When I first met Tift Merritt, I thought she was the girl next door.
I said as much: "You seem like such a... oh... little sister... a nice kid. Can you rip it up?"
She took my head off: "Hey, I don't do this job because I'm shitty at it."
No fooling. "Another Country" and "Traveling Alone" may sound, on first hearing, like CDs built for listener comfort, but if you listen more closely, you discover how she subverts the conventions of the female singer-songwriter who's blessed with a sweet voice.
So it surprises me not at all that Tift Merritt has teamed up with Simone Dinnerstein, the classical pianist who recorded Bach's "Goldberg Variations", received over-the-moon reviews and became the concert hall equivalent of a rock star.
Their collaboration is called "Night," named for a Patty Griffin song on the CD but also for the time of day when our hearing is most acute, when we are most open to culture that's... different. Make no mistake: this is an art record. They wouldn't mind a commercial success, but they're not courting it. "Night" is a ferociously ambitious CD, and the proof is not just in the grooves, but in a telephone conversation.
Jesse: How did this collaboration come to be?
Tift: I interviewed Simone for my radio show, The Spark, on Marfa, Texas Public Radio. And Gramophone Magazine asked me to interview her --- they wanted someone outside of classical music. We started going to each other's concerts. We became friends. Then Simone said, 'We need to collaborate.'
Jesse: And you said?
Tift: 'No. So much could go wrong.'
Jesse: What changed your mind?
Tift: I surrendered when Duke University gave us the time and means to put a concert together. It was moving and inspiring for both of us.
Jesse: Who had to up her game?
Simone: This was my first time with improvisation. I'd look at notes on the page and realize they weren't the right notes. I had to let go of the fear of playing something that wasn't written on the page --- that was huge.
Tift: Simone plays with such feeling and care, which are the important things about music. I had to practice hard and live in these songs. It's really rewarding to live in a classic practice --- in folk music, you play all the time, but you don't practice all the time.
Jesse: Some of your choices seem sensible; you meet in the middle. Like the Patty Griffin song.
But then Simone does an adaptation of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" --- for solo piano.
Simone: 'Suzanne' is one of my favorite songs. Cohen downplays the music, but I think it's beautiful musically.
Jesse: Will anyone compare this to Dylan going electric?
Simone: When I talk to classical listeners about this, they say, 'Oh! What fun!' But it's a serious album, not 'fun' in that way.
Jesse: You ended your concert with Johnny Nash's reggae hit, "I Can See Clearly Now." It's a terrific video. Tift does what you expect from her: slaps her guitar for percussion, churns the strings and absolutely delivers the exuberant lyrics. But what grounds the song is Simone's left hand, her attacks and retreats, building tension and releasing it not always where you expect. It is a joy to see a classical pianist that accomplished work so far from home. Was it Tift's idea?
Simone: No, I suggested it. I'm generally unaware of things that were incredibly pop, but...
Jesse: Could either of you have made this record with a man?
Tift: It felt like a female project. The vulnerability was its strength.
Simone: I find it's very different playing with another woman. Tift is a charismatic performer --- she's like a method actor, she is the music. I'm more reserved. But it's comfortable because we're women and friends.
Jesse: You're about to go on tour. Shallow question: Do you care about fashion?
Tift: Hell, yes!
Simone: I have to shop before we tour.
Jesse: And you, Tift?
Tift: Simone always says, 'Wear the leather.'
For the tour schedule, click here.
[Reposted from HeadButler.com]
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler