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
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.”