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LAist Interview: Tift Merritt

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It won’t be apparent when she takes the stage tonight at the Troubadour, but the last time Tift Merritt was on the road, a rigorous year supporting her vibrant 2004 album, Tambourine, it left her so worn out that she fled to Paris to get lost. With no intentions of working but simply to take in the solitude of being a stranger in a country not her own, she nonetheless found herself plucking away melodies on a piano in her rented flat. When she least expected it, Merritt was inspired and songs that would ultimately wind up on her newest release, the intimate and hopeful Another Country, began taking shape. The album's title not only alludes to James Baldwin and Merritt's wish to lose herself in a foreign land, but it also suggests a transcendence of musical genre. In Another Country, Merritt finds freedom both artistic and personal.

Reached in Seattle after a soundcheck, Merritt explains her surprise productivity at a moment when she thought she was just about drained. “It came at a time when I felt like I didn’t have anything to say,” Merritt says, “And I think that freed me up. Sometimes you have to free yourself, and distance gave me the luxury to do that. I was just writing songs for myself.”

Merritt soon found herself freer than she might have liked. Even with two critically-lauded albums with Lost Highway and Tambourine’s Grammy nomination for best country album, the label dropped her as she awaited the green light to record a new album. It shook up her world, but she eventually landed on Fantasy Records. By all accounts it has worked out for the best. Merritt struggled with Lost Highway to record her first two albums, but with Another Country she says, “I felt no pressure on this album. I felt free to work.”

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This sense of liberation is apparent on Another Country in several ways, most obviously in the album's sound. It is the least beholden to the alt-country sound specialized by Lost Highway, and instead it adopts a more romantic folk sound. Even that, though, is a limiting way to describe the album and Merritt, who bristles at the idea of genres. "My friends say I make it hard for myself by not sticking to one thing, but music doesn't divide itself into genres, "Merritt explains. My favorite artists--Carole King, Van Morrison, Ray Charles--didn't think in genres. They played what they thought was good and interesting. As a musician I want to constantly explore and not do just one thing."

Exploration has marked Merritt's work so far. While her debut, the somewhat dour Bramble Rose, stuck mostly to country tropes, Tambourine exuded a sexy, rollicking confidence in its soul-inspired songs. In a way Tambourine was an odd Grammy nominee for country album since it wasn't so much a country album but an exploration of where country, soul, blues and rock intersect.

Another Country offers a more wide-ranging palette. In "Tell Me Something True" we hear a little of Tambourine's sassiness with its horns and stomping beat, while "Tender Branch" comes closest to the old country of Bramble Rose, and in "Mille Tendresses" we glimpse Merritt as a saloon singer crooning in impeccable French, a reference to her time in Paris. That the album is not disjointed but rather is Merritt's most cohesive album is a testament to her songwriting and her versatile vocals. Merritt sounds just as confident singing a wounded love song as she is singing with a gospel choir as she did in Tambourine's memorable closer, "Shadow in the Way." Her singing ties the album together, and it is wisely placed front and center.

Even more affecting are the themes of unexpected discovery, the virtues of patience and fortitude that mark the album. The album has a more contemplative sound, but it never for a moment feels overburdened by misery. Far from it. Another Country has a peaceful, refreshing sound like a cool summer breeze. Even in a song like "Broken" where she sings, "But I'm broken and I don't understand/What is broken falls into place once again," one senses a hopefulness that a "hand of kindness" would swoop in to save her. Better yet is the album's title track, a gorgeous yearning song that envisions love as a country to be discovered. To be disappointed in Another Country for not reviving the joyous vibe of Tambourine would be to miss the new album's own rewards. Another Country is aimed squarely at the heart. It might not set your toes a-tapping but it will move you with each song Merritt sings about "letting your guard down all the way in hands you trust."

The hallmark of Another Country is the sense that Merritt has regained her footing or, to take the title of a song from Another Country literally, Merritt knows what she's looking for now. It is not so much confidence in where she is going but rather a humble knowledge that with patience things will be resolved.

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Where Merritt will go from here is hard to tell, but freedom seems to suit her fine. She even has started her own monthly radio show on an NPR station in Marfa, Texas. With "The Spark," Merritt sought to converse with other artists about the process of creativity, how they lived and how they thought as they pursued a work. Merritt explains, "With the show I'm trying to make sense of being an artist. I wondered whether other artists had the same doubts that I do. How do they motivate themselves? What were they thinking while they worked? Often times the stories that you tell are the ones when you're prepared, but I was more interested in the moments in between." So far Merritt has interviewed author Nick Hornby and the poet CK Williams.

As much as she's enjoying her stint as a radio show host, though, Merritt has no intention of giving up music: "Music is something I'll never completely understand. It's always a mystery. Music is a real part of myself and I can see myself doing it until I'm old and I just want to lock myself away in an attic." But as a self-described "cheerleader of cross-pollination" look for Merritt to pursue her muse wherever it may lead her. As long as she keeps bringing out music as rich and rewarding as Another Country, the music world is a better place with her on stage or in a recording studio than locked away in an attic.

WHERE: Troubadour, West Hollywood
WHEN: Tonight, 8:00PM
PRICE: $20

Photo of Tift Merritt by Mark Borthwick.