Interview date: 02/09/2008
Run date: 02/26/2008
Tift Merritt is back with her new Concord Records release, Another Country, and it's some of her best work yet. The Americana-ish artist has been labeled many things, but as she suggests herself, she is not looking to be labeled, but rather just wants to be an artist who makes music for art's sake. Good for her, and good for you, if you are a fan. We recently had the chance to speak to Tift about her new album and more.
Bullz-Eye: Hi Tift, I love the new album, and I see that you're a huge Joni Mitchell fan.
TM: Well, yes.
BE: I heard that in your voice. Do you have any other big influences?
TM: It's not the easiest thing to put your musical influences on one person. I definitely have lots of people and writers, as well as painters and photographers who have influenced me too.
BE: Okay. So who are some of those people?
TM: In the music world, probably a lot of the 70's singer/songwriters who were speaking really directly like Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or Carol King or Bob Dylan. Eudora Welty (novelist) has always been a hero of mine too. And Robert Frank as a photographer.
BE: And you're from North Carolina?
TM: Yeah, I'm from North Carolina, but I live in New York City.
BE: Okay cool. Do you have any ties to Nashville at all?
TM: I was on a record label in Nashville once. But that's about it.
BE: Lost Highway?
BE: Okay, cool. I read on your MySpace page about how you recorded this new album, and began writing in Paris, then moved to a house in California. It's really interesting and I'm guessing the whole process was a breeding ground for song ideas?
TM: (laughs) Yeah, time off will do that and being in a great location will do it too. (laughs)
BE: Very cool. So what was a typical day in the life of your band like while recording the album?
TM: We were living in Laurel Canyon, which was awesome. You'd get up in the morning and have a cup of coffee outside and I had planted a garden. And then you sort of live in the studio when you're making a record. So at about noon we'd go to the studio and about midnight we'd get back from the studio.
BE: And how long did that whole process take?
TM: Probably about a month or six weeks. And then I stayed after a little longer.
BE: Cool. Well my favorite track is "My Heart is Free."
TM: Oh thank you.
BE: Which is your favorite, if you have one?
TM: I don't know that I can pick a favorite. (laughs) But it changes. It depends on what's going on in my head or that kind of thing.
BE: At this point are you tired of hearing all these tracks and looking forward to writing new stuff?
TM: A little bit just because that's kind of the nature of the game. But it isn't like I've been blaring the record at my own house. (laughs)
BE: And what was it like to receive a Grammy nomination (2004's Tambourine)?
TM: That was definitely a treat. It was really wonderful to be able to tell our parents and our friends and all the people that support you when it doesn't always seem like the smartest move.
BE: To be a professional musician, you mean?
TM: Yeah. So that was a really nice thing to be able to give those people.
BE: And what category was it and who were you up against?
TM: We were nominated for "Country Album of the Year," which was kind of interesting because it wasn't a country album. So we were up against Keith Urban and Gretchen Wilson and Loretta Lynn. And Loretta Lynn won it, so that was really wonderful.
BE: Okay, yeah. I remember that. Did you go out there for the Grammy's?
TM: Yeah, we did. We all went.
BE: That must have been cool.
TM: It was fun.
BE: Awesome. So you've toured with the likes of Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris, which might put you into that Americana pigeonhole.
TM: Well I've also toured with Elvis Costello and….well, finish your question.
BE: All I was going to say is, is that something you aim for or are you looking to have a broader audience?
TM: I think genre is always someone else's mechanism and not mine. I really hate to be put in a box ever. As a writer I think you always want to speak to the people who will understand you and not to a marketing box that you check off. (laughs)
BE: Right. It's always a thing more for the radio people more than anything.
TM: I think so. It seems really trite and trivial to me. So I feel like I draw from a lot of different places and hopefully some of those parts are something that's maybe beyond a genre….but that sounds very presumptuous when you say it on your own behalf. (laughs)
BE: (laughs) Gotcha.
TM: But you know, I love Americana music. I love Rock and Roll. I love Punk Rock. I feel like those marketing people made up genres. And I think about like Ray Charles, and he definitely didn't get in a box and say, "yes, this is my marketing category."
BE: Right. What is the songwriting process like for you typically? Are you always writing?
TM: I try to keep writing to be a little outside of the fray of life. So I'm not in between writing lines while you and I are on the phone. (laughs) But usually it starts with an idea that's worth holding onto, whether it's an emotional idea or an idea at the piano. And then I usually sit at the piano with my guitar in my lap and just kind of hash away until I knock something out that's worth keeping. Then after that, I usually do the lyrics last. I try not to get the music and the lyrics too far away from each other, so I make sure the words are okay last.
BE: So do you have an idea, like a bunch of lyrical ideas in a notebook or something, or do you kind of let the music guide the lyrics?
TM: I think it's always really important to start with a lyrical idea or a feeling that you can build the song around. It isn't so much that I go to the piano and plunk something out and go, "Oh hey, this reminds me of this." Usually that starting point is where a feeling and some words and a piece of music all get married.
BE: Gotcha. Tell me about your radio show that you started.
TM: Oh, , it's called The Spark, where I meet the real people behind great works of art. It's really just my excuse to learn from the artists that I admire. I think we get a lot of information about people when they're all dressed up and people when they're in their moment of glory. And I think as a writer, that it's really important to find out about the more human and ordinary sides of these people who are doing such fascinating things, and how they really work and how hard it really is, and how they keep their integrity and keep their fire and keep going, and what it all means to them and how they manage to not get lost in it all.
BE: Cool. So people can listen online to that?
TM: They can listen online…
BE: Is it weekly?
TM: It's actually monthly. But you can listen online and you can listen on Texas Public Radio. Publicradio.org
BE: So what music are you listening to now?
TM: Oh I really love this band, Midlake.
TM: And I got this really cool CD of this guy, Niam Amor. He's from Tucson. It's really cool. But he's originally from France, I think.
BE: And you're touring to support the album, correct?
BE: What is your favorite place to stop and eat on the road, and what is your least favorite?
TM: Oh! My least favorite place to eat on the road is anywhere that's a chain.
BE: (laughs). That's so funny. I interviewed Rob Thomas once and he said Applebee's, he absolutely hated it.
TM: Oh gosh, you want to go to a place that's local and awesome. So I always love to tour and be in Seattle and go to Pike's Market, and have good sushi and walk on the water and that kind of thing.
BE: Very cool. Okay, I have one more question.
TM: Is it a really hard one?
BE: No it's not. Who do you like in the Super Bowl?
TM: Oh well I moved to New York recently, so I have to pull for the Giants, right?
For more in Tift Merritt, please visit www.tiftmerritt.com