After releasing five superb albums, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt is finally heading to Australia with Jason Isbell in April. Les Thomas spoke to her about her current album Traveling Alone, interviewing fellow artists and doing her own thing artistically.
Can you tell us where the ideas started to come together for your current album Traveling Alone?
I’ve just been on tour so much for the past three years. I think that may have been part of it. I think it’s been a while since I’ve talked about it, but there were some things that happened that made me feel particularly unwell. I think I took for granted that at some point the world and I would start making more sense to each other, and I sort of realised it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t have a manager, and I didn’t have a record label, and I had to fund the record myself. It was like “wow, this could really be the last one, so I better do it exactly how I wanna do it, and say exactly what I wanna say”.
What does that whole idea of being by yourself mean? Are we especially good at being alone?
I think travelling alone is a really good metaphor for inner life, for artistic life. I think there’s an element of everyone’s life that is like that. I probably require a certain amount of time by myself. But, if I get too much of it, it’s scary. It’s as bad as getting too much of it. I’m a pretty self sufficient woman but I enjoy other people as well. I’m not an antisocial person by any stretch of the imagination.
The typical idea people have of singer-songwriters is that they live in their own bubble, but you have no problem turning your focus outward to other songwriters. I’ve been enjoying a lot of your interviews on The Spark. It sounds like the sort of thing you would draw a lot of inspiration from.
I think being the focus of attention requires that you throw that attention back on your world in order to maintain a healthy balance. I would much rather talk about other artists than myself. I also find that a lot of the things that I have struggled with, there’s some sort of visceral instinct in me that I’m not the only artist that’s experiencing this. I just wanted to go and talk to other people who are making their own way and find some common thread. I think that a lot of people who are off making their own way are really up against very parallel things. Everyone’s so different and doing their own thing to the extent that we don’t compare notes. If I can provide that function to other people, I think that’s a worthwhile conversation.
What informed the choice of New York as a home base?
I moved here five years ago. I lived in North Carolina for most of my life. I lived in the country. My husband is a drummer, and my husband and I were trying to be at the table for my career to speak for oursleves than have someone speak for us, and we figured we wanted to be around artists.We figured if we didn’t move to New York right, then we would never do it. We won’t be in New York forever, but we’re very glad. We’re really enjoying it.
You’re also interested in visual art and you have a background in short story writing. How does being a short story writer help in your songwriting?
It drives me crazy because I make my editing process a lot harder. I mean I’m not a novelist but I really write a lot of sentences to get those three or four sentences. Editing is a huge part of all forms, but the shorter the form the cogent the whole thing has to be. Being a short story writer really does inform how I think about music.
There’s a real intention that you have; you have an emotional purpose. Where do you see your mission in talking about the emotional side of life? And why is that the focus?
I think, first and foremost, to write honestly from whatever point of view I’m writing from. I think that hiding is a waste of time. I think if I had to raise one umbrella on my purpose it would be to make something very honest for myself and for my listener. I think it’s really hard to put your finger on why you have do what you do. It’s a very existential and vexed question “what am I doing and why am I doing this thing so crazy?”, but it’s just what I do. And I hope I’m taking pictures of life that’s worth capturing.
You’ve talked about self releasing this album and traveling alone. There are hundreds of thousands of artists in the same boat. Do you think that what you are writing about is emblematic of that?
I think the ups and downs of being an artist are not time specific. It’s just part of the game. I’m lucky that I had a certain amount of time that was spent in the music industry when there was a music industry, but they were not problem free (laughs). I mean, there was more money around. But I find that being able to call my own shots and do my own thing is so much easier now. Even though it is a particularly difficult time to make money as a musician, there a lot of good things in terms of making music and giving it to people.
How much time do you get to wind down from touring and re-energise artistically?
It’s funny that you ask me that because I am home for two and half months and I really love to do domestic life, and to cook, and do yoga, and see my friends. But if I’m not making something I feel kind of restless.
I wanted to ask you the question that you often ask your own guests and that is, as the teacher what would you like to impart as a message to us as students?
I think there are two things that I myself have been trying to learn better. One, is to stop thinking and just work. Just do it, don’t think about it. I read something in one of those music magazines about how we can give our work attention, but we also have to bring a sense of kindness and compassion to that effort. We can’t just be staring it down in an impatient way. I think if can link compassion to our work, something will move forward.
See tour dates at www.tiftmerritt.com