Singer/songwriter Tift Merritt is a firecracker of an artist: her laugh, a warming howl; her bright-eyed smile, made to melt. She’s overpowering in the most pleasant of ways. Ask her a question, for example, and she immediately has an articulate, amusing retort that will only warrant further interest. Put her on stage and she’ll break your heart with her words, voice and freckle-tinged expressions.
“It’s always funny to me that I spend so much time in rock clubs in front of people when I’m really just an introverted homebody who’d rather be writing stories at the desk and typewriter up in the attic,” Merritt recently told NUVO. Her press release accompanying her latest album, Another Country, is itself a work of literature, albeit in an uncelebrated genre. “In the beginning, [writing] was what I really wanted to do,” she explained with a youthful snigger. “Maybe when I grow up I’ll still be a writer.”
“Sometimes you have to go very far from home and get very lost to realize that life is all around you, shouting at you to take its many good things with you,” Merritt wrote in the press release about the time she spent drifting through Paris streets. She wrote the bulk of Another Country while living in Paris.
“I cannot explain what happened in Paris except to say there were never enough hours in the day to write and there was always kindness at hand,” the release continues. “It was the happiest I have ever been.”
“I had been on the road so long that I didn’t really know which way was up,” Merritt said, explaining the circumstances surrounding her brief move overseas. “I wasn’t ready to go home [after touring] so I thought I’d take a vacation. I Googled ‘Paris, apartment, piano’ and actually found a place. Once I got there I thought, you know, this isn’t just a vacation.”
When she returned from Paris to her longtime home in North Carolina, Merritt — who has since relocated to Manhattan, seeking the creative energy she found in Paris — tweaked her Paris blueprints before going into the studio with noted producer George Drakoulias (Jayhawks, The Black Crowes). They recorded what became Another Country, her follow-up to 2005’s Tambourine, which was also produced by Drakoulias.
“I handcuffed him to the door,” Merritt said with a warm laugh, explaining how she came to work with the legendary producer. “Really, I picked up a Maria McKee cassette when I was 19 and saw his name on it. I thought, ‘I want to work with that guy.’ I sometimes forget what a big dream that was for me because now I just call him up. He’s my pal; we kid around. He’s so great at keeping a singer/songwriter like me from collapsing into over emotionalism or relying too much on the words.”
In addition to Drakoulias, guitar legends Charlie Sexton and Doug Pettibone joined Merritt and her band — Zeke Hutchins, Jay Brown, Danny Eisenberg — on the sessions. It made for a sharply played songwriter album that could easily be filed next to Lucinda Williams’ 2001 classic, Essence.
In the six years since the release of Merritt’s 2002 debut LP, Bramble Rose, she’s amassed quite a resume, earning widespread acclaim (including “album of the year” nods from Time and The New Yorker, among others), playing the late night talk show circuit, raking in numerous Americana Music Award nominations and so on. She’s shared stages with her hero, Emmylou Harris (“She’s the queen!”), as well as Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch and the man who is often credited as playing a big part in her initial record deal, fellow North Carolina-bred songwriter Ryan Adams. Of her many award nominations, Merritt’s second album, the aforementioned Tambourine, most notably received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album, an accolade that threw many of Merritt’s followers.
“I think sometimes people who are doing things that aren’t easily classified [will be] wrongly classified,” Merritt explained. “I don’t really believe in musical genres. I tend to think of myself as a singer/songwriter. That gives me leeway to move in a lot of different directions.”
Major commercial success has thus far eluded Merritt. “What I like about my career is that I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna write what I mean and say what I say,” Merritt said. “That’s important to me. I can’t predict if that’s ever going to cross paths with commercial success. To a certain extent, the fact that I’m a working artist is alone a great deal of commercial success in my book.”