Tift Merritt was having it all. And having none of it
By Jason Blair
Tift Merritt’s 2004 album Tambourine is, perhaps fittingly, full of rattle and shake. There’s motion everywhere in the songs, but the overwhelming sense is of displacement, of lives being lived with the painful awareness that when you’re lost, it’s easier to go forward than turn back. Merritt understands inertia: Hailed as an alt-country chanteuse since her debut (2002’s Bramble Rose), she promoted Tambourine with a heavy touring schedule, only to realize, even as the album won a Grammy, that it was time to get off the bus. “I didn’t really know what home was,” she says. “A lot of subtle things were out of focus.” So the girl from North Carolina went to Paris — and stopped moving. “I wasn’t sure what came next. I tried to make room for not knowing what came next.”
The result, Another Country, isn’t just her finest album. It’s a near-masterpiece, a genre-defying statement about closing life’s gaps by a woman who, at 33, will gently remind you, “I’m still creating myself.” Musically, Another Country approaches rock, but it’s rock gently strummed and composed, anchored by Merritt’s piano playing, which gives the album a classical feel. Largely gone is the twang of her prior work. You can still hear traces of Americana and even country, but lyrically, with lines like “The kindness of a stranger / is dust from an unseen wing,” you’ll also hear intimate songwriting not typical to either genre. Carrie Underwood she isn’t. More like Joni Mitchell in blue jeans. And like Joni, you can share her equally with your mother and the indie hipster girl you’ve been courting. But make sure the hipster girl likes to dance.
Often compared to Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris, Merritt, who’s been claimed by almost every genre possible, became by virtue of her sojourn in Paris something uncategorizable: an artist. She now hosts a monthly radio program, “The Spark,” during which she interviews the likes of novelist Nick Hornby and photographer Mark Seliger. “I’m fascinated by the process of being an artist throughout a lifetime,” she says. “It’s not about a record cycle. It’s not about one movie, and one movie being successful. It’s something a lot deeper and farther away from the spotlight.”
Another Country makes a case for Merritt’s inclusion among the best female singer-songwriters emerging in any genre, along with Feist, Martha Wainright, Kathleen Edwards and Jenny Lewis. An energetic performer who resembles the actress Gillian Anderson — the San Francisco Weekly describes how during a recent show, she “bucked her petite body like a rocking horse” — Merritt’s solo show at the Shedd shouldn’t be missed.
To hear more from Tift Merritt, including her thoughts on Paris, Emmylou Harris, Cy Twombly and Fleet Foxes, read the Q&A online at blogs.eugeneweekly.com
Tift Merritt 7:30 pm Wednesday, 10/1. The Shedd • $18-$26