Tift Merritt Q&A

As promised, here’s Jason Blair’s Q&A with Tift Merritt.

A lot has been written about your voice. When were you first aware of your own voice?
The first time I remember being aware of my own voice was when I had my first apartment. I would sing all the time and play music in the middle of the night and my neighbors would bang on the wall, telling me to be quiet. And I thought, I didn’t realize I was singing that loud…

I tend to think of myself as an okay musician and a pretty good singer, but mostly it’s about [writing] the song. There’s a good discipline that comes with that: I don’t feel like I’m any sort of virtuoso. I don’t like to do acrobatics or anything fancy. I like it keep it pure and plain to serve the song. I like the kind of training and attention that makes me pay to my voice, rather than trying to get away with all sorts of fancy stuff that I probably couldn’t do anyway.

Read the rest of the interview here.

When we last saw you (during the 2005 Tambourine tour), you seemed happy, even asking the crowd to recommend a yoga center.
I did hot yoga! It kicked my ass. It was awesome.

Soon after that, you felt the need to make a break. You moved to Paris. What prompted that?
What happened was really an accident. I’ve always been a Francophile, and I love the French language. It’s so musical. I’d studied French and been to Paris, briefly, a long time ago. I’d finished my touring of Tambourine in Europe and I thought, “How indicative is it of my life that I would come to Europe and not see anything? This record is done. I don’t have to be anywhere. I’m a grown woman. I’m going to take myself to France.”

At that time I was living on the coast of North Carolina. My best friend lived next door, and I had this piano there. I kind of wanted to go home to see my piano, because when you’re on tour you don’t always have a piano close at hand. At least, the kind of touring I do. I thought if I could find an apartment with a piano in it, then I wouldn’t be lacking for anything. I Googled “Paris apartment piano.” I was drinking some wine at the time. I was laughing, but sure enough I found a whole bunch of apartments. So I rented one.

I open the door and there’s this lovely journalist who says, “I’m going to be back next week. Let’s go have beers!” I guess it was just a handful of days into the trip that I knew I wasn’t going to leave on the plane I had booked. I called home and I said, “This is where I’m supposed to be right now.” It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The essay you’ve written for Another Country is disarmingly personal. It hints at – but doesn’t really reveal – what might have made moving to Paris so important. Do you talk much about that period?
I would say the major symptom was fatigue from touring, the impact that touring had on my life. It wasn’t just that my laundry was dirty. It was that I was always…I had never quite toured that way. As well as Tambourine did, it wasn’t a commercial success. I hadn’t seen my friends. I didn’t really know what home was anymore. A lot of subtle things were out of focus. It added up to a really big loneliness.

Tambourine felt like a move away from alt-country towards an edgier sound, one blending rock and blues and soul. Then Tambourine won a Grammy for Country Album of the Year, and the country community reeled you in. Is Another Country a response to that?
I’m sure it was. There’s no way that it wasn’t. But it’s such a personal record that would never belittle it by saying it’s about the music industry. It’s about the feelings that I went through in that period of time where you realize that this is your life, and what you thought it would be like and the realities of it — whether you’re the postman or you live in an Econoline van — you have to reconcile those things.

Lyrically, Another Country is deeply personal. It’s also arguably your best writing to date. Were you consciously trying to write with feeling and intimacy?
It was a really unselfconscious record. I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I was really just writing for myself, so it’s so nice that it did take this step forward. I wasn’t doing anything but writing for myself. There was no audience involved. I was going through something, and trying to figure it out for myself.

I was just in France and having this really creative time. I wasn’t like, “Oh, it’s time to write a record.” It was absolutely guile-less. I wasn’t sure what came next. I tried to make room for not knowing what came next.

Do you feel like you’ve evolved as a writer?
I’m always so scared to say things like that because you can take a step backward as much as you can take a step forward. I think what I would say is that I had this amazing experience as a writer, and having that experience changed my point of view in terms of how I think I should be looking at things.

You host a monthly radio program called “The Spark,” so I’m very aware I’m interviewing an interviewer.
Oh no! I’m not a journalist! (Lauging.) My brother was a journalist, and he and I had some pretty strict conversations about how I’m not a journalist. I’m not pretending to be a journalist. I’m just a student of students.

