“I’ve always had a taste for traveling alone,” Tift Merritt sings in the title track of her fifth album. This time around, she got to prove it, “calling the shots myself and letting myself go wherever I needed to go” at a point in time when she was a free agent without label or manager. But the song does also conclude that “Everybody here is traveling alone,” a realization that places as much value on community as iconoclasm. And Merritt put together her “dream cast” of fellow travelers to play on Traveling Alone, which found its happy home at her new label, Yep Roc. The road less taken doesn’t preclude good company.
The New Yorker has called Merritt “the bearer of a proud tradition of distaff country soul that reaches back to artists like Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry,” a standard upholding that got underway in earnest with Bramble Rose, the 2002 solo debut that put her on the Americana map forever. As her sophomore album, Tambourine, was followed by Another Country and See You on the Moon, Merritt found acclaim coming not just from critics and awards orgs but her own heroes, like Emmylou Harris, who marveled that Merritt “stood out like a diamond in a coal patch.” Now a leading lady in her own right, Merritt is hardly one to hog the spotlight. She engages in dialogue with fellow artists of all disciplines on her public radio broadcast and podcast “The Spark With Tift Merritt,” bringing in fellow sojourners ranging from Patty Griffin and Rosanne Cash to Rick Moody and Nick Hornby (who devoted a chapter to Merritt in his 31 Songs book).
For Traveling Alone, Merritt knew—and got—exactly the journeymen she wanted with her on this 11-track trip: legendary guitarist Marc Ribot, Calexico drummer John Convertino, steel player extraordinaire Eric Heywood, acclaimed jazz and rock multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger, and longtime cohort Jay Brown on bass. As captured by producer Tucker Martine (known for working with the Decemberists, and one of Paste magazine’s “10 Best Producers of the Decade”) and mixed by three-time Grammy-winning engineer Ryan Freeland, the sound is both spare and luxurious. “Maybe I was bored with bells and whistles and wanted to go without them. It might have been that I didn’t have enough money for bells and whistles,” she quips. “But once you get in that sweet spot where things feel real and right, you just want to burrow down in that feeling. Nothing to hide behind, no distractions, no sense trying to be everything to everybody. There’s a beautiful economy of motion in that place.” Who wouldn’t want to tag along?
Tift Merritt talks with Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis is the author of a good number of New York Times non-fiction bestsellers, including Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, both of which have been adapted into acclaimed motion pictures. A New Orleans native, he first became friends with Tift Merritt when she was being produced by their mutual pal, George Drakoulias. “There really is something powerful about the combination of Southern lady and artist,” Lewis recalls thinking while first observing her in the studio. “The other thing that jumped out was: popular musician and not a flake. It’s so refreshing when you find someone who’s that good who isn’t hiding behind affectations. There’s such a naturalness in her.” Lewis caught up with his once-and-future fellow Southerner to talk about Merritt’s new album, Traveling Alone.
As I was listening to this, a thought occurred to me: These songs sound kind of lonely. And I didn’t know the name of the album or anything when I was listening to it, and then I found out. But Tift as I’ve met her isn’t alone and doesn’t feel lonely. So I’ve got to ask: What are you doing writing about traveling alone?
I’m 37, and I think this happens to women at my age, to be perfectly frank. [Laughing] And I think that we all do travel alone, and it’s important to think about that sometimes. It’s funny that you say I don’t come across as a lonely person, because I would agree. But I do funnel those darker sides of myself into my work rather than my life—I think for the better. And after you hang around for a little while, it’s really just the important fights that are really important to put on the stage. Maybe you’ve earned it from yourself to not sit in the trenches, but to really go for the heart of the larger questions that we all face in our hearts. I just wanted to really get to the heart of the matter—which I always do, but hopefully you travel in a little deeper every time.
When you think of this in relation to your other records, how do you think of it?
I think of it as a record that I really needed to do, in terms of calling the shots myself and letting myself go wherever I needed to go. Not worrying about what might make other people uncomfortable is not a skill that you are given and encouraged to have when you are a Southern woman. But I think it’s a really important skill to have as a writer. You really need to be willing to travel wherever you’re compelled to travel, and have whatever questions are in your mind, and to have the guts to do that.
Let me interrupt you. You’re living in New York City; you’re a cosmopolitan chick. Do you still self-identify as a Southern woman?
Sure! Heck, yeah!
I just figured that maybe you had gone past that.
I definitely think of myself as a Southerner. I mean, I’ve lived in France and I’ve lived in New York City, so I don’t think of the world completely through that lens, and I have had a lot of other experiences. But the way that I really come to the world, my first impulse, is from living in a small town in North Carolina where you kind of knew everybody. And I don’t think that’s a bad way to come at the world.
No. It’s harder to hide.
And I like that.
