Following a decade of laudatory press and audience devotion, but no big-time commercial breakthrough, Tift Merritt possesses admirable perspective. The singer-songwriter came up in the roots-leaning music scene around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., and she’s clearly thrilled that her fifth studio album, Traveling Alone, was just released by Yep Roc, an independent label from her old stomping grounds.
Early on, Merritt was the subject of many a breathless musical comparison and career projection, which is a considerable burden for any performer to carry. But she wears it lightly. In fact, she seems to have completely cast it off in order to give her work, and those whom it affects, her undivided attention.
For a solo artist with a well-developed sense of self, she also does an awful lot of thinking about others, whether it’s her listeners, her longtime band members, the other party in a relational scenario she’s depicting in a song or the interviewer with whom she’s spending a few minutes on the phone.
CMT Edge: When you look back on all you’ve done so far in your career, do you have a clear sense of what drew you in particular stylistic directions on particular albums?
Merritt: Yeah. I mean, I know what I was thinking about. I know what was interesting to me. I know what I was trying to do. I think whether you do that successfully, it’s really not up to you to answer in full. I can only say given everything, I did the best I could. I think what I do have perspective on is what is important to me and what I like and what makes me feel alive. You know, what you dedicate yourself to again and again musically. And I think that just deepens over time. More than anything, I’m proud that I’m still going and that I want to keep going.
As a new artist, you were frequently compared to Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris or whoever. You must have been aware of that to some degree. Can you put your finger on a moment when that ceased to be a factor in how people hear and talk about what you do?
I don’t know. My thought on all of that is that it’s lovely to be compared to the people that I was being compared to, or am compared to. But these are all people with really heavy, beautiful, lifelong careers and accomplishments, and I have a lot of work to do before I feel I’ve earned that. But at the same time, I’ve always been after my own voice. That’s something that develops over time and deepens over time, something that’s strong and lasts. So I guess I’ve just been paying attention to what I’m doing and what’s interesting to me. I don’t always know what the rest of the world is thinking about it, and I think that’s probably the right thing.
You’ve been making music in the Americana world long enough to weather a lot of changes in commercial expectations for a roots artist. What difference do you feel the shifting climate has made to you creatively?
To be honest, I think when you first are trying to navigate the music industry it can be a very daunting thing. But I think the longer that I’m around, all of that becomes smaller and smaller and smaller and music becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. We’re given the circumstances that we’re given. There certainly are poets and painters and writers and all sorts of artists who don’t even find their audience in their lifetime. I don’t know that I get to whine.
I mean, I can tell you in one sentence how any of this affects me: I’d like to take better care of my musical family. I’d like to have more creative freedom financially. But that’s just one kind of creative freedom. That’s just one kind of taking care of the people around you. I don’t pay it a lot of mind, other than trying to do a good job and not let it take up too much space.
Your roots go so deep in North Carolina and the Triangle music scene, though you’ve been living pretty far from there in New York City in recent years. How did you wind up partnering with Yep Roc to release Traveling Alone?
It felt like a million bucks, man! It felt like home. And I have to say that we’ve known each other for so long, and I think we’ve both been fighting the good fight for a long time. And I’m really glad that it’s happening now. I’ve had some good wear. I think having been around a while suits me well. You learn a lot. I’m glad to bring that to them. And maybe they feel the same way. They were so respectful of [the fact that] I really wanted to make this record on my own and not have anybody at the table with me when I made it and really take full responsibility for it. And they were like, “Yeah, man! That’s awesome! Do that, and call us when you’re done.” That was a big deal. They’ve been wonderful. They are my family. They are my neighbors.
You’ve named Bonnie Raitt as an influence. What was it about her that caught your ear? Did it have to do with her presenting herself as a fully-rounded, grown-up woman, like you’ve done in your way?
She’s spunky and fun and full of life for sure. … At one point I went and I got all my favorite female singers’ first records to kind of find myself, build myself a bridge by looking at how other people did this. Her first record is such a huge influence on me. I love it! It’s fun. It’s deep. And she’s like this old soul with this great, gritty, greasy band around her. She just seems like somebody who wanted to go live fully and be worn in and kicked around a little bit. She didn’t want the easy way. She wanted to be a blues woman, you know? She wanted to really live. I just got those feelings from those records, and the songwriting was so great. And it was never so pretty or so slick that I couldn’t relate to it. It was always real. I wanted to be like that, you know?
Her songs about relationships have a sense of mutuality. “Drifted Apart” on your new album is like that, too. You take both sides of the relationship into account. Is it harder to write in that way than it is to, say, write a kiss-off from one side?
I don’t like writing from any sort of pissed-off kind of thing. I don’t write often from anger. I think that a point-of-view is totally important, but the legitimacy of that point of view is really important, too. That point-of-view has to hold itself to telling the truth and not a one-sided, wacked-out story. I strive for more honesty than just a soapbox for one side.
After I listened to Traveling Alone, I read the lyrics. Not only do they sing well, they also read really well. Did you read them aloud, test their poetic properties?
Yeah. Not an accident. That’s important, you know? I come to this as a writer first. Maybe I’ve been in it long enough that I am a musician first, finally. I think you’ve gotta be hard on your lyrics.
Singer-songwriters sometimes fall into the trap of writing in a way that’s cathartic for them but not so intelligible for listeners. How do you make songs feel accessible?
I think that’s a very important thing. You have to remember that writing a song is, in essence, a form of communication, a form of reaching out. I think you reach within and then you try to make something that stands on its own and communicates apart from you. I think that’s what a good work of art does.
I know I do write songs that aren’t successful in that regard. And they don’t leave my house. Communication’s such a beautiful, mysterious thing. It cannot be forced at all. I would say if you were to ask me to boil it down to one thing, I try to speak about complicated things in a very plainspoken way. That’s what I like and that’s what I try to do. You practice your whole life; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It constantly comes in and out of focus, and you just have to keep trying.