Tift Merritt (The Interview)

I adored Tift Merritt’s last studio effort, Another Country, so much that I recently called it one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the last decade. Her album clearly spoke to me with tunes like “Keep You Happy,” “Broken,” and “Hopes Too High,” and it reminded me so much of Neil Young’s Comes a Time, one of my favorite albums of all time. Merritt, in my opinion, had written and recorded a definite keeper, and I played it for anyone who would listen.

So when I heard that she was planning on releasing another album in 2010, you could say I was a bit excited. There is really nothing like hearing new music from one of your favorite artists, and Ms. Merritt’s new tunes are soon to rule my iPod, I’m sure.

Luckily, Tift agreed to talk with Speakers in Code over e-mail about her last album, her upcoming album, North Carolina, and The Spark.

1. Let’s start by talking a little bit about your last studio record, Another Country. You went to Paris for inspiration — how does an experience like that affect your creative vision going forward?

Well, it makes you want to make your world bigger. Or maybe purer is the word. There is something really elemental about running away. You get to fall back in love with the world in a new way. On a practical level, it just made me want to build more time alone for myself to write like that. I really wanted to take what I learned and run with it further, more directly.

2. I understand that you went home to North Carolina to record your upcoming album. What were the challenges of going back home? What was different about the writing/recording process?

Going home felt just right. The band is there. Our posse is there. We love the studio Overdub Lane, and we’d demoed there so many times that it was just time to make the record there. Tucker Martine came to North Carolina, and we gave him this intense tour of our home turf. I kept finding myself saying, “that’s where I worked, that’s where my mom lives, over there is where we drank a bunch of beers in the rain ,and this place has the best hamburger in the world.” I love North Carolina, but I am always wary to find some intersection between being home while also challenging what we think we know and not getting to comfortable. That Tucker came down and really felt the place, my place, I think it really resonates in the music. He was really willing to reach out to us, and also to challenge us, too.

At the end of the day, though, when you are in that studio 12 hours a day, you make your own little world wherever you record. You forget where you are until you go out for a beer on the way home or order take out. You don’t think about how someone you know from third grade might actually hear it one day. Which is really important.

3. Tell us a little bit about the new album. What themes are you focusing on this time around?

I wanted to make a really direct record. With really direct writing. Not like, in-your-face, stand down direct, but just real strength. I didn’t want to angst about making things. I just wanted to follow my gut and make them as strong and immediate as I could.

My grandmother died while I was writing this record, and Zeke and Jay’s grandmothers died, too. All within two weeks of each other. That really became a big part of the record. I was writing while she was dying, and no matter what I was working on, it kept spilling in. This record is a little haunted, I think. It doesn’t wrap up in a neat story quite like running away to Paris, but it is realer for it. We are doing what we do making music the way our gut says. Doing the work we are supposed to do without fanfare. I like that we are just in there getting our hands dirty. And I like that ghosts keep showing up.

4. North Carolina has produced quite a few amazing artists. Who are some of your favorites who have come out of the area?

Nina Simone will always be my favorite North Carolina artist. It really is a wellspring there. So many cool bands and cool stories. Somebody gave me a mixtape when I was twenty or so with all these Chapel Hill bands – Polvo, Metal Flake Mother, Zen Frisbee. It blew my mind. Bowerbirds, the Rosebuds, Superchunk, and Merge for goodness sake. I couldn’t believe it when we started our band and people in a place that cool actually came out.

5. Finally, tell us a little bit about your monthly interview program, The Spark. You’ve had some amazing guests, including Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. How have those conversations inspired you?

I always, always learn something from these interviews. It is such a wonderful excuse to really focus on someone else’s work – and then to talk to them in person about it! I am always awed by the humility I find, as well as the practical wisdom. I always come away with a feeling of being so excited to get back to the everyday work of trying to make something small and true. Which is the best feeling I know.

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