Tift Merritt Duets With Andrew Bird, Finds Musicial Sweet Spot on ‘Traveling Alone’

Originally published in Spinner, October 2, 2012

(Parker Fitzgerald)
(Parker Fitzgerald)

With her brand-new record, Traveling Alone, New York singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has in some ways gone back home in a figurative sense. First, after being on two different labels for her previous four albums, she signed on with Yep Roc Records, which is based in her native state of North Carolina. Second, Merritt sonically went for a rootsy approach on the new album (which comes out today) compared to her last record, the beautiful See You on the Moon.

“See You on the Moon,” she tells Spinner, “we wanted to have some freedom to build out from the guitar, and not just assume that it was a four-piece band/four-on-the-floor drums — [and] kind of play around with texture a little bit more. [Traveling Alone] was a very back-to-basics, live-off the-floor, ‘let’s perform and be real musicians,’ and then just take a picture of that. I think that was very much on purpose.”

As to the album, which was recorded in Brooklyn, Merritt says the main theme is traveling alone. “We all, to a certain extent, do travel alone,” she explains, “and I think at certain points in your life, that resonates very clearly. I always want my work to have a sense of place. So I think traveling alone is an easy way to talk about your emotional life or just the process of being an artist, which you always hope is the process of starting one place and ending up another.”

Listen to “Drifted Apart”

Traveling Alone contains a very soulful duet between Merritt and Andrew Bird on the tender ballad “Drifted Apart.” The two met when they performed together at a show. “I ended up sitting in with him on a harmony,” she recalls, “and he has such a gorgeous voice. When we sang together, I was raising my eyebrow and like going, ‘Wow.’ So I really wanted to sing with him again. I thought that song should be un-dramatic as possible — just one woman and one man talking to each other in a very plainspoken way that what was sort of beyond fighting. I was thrilled that he said he was willing to be a part of it.”

Another great track from the record is the melodic “Sweet Spot,” which Merritt describes as “this constant in life and in your work of when do you push forward into something where you’re reaching, and when do you just inhabit what you do best and not try to reach at all. I think this record and this moment in my life was kind of more about, ‘Ah, you have to come to me, I’m not reaching right now.’ I think when you get to a certain age when you just don’t care what anyone thinks, it’s a nice feeling too.”

The final song “Marks” closes the album with some soaring guitar. “It’s a just song,” she says, “but it makes you feel the weight of something larger — at least it does that for me. We had such a good time cutting that song live, and yet at the same time, it was built around [a] very simple two-chord guitar part. So I think that’s probably very much what this album was trying to do.”

Fittingly, Traveling Alone arrives on the 10th anniversary of Merritt’s debut record Bramble Rose. It’s a milestone that Merritt admits she had thought about a lot. “I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, I spent 10 years in a van, how did it happen so fast [laughing]?’” She adds: “I can’t believe that it was 10 years ago and I can’t believe how little I knew. I’m really proud of that moment and that record and of what we did then. You just always hope that the best is in front of you and that there are plenty of miles ahead.”

Aside from touring behind the new album, she is continuing her gig as host of ‘The Spark,’ a public radio interview program in which she speaks to different people in the arts about their craft — past interviewees have included Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Andrew Bird. “It’s really a wonderful excuse to meet really unique artists,” Merritt says of ‘The Spark,’ “who are making unique work and really have unique lives too. I really get a lot of joy from meeting these people who are doing what I’m doing, which is making their own way.”

In addition, Merritt has recently collaborated with the classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein on their own rendition of a Schubert piece. Both Merritt and Dinnerstein are planning to release a new record together sometime in March. “The best way to describe it is a song cycle,” Merritt says of that upcoming project, “about [Simone] and I trying to figure out where our musical worlds meet, because there is a lot we have in common despite how much we don’t have in common. It was really surprising where we found those places.”

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