She's the Tift that keeps on giving.
In the middle of promoting the release of her fourth studio album, See You On the Moon, Tift Merritt is preparing to go on tour, editing The Spark, the monthly interview radio show she hosts, and moving to another apartment in New York City with Zeke Hutchins, her husband of one year (and drummer for much longer).
Yet she's yakking away (some might even call it gossiping) like she doesn't have a care in the world.
That personal and personable touch shines through, in much the same way she performs - no matter if she's opening for Elvis Costello or closing cramped clubs like the Larimer Lounge in Denver. The singer-songwriter from North Carolina packs a powerful punch in a pretty, pint-size package, seemingly enjoying it all whether she's playing guitar, piano, harmonica or the occasional tambourine.
Described as "gregarious," Merritt takes the compliment well during a phone interview a week before the June 1 release. "I really love music, and I definitely love playing music and getting to be a part of music," she says, without a hint of insincerity. "I'm probably such a gregarious loudmouth all the time."
Then the laugh follows. Not a mere tee-hee or a nervous titter. But a raspy, hearty guffaw, the kind that would frighten jittery dogs and innocent children. Asked if being a "loudmouth" is just a consistent part of her nature, the laugh unleashes with full force again: Hawwww-Hawwww!
"Maybe, I don't know," she says, followed by -- you guessed it -- another laugh. "But I can tell you that performing is so special because I do think that I would go crazy if I didn't have it. If I didn't have a place to play out all those feelings and throw everything out in the open that way, I would be a different, different person."
See You On the Moon (Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group), ranked No. 5 on Paste magazine's list of "25 Albums We're Looking Forward To This Summer," certainly reveals a darker, more introspective side of Merritt, who turned 35 in January. Her twangy, folksy approach from early days with the Carbines, guest stints with the Two Dollar Pistols and on her debut album, 2002's Bramble Rose - not to mention her Grammy nomination for Best Country Album (2004's Tambourine) - seem to be distant memories. So are band comparisons to roots rockers like Lone Justice, who were fronted by the magnificently theatrical Maria McKee.
Merritt's latest is serious stuff from a sophisticated lady who admits, "I'm sort of lying (about my personality). I'm as serious as a heart attack." While her laughter keeps you guessing, this album's somber material will make you believe her aim is true.
Whether she's mourning the loss of her grandmother ("Feel Of The World") or recalling the sudden death of a childhood friend on the title cut, Merritt writes what she calls "elemental and simple" lyrics that get to the heart of the matter. She likes to use the word "direct," even if it takes her awhile to get around to it.
"I would say this record feels ... I'm trying to think of a good way to put it ... you know, making this record, I was so ... the writing of this record was really important and surprising and wonderful for me," she offers, apologizing for a moment to help her husband, who just locked himself out of his own apartment. "A lot of the songs ... I sort of decided that I was just really gonna jump off the deep end and not look back. And not say ... oh, you know there's times in your writing when you go, 'Oh God, that's so horrible. Oh my God, I'm such a failure. What is even the point?' I just said, 'You know what? This is what I care about, this is what I do, I'm not gonna spend any time with those kind of silly thoughts.' A lot of songs came really directly and really quickly."
Dealing With Loss
That included "Feel Of The World," the lovely ballad written while her grandmother, Jean Merritt, became gravely ill. She died in May 2009.
"My father was at her bedside," recalls Merritt, who dedicated the album to her grandparents (she never knew grandfather Bob Merritt) and Doug Blount, the subject of the title track. "I was actually in France (Tift once lived in Paris while working on 2008's Another Country). And I felt so horrible to be so far away when all this was happening. So I would think about her and think about her life. I wrote that song and I wrote it really quickly and I looked back and said, 'Oh my gosh, this isn't my song. This is my grandfather's song, telling her that she can let go, and that he's waiting for her to take care of her."
Produced by Grammy-nominated Tucker Martine (Bill Frisell, The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs), the album includes guest-starring appearance by pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz and Yim Yames/Jim James, My Morning Jacket's frontman who apparently alternates the spelling of his name as often as the wind shifts. Hutchins and Jay Brown (bass and harmony), Merritt's longtime bandmates, provide a solid foundation, and guitarist Scott McCall (Two Dollar Pistols) delivers Beatlesque pop bits. Now that McCall has what Merritt calls a "real job," his spot on the summer tour -- that begins June 3 in Charlottesville, Virginia -- will be taken by Eric Heywood, who is on loan from Ray LaMontagne's band.
