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Tift Merritt on Stitch of the World and the songwriting process

Acclaimed singer-songwriter, Tift Merritt, is known for her sweet melodies and intricate lyrics, and has recently graced her fans with her latest album, Stitch of the World. On this album, she collaborated with Sam Bush of Iron and Wine and really focused on her roots and upbringing, reminiscing of what her father taught her, in creating this record. We had the pleasure of talking with Tift about her new album and the collaborations featured on it, her background in photography, and how her songwriting has shifted now that she’s a mother. Find out more about this exquisite musician, and her love of music, and the arts.

The raw material of my life is always fuel and sets the stage for what I am writing.

Stitch of the World was released a couple of months ago under Yep Roc Records.  It’s your first studio album since Traveling Companion in 2013 and I understand you went through some life changes during the writing and recording of this album.  Can you share with us those experiences and the inspiration behind the album?

The raw material of my life is always fuel and sets the stage for what I am writing. At this point, that’s my job, that’s what I do. Inspiration comes from all different places — but an album is made up of so many different moments and hopefully covers a gamut of things to have some depth. Like a map of a landscape from a period of time. The past few years were very intense for me – turning 40, getting divorced and really finding myself off the map of where I thought my life was headed. There were a lot of tough moments and also happy ones and I am sure making sense of all of this was the engine for this record.

Do you feel those experiences had a major impact on the music for this new album?

Always. I mark my life by writing. I think it will take many, many years for me to have perspective on my marriage falling apart and maybe the most significant thing I found writing this record was that I knew I was trying to write about things I did not wholly have perspective on or distance from. That was scary. But also really rewarding to say I did it, and really perhaps more honest that the thin perspective we all pretend we have on life!

This record was a truly amazing group of people collaborating.

You collaborated with longtime friend Sam Beam of Iron & Wine on Stitch of the World. Tell us about that collaboration, the music on this recording, and the musicians that contributed to this work.

Sam is such a dear, generous, insightful person. I am very grateful to him — I have always wanted to collaborate with him and bumped into him at the airport in North Carolina one morning. I told him I had all these songs but I wasn’t sure if they were any good. He said, “let me hear.” We had a wonderful series of long talks about them after that. It really gave me the confidence I needed to make this record. I could not have done it without him. I think about third verses in a completely new way now, from those talks. Also, his sense of counter-melody brought a whole new layer to these songs. He is a really gifted man. This record was a truly amazing group of people collaborating. Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Marc Ribot, my very favorite musician in the world on guitar, the incredible Jay Bellerose on drums, and spectacular Jennifer Condos on bass. We cut it live in 4 days! My dear friend Ryan Freeland engineered it with warmth and flame. I feel very lucky to have worked with such amazing musicians and people, every one.

You credit your early musical influences from your father and that he taught you how to play guitar and piano. How old were you when you first picked up the guitar and what kept the desire going?

I remember him singing and playing as a little kid, and trying to sing along.  I played piano when I was a little, and when I was 12 or 13, all the boys started playing guitar and I figured I could, too. Desire is a pretty raw thing when you are a teenager, mainly a desire to know who I was and if I had anything to say. I knew, for whatever reason, that words and music made me feel alive. For some reason, making good things and having something to say seemed to matter most to me. I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t sure how and I was looking around for a medium. I wrote a lot. I tried a lot of things. Once I had a band in college, I kept getting gigs.

What were you listening during that time that has influenced you today as a musician?

I was listening to songwriters, to songs telling personal stories that feel real to me. I was picking out things I could play on guitar. A lot of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Tom Waits. I eventually found Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt and Townes Van Zant. Those people are still important to me today. But that was twenty years ago, so my creative world has also continued to evolve in that time.

The surest ingredients are elbow grease and openness.

What inspires your songwriting process and which comes first, the music or the lyrics?

If only inspiration came in orderly, easy to categorize recipes. The surest ingredients are elbow grease and openness. I try to marry the music and the lyric as early as possible. To start, I either write words or spend time with an instrument. Anything goes from there. There are no rules.

Do you feel your music has changed over the years, and as a new mother, will this new chapter in your life inspire a different approach to your songwriting process?

Process, by nature, needs to grow and go somewhere. Like a body of water, it gets stale if it doesn’t move. Process is hard to pin down, but I hope mine has pushed forward by way of a willingness to go deeper as I learn. I think you can hear what I’m interested in or digging into at different times in different albums. If things are working right, I feel like I am just at the beginning of things, like I’ve just learned some vital thing that will allow me to make something good. Being a mother has infused my life with so much joy and openness, and I hope, when I finally have some time to write, that will absolutely be a part of my writing.

You just started your first tour of the year in the UK and then heading back to the US where you will be covering quite a few cities from New York to California over the next several months. So far, how was your experience in the UK and what are you looking forward to the most out of your US tour?

I just finished touring with Jerry Douglas’s Transatlantic Sessions and it was just an amazing group of musicians and people. I had a fantastic time and I already miss everyone. Touring is about having a great musical experience every night, but also about seeing friends and exploring local culture. And now, it is most of all about how my daughter takes to it. Thus far, she is having a ball. She made so many friends on this past tour, that she had to learn to wave hello.

Being behind a camera is a good way to remind yourself to stop talking and LOOK at the world, to get out of yourself.

Not only a musician, but you also are a photographer and had some of your work displayed several years back at a gallery in Raleigh. Are you still pursuing your photography work and do you have one favorite photograph you would like to share with us and the meaning behind it?

I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. Taking pictures is great writing tool you rely on your eye and your heart. I think pictures are a lot like songs, a captured moment that hopefully speaks for itself. I took a lot of pictures on tour while traveling and writing in Paris. That exhibit was a while ago, sort of the collateral work that accompanied Another Country. So, it was interesting to show it in that context. Being behind a camera is a good way to remind yourself to stop talking and LOOK at the world, to get out of yourself. I really love film cameras; now cell phone pictures have flooded the world and it doesn’t seem as special. But as a writing tool, I think taking pictures is really valuable, whether anyone sees them or not.

Throughout your career, what’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to someone wanting to become a professional musician?

I’ve learned a lot of lessons hanging around musicians. Listen. Practice. Making your own way is really tough but very rewarding. I think people often want music business advice and the truth is there is no magic door. Just listen, write, practice, play. It takes courage to follow your work, but you have to. Be true.

Fun Questions

Top 3 songs on my playlist are: 

Hmmmm. The ever-changing top three! Here are 3 perineal favorites.
That Feel, Tom Waits
Highway 61 Bob Dylan
When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge

One album I cannot live without is:

Bone Machine, Tom Waits

If I could collaborate with anyone:

Ray Charles, Tom Waits, Robert Frank, and Annie Dillard

One thing people don’t know about me is:

There are a lot of things people don’t know about me — but I love pickles, I collect vintage textiles, I’m afraid of the down escalator at airports, and I really want to go to Portugal.

In one word, music to me is: 

Love. Spirit.

For more on Tift Merrit, visit her site HERE.



Tara Low



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