Tift Merritt turns passion for prose into evocative music

Tift Merritt turns passion for prose into evocative music

Story by Linda East Brady , Standard-Examiner staff - Jul 20 2012 - 8:54am
Tift Merritt

Mary Chapin Carpenter

with Tift Merritt.
8 p.m. July 26.
Kenley Centennial Amphitheater
403 N. Wasatch Drive

Singer/songwriter Tift Merritt, who opens for Mary Chapin Carpenter at Kenley Centennial Amphitheater next week, is, at heart, about capturing the small picture that tells a big story.

She's practiced this art in short stories, in song and in photos.

But don't be expecting a novel out of her anytime soon. Merritt's mastery is in the short form.

She thought her calling was as a prose writer. She went so far as to study creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But while there, she found a friend who wanted to start a band with her.

"Music was a big love, always, but I thought that being a writer was more likely to happen to me," said Merritt, calling from a tour pause in Austin, Texas. "I thought being a writer would be more of who I was, because I am kind of a hermit, and I enjoy being alone. I was skeptical of the part of myself who wanted to get onstage and be in front of people."

She laughed. "I just thought whatever that impulse is, it is bad."

She said she no longer writes short stories, unless you count her evocative songs.

"Now that I have been making records for as long as I have, I can't see going back to short stories. But either way, I really enjoy the economy of motion both offer. I really enjoy the intensity of every word mattering. ... I like a story in three or four sentences. I like figuring out what information is just passive and does not have to be there."

And then there is the most essential part of storytelling in song -- music the essential tool, in her case, said Merritt.

"The language of music is doing so much of the work -- it can't be underestimated how much that communicates in itself."

Merritt looks to life's quandaries for inspiration.

"A dilemma about life, that is what you move toward. It's a great feeling to find a situation and think, 'Wow. That deserves a song.' Love, life, death, good versus evil -- really, these are the things I write about in a tiny way. I find a feeling or a conflict that feels substantial enough to pursue."

Merritt said she does not have any particular method for luring the muse to bless her pen.

"There is no formula. I would sure have it delivered daily if there were such a thing."

Merritt also likes to take photos, though she denies being a true artist with the lens. But, photos, like songs and short stories, are a way to capture something big within something short and sweet, she said.

"If you get the right moment, you capture the big scope of things. I don't believe in walls between the different humanities. Taking a photograph has the intensity of singing a song. Singing a song has the intensify of writing a story."

In good company

Merritt is releasing her fifth studio album, "Traveling Alone," from Yep Roc Records in October. She gathered her crew, set up live in the studio, and made the album in eight short days.

John Convertino, of Calexico, was one of her handpicked musicians.

"He is awesome," Merritt said of Convertino. "I think the world of him, and he brought such a groove to everything."

Other contributors include her guitarist Eric Haywood; Jay Brown, Merritt's bassist of 15 years; and Marc Ribot on guitar.

"It was a really neat thing because it was a group of people who had all admired each other, but had never been in the room together in this way. I wanted to do that. I didn't want to get a patch of people who'd done this 50 million times, with me being the only interchangeable element. But when you do it this way, you wonder if they will like each other. The answer was yes. It was dreamy. Eight of my favorite days ever."

She used the example of the title cut as a song that came together as it did because of who was involved.

"Your first instinct with a song called 'Traveling Alone' is doing it alone, taking care of it myself. But it was a really great example of how the whole is stronger than the parts. It is a blues song -- lyrically just very simple. We let it grow, and gave it space -- space was really the sixth member of the band.

"It is an earthy and real record, and I am proud of that."

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