Raising Her 'Children'
With horns, flute, cello, violin and viola added to the mix, Tift (her first name is the last name on her mother's side of the family) feels like she's just delivered a beautiful baby. And, sounding like a proud mother, that's how she treats her songs, nurturing them through their growth spurts.
"When they're born, it's just me," contends Merritt, who wrote 10 of the 12 songs on the album. "I'm playing them by myself. And then, they come to band practice, and they get to be children. And then they go in the studio and things get more grown up, right? More fleshed out and they stand on their own. Hopefully, they've stood on their own from the very beginning. I think that's one of the important things when I think about what a good song is. I think a good song really is a song that can hold as much music as you want it to hold, like strings and horns and choirs, and be so powerful."
Like any devoted Baby Mama, just don't ask her to choose. Or else prepare ... to hear ... THE LAUGH.
"Oh, that's not a fair question," she reacts, following up her cackle/chortle with sarcastic emphasis on the query. "How does it compare to my previous work?"
Does she at least agree that her work is more sophisticated/less Top 40 driven? "I do, I do, I would say that," Merritt replies without hesitation. "I think I had to make those records to get to this one. That's always the case in life, right?"
So Merritt is ready to take a road trip, bringing her "babies" and her husband along for the ride. While they might still qualify as newlyweds, married in March 2009, Merritt and Hutchins have been in a sustained relationship for 13 years, since the time they went to college (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and formed a band together.
"Married life is lovely," she says. "I didn't know, I was kinda scared (laughs). But now I'm like, 'Gosh, this was the best thing. Why didn't we do this years ago?' "
She laughs -- naturally -- about the time her first bass player (refusing to name names) sought Zeke's permission to ask her out. Saying loud enough for her hubby (by this time back inside) to hear, Merritt discloses, "He intimated to Zeke that he might like me. And we revised a few things (in the relationship) at that point." While continuing to giggle like she still has a schoolgirl crush, Merritt points out that Hutchins is enjoying this story, too.
The marriage has provided easy songwriting material for Merritt, whose "All the Reasons We Don't Have to Fight" poured out of an actual argument at the airport. "You know I think it's so hard to resist sometimes ... anger," Merritt says. "When you put that out in the world, who really knows what kind of injury it does, not only to you and each other but like ... it's not good stuff out there. We all have to work on our own world peace, right?"
If there are any surprises on See You On the Moon, it's the inclusion of Danny's Song, about a couple awaiting the birth of their son. Written by Kenny Loggins, it was turned into a Top 10 guilty pleasure by Anne Murray in the early 1970s. The addition even startled Merritt.
It all began with Merritt hoping to lighten the mood at Overdub Lane recording studio in Durham, North Carolina, where she tried on a vintage pair of orange roller skates found at a flea market. Retro themes, including Murray's unstylish '70s hairdo, became the hot topic and they began watching an episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Playing 'Danny's Song'
Murray was singing "Danny's Song," and Merritt reveals, "Tucker's girlfriend, (singer-songwriter) Laura Veirs, was pregnant, and here we were all thinking about marriage, and we'd just gotten married and just kind of .... we were hearing this song that was essentially our parents' song in this way ... it kind of tore us up."
With Brown harmonizing and Merritt playing acoustic guitar, they recorded it quickly. "It wasn't anything that we thought we would put on the record, right?" Merritt asks rhetorically. "It was just musicians being musicians. And everyone we played if for would say, 'Oh my gosh, that has to go on the record. You can't not have that on the record.' And, sure enough, on this record about things beginning and things ending and just kind of the elemental things of life, that song absolutely belongs there."
Just don't expect to hear Merritt dipping more often into the Murray songbook.
" 'Snowbird,' c'mon!" Merritt mockingly announces, again for the benefit of her husband's ears. "Zeke says that he wants to do 'Snowbird' next."
"I love that one," Hutchins shouts, joining the conversation from afar.
"We can do a whole Anne Murray review," Merritt adds. "And I'll get my hair cut like Anne Murray."
Creating comedy bits over the phone, they might as well be channeling Sonny and Cher or the Captain and Tennille from that era. The woman who less than a half-hour ago said, "If I weren't writing songs, I wouldn't perform," just can't stop entertaining.
Blessed with gifts like Tift's, it's apparent the showmanship must go on.
• Publicity photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg.
• Download free podcasts of Tift Merritt interviews with notable artists, poets and performers, including Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, at itunes.apple.com.
Hear Tift Merritt's "Things That Everybody Does" from See You On the Moon played over her Polaroid slideshow, that includes shots of those famed roller skates:
See Anne Murray (and her haircut) perform "Danny's Song" on
The Midnight Special in 1973: