STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: STITCH OF THE WORLD is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the journey you took to make it?
TIFT MERRITT: I’m feeling really proud of this writing, these performances. I feel really, really lucky to have worked with this cast of characters. Marc Ribot is my favorite musician and one of my favorite human beings. He’s plugged into the sun. And I am forever grateful to Sam Beam for his input and generosity. To be in conversation with him about songwriting gave me a new eye on lyrics, on what to look for in third verses, on countermelody. But honestly, I don’t know that I ever truly have perspective on my work. I just have the sense of having had a creative experience that hopefully opened me more and will inform my next creative experience. I think that is what it is all about.
SPAZ: The album is just as intimate and warm as your past releases. The production really brings the songs to life. Is there a particular approach you take to recording? Is it a natural process to get the sounds and feel you are looking for?
TIFT: Thank you. That is what I am always after: warmth and intimacy. As well as energy! The energy of this record is much in part to the speed at which we recorded! Four days. As well, Jay Bellerose’s drumming is a very strong engine and gives much clarity and fire. I’m always interested in singing where sincerity and raw energy meet. Sometimes intimacy can drain the power out of things on behalf of closeness or delicacy. It’s a balance that is not always easy to strike.
DAVE RAYBURN: “Dusty Old Man” reunites you with more of the inventive guitar work of Marc Ribot, who also appeared on 2012’s TRAVELING ALONE. When did you first work with Marc, and what do you feel he brings to the table with your songs?
TIFT: Marc is absolutely plugged into the sun. He’s the finest of the fine. As a lead player, he is so attuned to rhythm, to pushing the song along. He is minimalist and high energy at the same time, and never runs out of ideas. Marc is one of the smartest people I know as well as one of the kindest. If I could work with one musician from now until the end of time, it would be Marc. There is no one like him.
SPAZ: “Love Soldiers On” is quite beautiful. The haunting guitar work harkens back to early Rock ‘n’ Roll while the song itself is timeless. Is it difficult to create something that reaches back to your roots yet also looks forward?
TIFT: Thank you. That is an awfully nice thing to say. I think, at the end of the day, creating something that pushes forward but also honors a tradition is really the sweet spot for me, the place I’m reaching for. I always want to bring something new from inside myself, push forward to something new sonically and lyrically. But I’m not operating in a vacuum or exploding a form. I love abstract painting for the way so much can be gathered in just a few strokes. Maybe it is like that. You take everything you’ve learned and gather yourself and make a mark. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
SPAZ: STITCH OF THE WORLD is your sixth album. Are you still learning how to get exactly what you want while working in the studio, or do you find yourself discovering new ways of expressing yourself musically with each new release?
TIFT: I am much more comfortable in the studio now than when I began. It is a kind of performance that I really enjoy, but it is tricky to create the immediacy of live performance without being present at the performance. I hope I’ll always be learning and thinking about how to make the next album. That’s the good nature of it. I always feel at the beginning of what I can do, whatever I have just learned being the door to the next place. I really like making records live off the floor rather than overdubbing lots and lots. I really love summoning a performance on the spot, finding the right parts, keeping some space and air.
DAVE: How did your working relationship with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam come about and how instrumental was he in fashioning new material with you?
TIFT: I am such a fan of Sam as a musician and as a person. I will always be cheering for him. He was an angel in this process — he gave me confidence to jump. I sent him all my songs and I was very scared of my writing at that point. I didn’t know whether any of it was good. When he said, I love these and I can tell you have been working really hard, it was like the sunshine came out! He encouraged me so kindly and he taught me a lot about what third verses can do, about what chord structures can do and about how counter melodies can bring things to life. PLUS he lent his beautiful, warm voice. I adore him and his family.
DAVE: How heavily did recent transitions in your personal landscape weigh on the new album’s content?
TIFT: Writing in and of itself is such a completely personal experience. Observation — seeing something in a new way — is a big part of writing, but without an emotional connection, it is just clinical and cold. Writing is, I think, one of the most intimate things I do — I spend time, presence and energy with something, I give as much of myself to it as I can. So whatever I am writing about is personal.
My personal landscape and questions about my life will always permeate my work, of course. And yes, this was a very difficult album to write because I didn’t have perspective on myself or what was happening to me. I think it must take many years to have perspective on a divorce, or any big changes. I was scared as hell. I was very sad. But I had to write and press on. A finished song stands on its own, an experience in and of itself, and gains a distance from whatever seed began it. I always hope my songs feel intimate and real and honest, but they are not journal entries.
I really love moving in and out of intensity in the studio, summoning a performance live, and then putting it down again and having a beer and a laugh. It’s like you have set something free after you perform it right. Maybe that is why it can sound relaxed.
SPAZ: Judging by the way radio approaches Country Music today, a lot of the more traditional, roots-based Country artists are now being relegated to the Americana genre. Does it bother you that people have to even categorize what you do? On one hand, it is helpful for fans of a certain genre, but on the other hand, real artists don’t want their art to be put in a box…
TIFT: I think this is probably an age old question that takes new forms every decade, every time a record store has to be rearranged. I don’t think about it that much and I never have. I think about how I organize music in my own mind or in my own record collection. It’s good to have a musical family tree, a way of relating things, a way of finding things, a path into discovering other music. But that is more about musicology than it is about marketing. I’m really proud to be a part of a tradition of songwriters and storytellers.
DAVE: It would be hard to escape the comparisons of your vocal style to that of Emmylou Harris (who coincidentally holds high accolades for you); however, there are other shades of influence in the mix that could be attributed to an array of lesser known singers. Are there any unsung heroes that you would acknowledge as having indirectly helped in shaping your style over the years?
TIFT: I would have to say that Kitty Wells is someone who really influenced me in the beginning, the way she really sings the heart of every pitch. I spun her records over and over. And Jean Shepherd. There are so many amazing vocalists — Aretha, Linda Ronstadt. Dusty Springfield’s intimacy. Maria McKee. What a sensational voice. I recently was talking to someone about Rod Stewart in The Faces and that’s some badass singing too.
DAVE: What was your reaction to the news that Don Henley chose your song “Bramble Rose,” from your recently-reissued debut album, as the lead-off track on his recent CASS COUNTY album?
TIFT: I really couldn’t believe it. I was hungover when I got an email from him and I just kept rereading it, especially when I got to the part about Mick Jagger, thinking it couldn’t be real. I was on tour with Andrew Bird and I danced all around the bus when I first heard. It was a very lovely thing for me, a tremendous gift from him, and I am deeply grateful.
SPAZ: What’s next for Tift Merritt?
TIFT: Well, I’m gonna go tour this album and I am going to try to be a really good mom to my little daughter. I’ve got a stack of books by my bed I’d like to read if I can find a minute. The rest I can’t figure just yet. I’ll keep you posted.
SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD and record players?
TIFT: A friend just sent me the complete John Coltrane Atlantic years. That’s been on the record player. I played my daughter a bunch of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon recently. It is really a blast to listen to records with her and think, “This is the first time you’ve heard Paul Simon,” for example. I really love Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album and Angel Olsen’s new album. I am about to have a Leonard Cohen marathon too.
Thanks to Tift Merritt
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Nick Kominitsky
STITCH OF THE WORLD