By Andrea Warner
She's a simple alt-country singer who hails from North Carolina and lives in New York, but moved to Paris for a while. Got all that?
The last few years have been critical ones for Tift Merritt. In the late '90s, she collaborated with N.C. alt-country band Two Dollar Pistols and formed her own country-influenced pop-rock group called The Carbines with three Tarheel scene vets — drummer Zeke Hutchins, guitarist Greg Readling, and bassist Jay Brown. She won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the 2000 Merlefest Music Festival in N.C. Her 2004 album, Tambourine, was nominated for a Grammy. She released Home Is Loud, a live album, in 2005, and appeared on a round of late night talk shows with the big two, David Letterman and Jay Leno. Not bad for a Texas-born woman who never had any real plans to be a songwriter and admits to wearing out her 45 of the Beach Boy's "Help Me Rhonda."
Merritt's also expanded her repertoire to include journalism. She considers her new monthly radio show The Spark with Tift Merritt "an excuse to corner people I admire and ask them about their lives." The show debuted this past January and airs monthly. It is available as streaming audio on Marfa Public Radio's website (www.marfaspark.com) and as a podcast.
Earlier this year, Merritt released her new album, Another Country, which she wrote during her sojourn in France. Anyone who wants a glimpse inside Merritt's temporary relocation need only press play on Another Country. It's not much of a map of gay Paris, but it hints at the powerfully haunting beauty that comes from isolating yourself away from the comforts, and trappings, of home.
Merritt checked in from New York before embarking on a tour that keeps her on the road until mid-October. But she still longs for Paris.
"Paris is definitely an art city, and it's a place where people are working very hard on caring for the small details, the nuances," Merritt says. "I think sometimes in the U.S., we get carried away with mass media and mass marketing, and it was just really nice to be a part of a feeling in a city where taking the time to do something small and worthwhile is absolutely legitimate."
Merritt's love for the Most Romantic City in the World dates back to her days as a student there. But even she admits she was unprepared for the torrent of songs that flowed from her when she arrived for this last stay.
"A lot of people go as a romantic getaway with their husband, or go shopping, or eat at a particular restaurant," Merritt laughs. "I sort of had this nice, romantic, bohemian adventure by myself, which is really a writer's paradise."
Merritt's reluctant to give away any secrets about her approach to songwriting, but she admits that she uses her eyes to take in the world around her when she writes. She's also reluctant to name a favorite song off Another Country.
"That's like asking me which of my kids is my favorite!" she says. "I feel like the French song is particularly about that time. I loved writing the translation and the nuances of language. That's part of the reason I loved being in France and trying to speak French."
With her feet firmly back on U.S. soil, she's been able to focus her attention on prepping for her tour and trying her hand as an interviewer for The Spark. This is where her diverse tastes are truly on display: her interview roster begins with novelist Nick Hornby in January and continues to July with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Merritt recalls how her frustration was the "spark" that got it all started.
"Sometimes I'll fall in love with an artist's work and, like we all do, I'd go and Google them, and I was really sad sometimes by the very commercial publicity speak. Or very gallery-minded art speak," Merritt says. "There was very little that was really emotional and spoke freely and truly about the struggles that an artist has."
Another part of her motivation was her desire to educate up-and-coming young artists.
"They need to know that we are not perfectly formed people, sprung forth with perfectly coiffed hair and clothing," Merritt says. "The spotlight is really artifice and making good art is not really about that."
But there's also that slightly indulgent part where Merritt gets to stalk artists she admires — and fingers crossed — she gets to fulfill her own Christmas wish.
"I have this idea, and I shouldn't tell you, but I will," she giggles. "I really want to interview Santa Claus about the art of delivering all his packages. I think Tom Waits would be a great stand in for Santa Claus, don't you?"