Tift Merritt

Songs from a distance

Tucked away from the familiar with a piano in Paris, Tift Merritt found fresh inspiration in a change of place and pace.

By Naila Francis

Tift Merritt’s life these days is very much about a sense of place. And it’s not just because the singer-songwriter recently began a tour that will keep her away from home for weeks.

First, there is the move from North Carolina, her home since childhood, to New York City, where the 33-year-old has found a more satisfying alignment of commerce and creativity.

“New York is a great business town so I need to be there for my business, and I say all this with the greatest love for North Carolina and my home there, but I would be writing there sometimes out on a farm and doing these intense battles in my own head and then I would walk out to the grocery store and be out of sync with my surroundings,” she says. “I think when I leave my apartment in New York, the city is going faster than me and that’s comforting to me.

“You know, we all need to be around situations that make us feel like we belong and it takes a lot of energy to go against the grain even if we’re good at it.”

Then there is Merritt’s newest album, “Another Country,” inspired by a now-fabled sojourn in Paris, and recorded in Los Angeles. Released Feb. 26, it is her first for Concord Music Group’s Fantasy Records — the imprint known for launching Credence Clearwater Revival — following two albums, the acclaimed “Bramble Rose” and the Grammy-nominated “Tambourine,” for Nashville-based alt-country stalwart Lost Highway Records.

And while “Another Country” indeed references the place of reprieve from which she carved out its songs, it is also about the less tangible, those spaces of the heart, as she so wistfully sings on the title track, that are much more challenging to navigate.

“Once I wrote that song, it was really clearly the umbrella everything was under,” says Merritt, who performs Monday at Johnny Brenda’s in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. “I just was thinking a lot about the distance between countries geographically and in the real world and the distance between countries that are political or intellectual or emotional. I couldn’t help thinking people are very much the same. People are like other countries. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in the same room with somebody, there still might be a distance between you that is unbridgeable and the idea that we have to translate ourselves to each other in order to be close to each other is an endless idea that is presented and being processed throughout our lives.”

The album, in breaking with the country rock and soul-infused hybrid of previous efforts, is a quiet affair, save a few rootsy mid-tempo numbers, with Merritt turning her honeyed vocals to a candid introspection. On songs furnished with an eloquent poise — the lilting weariness of “Something To Me” and the bittersweet “Keep You Happy,” in particular display a poetic refinement — she seems a woman trying to balance a yearning and disillusionment with an awareness of her own resilience and optimism. As an artist and in relationship, she seeks her most authentic footing, settling into the questions when the answers aren’t readily apparent.

Merritt acknowledges that in going to Paris, where she stayed for four months and returned several times over the course of a year, she had no real agenda. All she knew was that life on the road had been wreaking a slow havoc on her internal landscape — and she wanted a break. Touring Europe at the time and having once been an exchange student in France, she rented a flat with a piano in Paris and then gave herself to the city, wandering the streets, drinking wine, taking her coffee at sidewalk cafes and observing and absorbing the small moments of intimacy woven so effortlessly into the culture there.

While she hesitates when acknowledging the “hard time” that drove her there, Merritt says the decision was not all that unusual.

“I’ve always needed do that,” she says. “I think when I do these things, when I talk about myself and am trying to explain where I’m coming from in a way that’s really neat and makes sense, the easiest thing I can say is that I absolutely have a side of me that wants to be a monk and the other side of me that balances that out has the illusion that I want to get up on stage and dance in front of all these people every night. And we all have that as human beings.”

Though she indulged fleeting thoughts of songwriting bankruptcy, unfettered from obligation, she found that in her many hours playing piano — “I really think pianos have a way of speaking for themselves and I love to be around that,” she says — song fragments came and began to coalesce.

“A problem we all struggle with is having the time and strength of mind and peace to separate ourselves from our e-mails and grocery lists and our chores. And it’s not something you can just do in an hour. You can’t go anywhere with an hour. With 55 minutes, you’re just getting somewhere,” Merritt says of the fugitive creativity she’d known while immersed in a touring musician’s routine.

Pegged as a country artist following her Grammy nomination in 2004 for Country Album of the Year — a pigeon-holing that’s always baffled her — she let go of any expectation for what her new album would sound like.

“I think this is not something that came from a feeling of wanting to be in anybody’s face or prove anything to anyone and it wasn’t really a celebration or a party,” says Merritt of “Another Country’s” reserve. “Once I had these songs in hand, I wanted the sonic experience of this record to be much like an extended hand or invitation or one person talking directly to another person in their ear and you can’t really do that with shouting.”

– The Intelligencer