When you had a first twinge of ambition, was there anybody you thought of as a hero or a guide?
Sure. The first person that I wanted to be like was Eudora Welty.
It’s funny that you said that, because when you said Southern women are taught to suppress a certain side of themselves, but it’s important as a writer not to, I was thinking how Southern female writers have a real gift for making people uncomfortable. And she’s one of them.
Absolutely. And she’s such an individual. I think about her living in this Southern town where everybody knew her family and knew who she was, and she never married, and she traveled around not only as a writer but as a photographer. To be a unique woman at that period of time, it probably could have gone either way, in a small town. But she never left that town, and she looked out that same window every day, and she always found something deeper to write about. And she didn’t invent some false drama for herself. And I just always thought that was so real and honest and humanitarian, in a way. She really believed that there was that much to see in people’s lives. And then of course I found Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris and Carole King, and that was really who I wanted to emulate—those leading ladies who had a point of view and a lot of dignity and purpose.
So let’s talk about this record. You mentioned that you executed it very quickly.
When did it start and when did it end?
We recorded in eight days in January. This is different from how I’ve made records in the past. I’m certainly not the first person to make a record like this. But generally when you make a record, you go in and track for eight days, and then go back and put some more stuff on it and make it perfect, and the next thing you know you’ve been in there for a month. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and I’ve been lucky to do that kind of thing. But what’s really interesting is being a good musician and being able to do it right then. So we wanted to do this record as real as we could, and if there were things that weren’t perfect, that was going to be part of what was important about it rather than part of what was wrong with it.
So when you finished it and looked at it, how did you think it hung together?
I thought it hung together pretty all right! [Laughter] I think the songs all have to stand alone, but by the time you curate it in the end, there is a greater theme that you couldn’t have implanted upon it. I wanted it to feel like chapters on a journey—almost like a cowboy journey, where you start out and you have a long way to go and you’re not sure how you’re gonna get there or what it’s gonna look like, and there are times where it’s very disorienting, but in the end, you’ve come this distance that you wouldn’t trade.
Was there something that triggered this record—something that happened to you to want to do this?
Well, I kind of found myself alone, career-wise. This sounds like such a cliché, and this has happened to every artist in the world. But I didn’t have a label and I didn’t have a manager and I was trying to figure out how to pay for this record. And I thought, this is the moment. I have to become the person that I wanted to become when I was a little girl, right now. And I have to become the artist that I want to become right now. There’s no “maybe up ahead…” It was that kind of moment in my life where, nope, right now I have to be who I set out to be. And that triggered a depth of writing, I think. And also being alone in my creative sphere. No one was there telling me it was good or bad, and that silence and economy of motion was really great. There was a lot of freedom, and then that kind of encouraged me to reach out to truly my dream cast. And honestly, I didn’t think they’d all say yes, and I didn’t even know if I could hold my own with them.
You have to tell me who this is.
It’s the drummer from Calexico, John Convertino, and my bass player who’s played with me for 15 years, Jay Brown, who is my soul brother. And a guitar/pedal steel player, Eric Heywood, who’s played with the Pretenders and Ray LeMontagne and Son Volt—an amazing musician. And Marc Ribot, who’s kind of the best guitar player in the world. It really is like watching someone who has one foot on the planet and one hand in the ether somewhere where things are really plugged in. Everybody was so down in it that it really gave me a chance to sing in some new places, with more depth and ease. I think also everybody on this record was kind of a minimalist, and it really gave everything this space, which I love. It was almost like the space was the other member of the band, and we had to give the space room to play, too.
When you first get in the room with these musicians you respect and you play them your songs by yourself, is that nerve-wracking?
You know, at a certain point in my life, it would have been nerve-wracking. But these guys were all so supportive of me. You know that saying—you want to be seen, but you won’t let yourself be seen, so what are you doing? I think part of being a musician is maybe not being scared of being a musician.
Since you began your life in music, was there ever a time that you walked away from it?
Yeah, definitely. But not long enough for anybody to really take me seriously. When I moved to France after Tambourine, I really thought, “Oh my God, I’ve made a mess of my life in this weird, weird industry. This seems so filled with ego; maybe I should be a teacher, maybe I should go back to being a writer—a purer thing.” And of course every time I think I’m going to walk away, I sit down and write another record. I’ve really given in to the idea that I love music and I love being an artist. And however being an artist relates to the music industry or celebrity, you kind of can’t pursue both at the same time. You just have to trust your work enough to see $12 behind the tree up ahead, and we’ll just follow this where it goes. You do what you do because you have to, and because it’s true, and there’s not some other way that you could go it to make it right.
Does that take you into this record, because this record gives you a new risk?
I think so. I mean, any time you write what you feel and put down what you feel in an honest way, it’s a risk. And it’s a risk in my job that you get more and more used to, till it’s like that drug you want to take.