The gifted Tift

Tift Mer­ritt al­ways be­lieved she would be a writer be­fore a mu­si­cian, and her skills as a sto­ry­teller are very much in ev­i­dence in her finely crafted songs. She talks to Tony Clay­ton-Lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

IFT MER­RITT has suc­cess on her face and con­fi­dence in her voice. The 33-year-old Texas-born singer-song­writer has been lib­er­ally gar­landed with Grammy and Amer­i­cana mu­sic award nom­i­na­tions since her emer­gence on the mu­sic scene just over six years ago.

Be­fore then, she was an­other notch on the Nashville belt, an­other wannabe in need of a record la­bel (any record la­bel would do), an­other am­bi­tious singer-song­writer who had found her way in from the cold.

Al­though her biog notes say she was born in Hous­ton, most of her life has been spent in North Carolina, where she grad­u­ated from univer­sity, and formed her first band, The Car­bines.

Mer­ritt was a fix­ture on North Carolina’s alt-coun­try/roots mu­sic scene from shortly af­ter her grad­u­a­tion. By 2000, she had en­tered and won the song­writ­ing con­test at the state’s an­nual Mer­leFest mu­sic fes­ti­val.

In the in­terim, No De­pres­sion mag­a­zine – the bi­ble for emerg­ing alt-coun­try acts and their grow­ing army of fans – dubbed her one of five emerg­ing “in­sur­gents” on the edge of cross­over suc­cess. Her aim at that time was to trans­form her­self from a rough di­a­mond, green-around-the-gills singer into an artist of the cal­i­bre of Em­my­lou Har­ris, Joni Mitchell or Bon­nie Raitt.

She re­calls those early days: per­form­ing in bars and small clubs, wait­ing ta­bles in them when she wasn’t on stage, and un­sure whether the drunk guys has­sling her de­served a de­gree of sym­pa­thy or a firm kick in the nether re­gions.

When she first started out, was she hope­ful that she had made the right de­ci­sion? “It takes a cer­tain amount of stub­born con­fi­dence – or ig­no­rance – to jump into the ring,” she ex­plains, “so I was very mo­ti­vated to make some­thing of my­self as an artist and as a per­son, and if this was go­ing to be, then I was go­ing to run head­long into it.”

Mer­ritt was al­most di­verted from her lyricwrit­ing when she re­treated and re­turned to North Carolina Univer­sity to study creative writ­ing. She didn’t aban­don her song­writ­ing, but she al­lowed her short sto­ries to be an­a­lysed and dis­sected by all and sundry. Her short-story writ­ing picked some state awards, which isn’t too sur­pris­ing since her lyric-writ­ing sug­gests she has an ear for the finer points of di­a­logue.

“I al­ways wanted to be some­thing creative; my fa­ther taught me how to play pi­ano and gui­tar by ear, and I was al­ways writ­ing sto­ries or po­ems, so I found it nat­u­ral to weave them to­gether. Was it easy? No, not re­ally, but I had al­ways thought I’d be a writer be­fore I’d be a mu­si­cian or a singer – I had thought that par­tic­u­lar area was elu­sive and mys­te­ri­ous. Plus, I didn’t re­ally think I could sing. I was re­ally sur­prised when I got older that I got, and kept get­ting, gigs. I felt I was very lucky.”

Just when she thought she might trade in her hopes of be­ing a singer for a ca­reer in creative writ­ing, along came Ryan Adams, who, hav­ing checked out Mer­ritt as a sup­port artist, rec­om­mended her to his man­ager, Frank Cal­lari. He promptly signed her when he be­came head of A&R at the noted roots and coun­try la­bel Lost High­way. Fear of fail­ure wasn’t an op­tion for Mer­ritt. She wanted to amount to some­thing cre­atively.

“I was ter­ri­fied that this im­pulse I had to cre­ate was mak­ing a fool out of me, and I needed to prove to my­self and to other peo­ple that I was wrong. I think we all strug­gle with those feel­ings, even though I knew from an early stage what I wanted to do.”

Mer­ritt has been do­ing what she does for, com­par­a­tively speak­ing, a short while. As a rel­a­tive green­horn, has she found life on the road a lonely ex­pe­ri­ence? “The main thing that char­ac­terises the road ex­pe­ri­ence,” she re­veals, “is that you’re giv­ing as much as you can from all the re­sources you have. Part of why it can be lonely is that you just run out of en­ergy.

“Es­sen­tially, the peo­ple around you are re­ally kind, and you’re in a lot of quite won­der­ful places, so I think it’s the travel and lack of sleep that can wear you down. There are a few rou­tines you can get into – I like tak­ing pic­tures, I wan­der around the town, find a mu­seum or a good restau­rant. I don’t have an av­er­age day. When I’m not work­ing, so to speak, I like to do yoga, watch movies, and to cook for my friends, be­cause I don’t see them much when I’m on the road.”

Mer­ritt tends to write when she has the com­fort of time. Her new album, An­other Coun­try, is as as­sid­u­ously put to­gether as her pre­vi­ous two stu­dio records (2002’s Bram­ble Rose and 2005’s Grammy-nom­i­nated Tam­bourine). She talks about the ne­ces­sity of get­ting things right, the need for an artist of any worth to en­sure that the end re­sult is never too far away from per­fec­tion.

“Why would any­one go through 90 per cent and not go the ex­tra 10? I wouldn’t ex­pect the lis­tener to give 100 per cent at­ten­tion if I didn’t do my bit. With song­writ­ing, you’re telling in the space of a few min­utes and a few sen­tences some­thing that could take – if you felt like it – sev­eral thou­sand words. So edit­ing is of the ut­most im­por­tance.

“A song should speak for it­self, and if I don’t muster the en­ergy then that seems lazy. And I am not lazy. Al­though some­times I wish I was.”

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