On “The Spark” you interview novelists and poets and photographers. What inspired you to do that?
It’s funny because it started in Paris. I was crossing paths very quickly with a lot of interesting people, but there wasn’t much time to get to know them, and I certainly wasn’t going to be so presumptuous as to corner them with questions about their life. I was in a museum and I turned a corner and I found myself in front of this painting that just pummeled me. It was a Cy Twombly painting called Achilles Mourns the Death of Patrolcus. It’s this very essential, primitive abstract. It’s the essence of emotion. You would never know it was a Trojan War scene at all.

Cy Twombly lives in Italy. He’s obsessed with Greek and Roman history but his work is very abstract and minimalist. I don’t why, but this painting killed me. And I was like, “That’s what I’m trying to do.” I became kind of obsessed with this guy [Twombly], and I kept trying to find things out about him, but I couldn’t find very much. I couldn’t find what his favorite food was. I couldn’t find out how his wife got the paint out of his shirt, or what time of day he liked to work. I wanted some kind of human connection.
I thought, This is so weird. This man is not just genius sprung forth from the earth. He’s a human being and he’s had ups and downs in his life. A young painter needs to be able to find something human about this man. And I thought, “I want to ask him to coffee.” And somebody said to me, “Well Tift, why don’t you do it?” Then I realized I didn’t just want to ask him to coffee; I wanted to ask him to coffee, record the conversation, ask him all the hard questions about how he lived his life, and refer back to the answers later.

And thus “The Spark” was born. (Laughing.) I’m fascinated by the process of being an artist throughout a lifetime. It’s not about a record cycle. It’s not about one movie, and one movie being successful. It’s something a lot deeper and farther away from the spotlight. I don’t know that there are enough people, for me, talking about that. So I want to go and learn for myself. Maybe I can help some other young artist along the way.

You have a college degree from a highly regarded school (UNC – Chapel Hill). What were you like in college?
I actually have Biology with lab to complete before that degree! In college, I was myself but more extreme. I lived all by myself on a farm with my dog and a piano. I met Zeke (drummer) when I was in college. We started our band and started sending out our 7-inch to anybody who would book us a gig. “Artist or die.” That was that first moment when every single band in America had a CD, and we were like, “Yeah, we’re going to make a 7-inch.” We’re going to be the only band in America that doesn’t have a CD.

Where did the name Tift come from?
It’s a family name. You know, in the South we name each other after each other for centuries. Actually, all the other Tifts are men. It’s my middle name. It’s everyone’s middle name.

Could you tell us an influence, musically or otherwise, that we might be surprised to know about?
Eudora Welty is a huge influence. Her sentences are so amazing. Writing is so much of an influence on me. I think about writing a song with economy of words — rhythm and melody are no small things — but that’s how I think about it.

And Robert Frank’s photograps, those photographs that tell a story in one punch. It’s endless but it’s so simple. I love to look at photography when I’m writing.

On “The Spark,” you spoke with Nick Hornby about the “mental energy” it takes to read even positive reviews. Do you read your own reviews?
(Mock frustration.) I’m so bored by myself! I don’t want to know anything else about myself. I think it’s so horrible to see your life story in three to four sentences when you’re 33 years old. You shouldn’t do it. I’m still creating myself. There’s no bio summary to be read. You need more freedom than that.

I don’t like that boxed in feeling, so I guess my current policy is to be an okay businesswoman — don’t be an ostrich with your head in the sand — but [with] a healthy ignorance to your own biography.

What’s your favorite cocktail?
I do like a mojito. If a have two martinis, I pass out. I get really fun, then I’m angry, then I fall asleep!

You’re from North Carolina by way of Texas, but you recently moved to New York (Fall 2007). What are your impressions of New York?
I love New York City. I love that it’s where all the artists are. I don’t feel weird there. It’s such a relief.

What are you listening to right now?
I love the Fleet Foxes. I just think they’re brilliant. I saw them live and they were mind-blowingly good. They’re so fun and composed at the same time. It’s pastoral and modern at the same time. It’s just neat that it isn’t about the front man. I love that there’s a thing going on right now where you get a lot of people together and it’s not about the front man. There’s hope for us yet.

Did I see you on David Letterman recently, backing up Emmylou Harris?
You did! I love her so much. Not only is she an amazing musician, she’s the nicest person you can find. She was really sweet. At Letterman, she told everybody including David Letterman, “This is Tift and she’s going to be here next week and you better be nice to her.” It was just so sweet. I never would have imagined that.