Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt originally set out to write short stories. But near the end of her undergraduate education, she decided to pursue songwriting instead. Though she says she only has nine hours of classwork left to graduate, "it felt very important that I didn't need someone to give me a piece of paper to tell me who I am." And yet the lessons of craftsmanship and self-editing carried over into her musical career, which started in earnest in the late '90s when she began performing at small clubs near her North Carolina home.
"I rely on the seeds that were planted in that writing program all the time," she says. "I believe that you have to be your own best editor. You have to be the person who knows what's going on in your work and why. You have to be the hardest eye on it. I certainly am a writer first and a musician second."
That rather defiant attitude has carried over into her musical career, and Merritt has good reason to trust her instincts. Her debut, 2002's Bramble Rose, which drew comparisons to alt-country crooners like Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams, was so highly praised, it landed on many of that year's top ten lists, an impressive feat for an artist who was virtually unknown.
She followed it up with Tambourine, an album that critics called a "rock-soul throwdown" and then switched labels to embrace a more clearly country sound on 2008's aptly titled Another Country.
On her most recent album, last year's Traveling Alone, she dabbles in a variety of musical genres. "Still Not Home" is a rowdy rock number that benefits from a gritty guitar riff and "Feeling of Beauty" and "Sweet Spot" are alt-country ballads that recall Emmylou Harris. "Spring" has a quiet intensity to it and "To Myself" is a solid mid-tempo rocker. And then, there's the title track, a somber song that provides the metaphor for the musical journey she's taken.
"I think that's a song that has a lot of different things that inspired it and there are lots of different layers to it," she says. "On one level, I was alone in the real world. I'm also at the point of my life where my interior landscape has a sense of aloneness within and I've been trying to reconcile that and join the world in a way that doesn't seem compromised. It's like how do you use integrity in a way that does not isolate you and allows you to take part in the world without feeling compromised. I think that's a very complicated question."
The album also includes a terrific duet with indie rocker Andrew Bird who contributes backing vocals on "Drifted Apart," a mid-tempo song about how we can't stay children for long. "Maybe the good times are ahead," Merritt laconically sings while Bird adopts a falsetto that makes him sound eerily like the late Roy Orbison as he sings the refrain. "I just adore him," Merritt says of Bird. "He and I sang together for the first time a couple of years ago and the first time I heard him sing, I thought, 'Wow. That is a noise worth making.' I asked him to come in and sing on the record and am so pleased that he agreed to do that. He's such a fine, fine musician. He's one of the best. Since then, I've been doing some more singing with him and it's made me really, really happy. I think his voice is a beautiful instrument."
Though Traveling Alone received rave reviews when it came out toward the end of last year, they translated into album sales. Merritt can still tour and fill small concert halls, but she's not getting any radio airplay and not on the cusp of becoming a big star. While that vexes her a bit, she says it hasn't stopped her from continuing to pursue a career on her own terms. In fact, when she recorded Traveling Alone, she made sure she didn't to rely on any outside ears for advice.
"It was a pleasure to make [the album]," she says. "It had its set of challenges for me and I'm not whining. Being an artist is not for babies. This was a record that I made with my band and me. It was just me and the people I had asked to be there with me. I thought that would be an enormously scary thing but it was so completely freeing. There was such an economy of motion. There was no second-guessing. That was a wonderful door to go through and I don't think that I'll ever be able to walk backwards."
While the album is certainly moody, Merritt bristles when she hears that one reviewer said it has a "melancholy undercurrent."
"I feel like 'melancholy' is such a flimsy word," she says. "I think there's a toughness and sadness to some of this, but there's also a strength to speaking truthfully that I think is there. If you listen to the words, I don't think it's a flimsy record."
Rather, she thinks the album is about what she refers to as "making the way in the world without a map."
"There is an art to making your own way," she says. "I don't think it's that that there are no rules and you do whatever the fuck you want. It's about having a deeper sense of integrity and a sense of things that must not be compromised even when the world asks you to compromise them. It's something of an outsider's code in a way."
Still, Merritt is well-known in alt-country circles, and she also says she realizes she's been fortunate to even have had the opportunity to try for fame.
"I think my biggest challenge has been translating [my music] into commercial success," says Merritt, who hasn't had an album since Bramble Rose sell well enough to make the U.S. charts. "I feel very good about the things that I've made. I've been very lucky critically. I've always trusted my work and I think if I make my work honestly and deeply and I am satisfied with it, that's the right direction to go in. There was a lot of pressure on me after [Bramble Rose] but it was more that there were commercial expectations and I think I handled it pretty darn well. It's a privilege to have commercial expectations put on you. But I think I'll always have a direct relationship with the heart and soul of my work and that's really, really important. I have to live there [with the music]. If I get outside of that, I feel like I'm on a date with the wrong person."