Tift Merritt: Stitch of the World
Published: Jan 26, 2017
In another century, a very young singer wrote a song called “Bramble Rose.” It put her on the map of singer-songwriters who happen to be women: Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Ronstadt. In 2015, Don Henley, who wrote and sang many of the greatest hits of a band called The Eagles, covered the song, with Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger as backup singers. “I’d wanted to record that song ever since I heard it,” he said. It’s hard to think of a greater compliment.
I met Tift Merritt several albums later. She was smart and quick and well-read, and she had a clear sense of who she was and who she didn’t want to be. I wrote about Another Country and Traveling Alone, and I went to see her when she was opening for Josh Ritter. It makes me crazy when musicians are spoken of as “artists” — I prefer Leonard Cohen’s phrase: “workers in song” — but in her fierce insistence on forging her own path, Tift Merritt might reasonably be described as an artist.
“Stitch of the World” is exactly what I expected. The songs are thoughtful and sensitive and personal. “Dusty Old Man” has kick and a beat, but it’s Old School, not raucous or super-produced.
But “quiet” does not mean laid-back. Things are being worked out here, and if you don’t get that the first time around, you’ll be rewarded if you put this music into heavier rotation. [To buy the CD and get a free MP3 download from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
A new record gave us an excuse to talk.
JK: “A Stitch in the World” –– I hate to reduce poetry to prose, but could you explain?
TM: For my 40th birthday, I rented a cabin in California. It had such an amazing vista — the Pacific forever, cliffs, trees and stars — it didn’t seem real. I thought how lucky I was, and about invisible ties that link us to one another and to the world. And sewing — it’s a delicate thing. You can pull too hard or get thread twisted or torn. You’ve got to be careful – and still go blindly and joyfully forward.
JK: You’ve written: “What made my time off special was that I had a regular writing routine. I was private. I followed my heart and my craft. The story of being a writer is the story of being devoted over a long time. What I hate most about bios is that they trade the small virtue of the writing life for pretending that artists and albums spring forth fully formed, trimming the tale to fit the spotlight.” During that time off, you lived in Marfa (Texas), a California cabin and New York. You ended a marriage, started a new romance, got pregnant, returned to North Carolina. And now we have this thoughtful and compelling collection of songs. I collaborated with Twyla Tharp, who wrote about creativity as muscle memory in The Creative Habit. That sounds like you. Take us through a day when you’re writing..
TM: Coffee. (Don’t grind — just give me the caffeine.) Read for 30 minutes. During the writing of “Stitch,” that was Ray Carver and Jack Gilbert. I do some free writing, then I start revising what I’m working on. At noon, I switch to instruments (guitar, this time). Do I ever stop? Yes, I get up to check the soup when I’m stuck. Then I walk. I like to stay in proximity to my house — I carry a notebook, but I want to be nearby in case I hear music. (Yes, I could sing into my phone, but…) Then it’s 2 or 3 PM, I go outside, do physical things. Have dinner, drink a little wine. Look over what I’ve done. And quit on a high.
JK: And dream?
TM: Detailed sci-fi and personal dreams. I write them down.
JK: Your daughter is less than a year old. And here you are, starting an ambitious tour on two continents.
TM: Jean has already traveled a fair amount. We go out and see the world together. We’re together most of the day. Motherhood is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
JK: For me, the election is a kind of cultural dividing line — a lot of things sound different now. You finished recording before the election. What does it sound like now?
TM: I don’t strive to make light and breezy music. I’m usually dealing with pretty heavy stuff and looking for perspective. Like “Love Soldiers On.” [Lyrics: “Lock it out and don’t return its call, Swear you don’t know its face at all, Throw it in the river, lose it in the storm, It will show up in its bandages tomorrow at your door. Love soldiers on. Love soldiers on. There’s nothing you can do, love will soldier on.”] I wrote that for myself. To say: press on. I thought: I won’t have to sing this after the election.
JK: You still sing it.
TM: It’s easy to be crushed into hopelessness. It makes singing seem silly. Other times it feels like it’s everything and you keep on. After 11/8, I thought about my child. I could not let her see the heaviness I felt inside. I hid my tears. I want her to have joy. I wish I could show her only joy, but I know motherhood is not that simple. So I want to show her how and where to find joy every day in a complicated world.
Complicated. An adult word. A word to end on, because Tift Merritt makes music for adults.