not hiding, not prettying things up. I wanted to try to hold my own that way. (I never go into the studio without a lot of songs in my pocket. I do think you need to leave a room for magic, but writing is something I don’t do off the cuff.)
Was there one song in particular that served as a jumping off point for the album?
“Sweet Spot” was something of a declaration of purpose. Though there are times where reaching and stretching are very important creatively, but this wasn’t that moment. I wanted to make a record that was very comfortable in its own skin, raw and real. And have that be enough. Then at some point, I wrote Traveling Alone, I thought ok, I think I know where I’m going now. Things came into focus.
Did you have specific objectives when you went in to record these songs or did you go in open to where the sessions would take you?
There’s always a leap of faith that you have to take wholeheartedly. We had 8 days. I wanted to make a performance record. I wanted to create a world where the listener felt like they were in the room with us and overhearing a really special moment. I wanted to have really special people around me. I wanted to not try too hard, feel very real and comfortable. That was our plan and we kept to it. The rest was up to the moment.
This is your second straight album with Tucker Martine as producer; what did you like from See You On The Moon that you wanted to continue and what new directions did you want to explore?
Tucker brings out the best in people – he is gentle and kind and lovely. He really paid attention to my demos. I’m not sure anyone had ever done that for me before so lovingly. This time we had the limitation of time and the point of view of making a performance record. With Moon, we wanted to build out from a guitar, not immediately assume that a song called out for a band treatment.
The music has a very interesting sound that mixed spare qualities with sonic textures? Was that something you wanted or something that resulted in your collaboration with Tucker Martine and the backing musicians?
There were a lot of great tones going on and a lot of respect for open space. The open space was like a member of the band. There was some heavy duty listening going on from everyone —
What did the other musicians – like Marc Ribot, Jay Brown, Andrew Bird, John Convertino and Eric Heywood – bring to the recording?
It’s hard to put it into words how much they brought. Everyone played with so much heart and you can hear that on the recording. They listened so deeply. They really gave of themselves. The feeling, the groove, the open space. They met me where I was trying to go and took it all even further. I can’t thank them enough for that. It is a truly extraordinary group of folks. The sonic world would not have been complete without any one of them. It was an incredible musical conversation and such a supportive family. When you play with such soulful musicians – there’s nothing else like it.
Traveling Alone was recorded in 8 days. How much rehearsal time did you get to do with Martine and the other musicians?
I practiced those songs every single day for a really long time. I wanted to be very way deep down in it before we got in there. Eric & Jay & John & I had toured together for a long weekend. (I’ve played with Jay for 15 years and Eric for several years so that helps too). The first time we rehearsed, I saw the new songs stand up and walk on their own – I was awfully relieved. Then my car broke down on the way to the gig! My dad picked us up on the side of the road and everyone just laughed about it all and pulled together. I had a good feeling about it all after that weekend. And of course Tucker and I talked about songs for a very long time.
The themes of traveling and searching weave throughout the album. Were these themes that you wanted to deal with or did they surface more after the fact?
Traveling definitely emerged as a theme, but I don’t brand themes on the songs’ foreheads before they are born. Themes happen naturally as you mull what you are mulling. The question of how to make meaning in the world is a constant with an ever evolving answer. Being an artist or a musician is a constant kind of traveling. Being really alive is a constant kind of traveling. I like the idea of traveling alone as a way to talk about inner life without sounding like a big jerk. Grit, cowboy towns, worn out leather as opposed to something lost in the ether.
Are you looking forward to playing the album live?
I’m really excited to play these songs and be a musician and wear out some strings and dig in a little out there. I’m really excited about how the band is sounding. I’m really proud of this record.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I just finished a collaboration with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein which comes out [this spring] spring, called Night. [Due March 13 via Sony Masterworks, it contains classical compositions, Merritt-penned tunes and traditionsl country/gospel numbers] We collaborated on a concert to find where our musical worlds meet. I’ve learned so much from her. She’s made me better.
An edited version of this interview appeared in issue #13 of BLURT. Tour dates here: http://www.yeproc.com/artists/tift-merritt
[Photo Credit: Parker Fitzgerald]