10/02/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tift Merritt: She Looks Like the Girl Next Door. But When She Sings...

Because it's fairly obvious I have a soft spot for female writers and musicians, I get more than my share of CDs by female singer-songwriters. Most seem doomed --- they're not Nashville, they're not pop, and on the few college radio stations that champion American Roots, the genre generally begins and ends with Emmylou Harris.

But Another Country made me hopeful about a singer I knew nothing about. Tift Merritt's songs were smart and soft and deep, and she had a honey voice that a country singer would kill for, and, on the CD cover, she was beautiful in a girl-next-door way.

Fool that I am, I thought I could help her break out of the pack.

So we met.

Our conversation was thoroughly confusing. Tift Merritt is an astonishingly nice person, not a mean bone in her body and all that. She is also tough bordering on ferocious. Not about getting somewhere, although she was clearly not immune to the charms of stardom --- her determination was about her work.

Fool that she is, she thought there was real value in making music that mattered, music that aspired to art.

Traveling Alone might just qualify. It could not be more timeless, less trendy. It has just the right proportion of kick-ass songs to whispered meditations. She's supported by first-class musicians and a highly regarded producer. It's so well written that a line like "beauty is defiance in the face of death" is a throwaway. Maybe, just maybe, the planets are aligned in her favor this time.

Exhibit A: "To Myself" (hot, crank it)

I couldn't resist a rematch. Hold on.

JK: A CD has become a collection of 99 cent singles to download. But this feels like a real album, not a shot at single hits.

TM: Exactly.

JK: Isn't that suicidal?

TM: The thought of making work that's easily consumed and quickly forgotten --- what's the point? I want my work to be cohesive, to age and improve like old leather.

JK: The theme of this CD is right in the title: traveling alone. Dare I ask you to elaborate?

TM: At the end of the day, we're alone. There are hard truths in that.

JK: Which reminds me: There are no songs about your relationship with your husband.

TM: I felt it was important for me to stand on my own.

JK: Standing alone --- standing erect, as it were --- do you feel more spine?

TM: Yes.

JK: How does that manifest?

TM: I no longer care what anyone thinks.

JK: How's that working for you?

TM: Quite well. I don't want to be overly philosophical, but I think there are things you earn for yourself as you go. And there are things that happen when you're 37 --- you see it's not a joke. It feels now or never.

JK: Don't scream: if it's now or never, why not go for a big hit?

TM: When I was nominated for a Grammy, my label dropped me --- I have a wariness about trying for a hit.

JK: So this is the most artistic CD you can make?

TM: Yes. I took a risk. I went my own way --- I made this record on my own. I paid for it. That was important for me.

JK: Do you know the story of 'Dancing in the Dark?' Bruce Springsteen finished a CD. Jon Landau, his producer, said it was great --- but it lacked a hit. Bruce, pissed off, wrote 'Dancing in the Dark' in, like, 20 minutes.

TM: Do you know how many times I've been told this story? And how many times it worked? Not once!

JK: There's a beautiful duet with someone who sounds like Roy Orbison. But Roy's dead. So who plays Roy?

TM: Andrew Bird. I wanted to write a duet. But Andrew lit the Roy candle in the studio.

JK: Bird is just one of the important musicians on this CD. But they don't play much. Why not?

TM: They're great musicians, but not great egos. At one point, the drummer, John Convertino, said, 'Here's my contribution to this song --- I'm not playing.'

JK: So this is my take: 'Traveling Alone' is an adult experience, not for kids, and the smarter you are, the more you can get from it.

TM: Thanks. I like the higher denominator.

Tift Merritt's tour schedule

Oct. 5 Chicago

Oct. 6 Minneapolis

Oct. 8 Washington, D.C.

Oct. 9 Philadelphia

Oct. 10 Somerville, Mass.

Oct. 12 Charlottesville, Va.

Oct. 18 San Francisco

Oct. 19 Los Angeles

Oct. 20 Santa Monica

Oct. 21 San Diego

Nov. 1 Cincinnati

Nov. 2 Detroit

Nov. 3 Millvale, Pa.

Nov. 4 West Long Branch, NJ

Nov. 5 Burlington, Vt.

Nov. 7 Portland, Maine

Nov. 8 Portsmouth, NH

Nov. 9 Norfolk, Ct.

Nov. 10 Port Chester,

NY Nov. 11 Westhampton, NY

Nov. 13 Baltimore

Nov. 14 Blacksburg, Va.

Nov. 15 Carborro, NC

Nov. 16 Charlotte, NC

Nov. 17 Birmingham, Ala.

Nov 19 Copenhagen, Denmark

Nov 20 Göteborg, Sweden

Nov 22 London

Nov 23 Oxford, UK

Nov 25 Manchester, UK

Nov 26 Edinburgh, UK

Nov 28 Newcastle, UK

[cross-posted from]