We decided to kick off a new year of NoiseTrade One-on-One interviews with a bang by sitting down and chatting with alt-folk singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. The multi-talented troubadour is releasing her sixth studio album Stitch of the World (Yep Roc Records) on January 27, so we got her personal take on her new batch of songs, what inspires her while writing and recording, and what she has taken away from the experience of working so closely with artists like Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Andrew Bird, and Hiss Golden Messenger.
NoiseTrade: I love the evocative title of your new record, Stitch of the World. What can you tell us about the meaning of that title and about the themes in your new collection of songs?
Tift Merritt: The inspiration came when I was in California and had rented a cabin for my 40th birthday. I was looking out the window at one of those surreal California sea cliff views where the stars and the trees were just so startlingly beautiful that it didn’t look real. It looked like some of those old felt cut-outs where you could create your own landscapes. I just started to think about how it looked stitched together and how lucky I was that I was stitched into the picture as well. I asked myself what all of these invisible stitches that hold us together and to each other might look like. Where are all of those invisible seams? Which ones are in our control and which ones are not?
That metaphor turned out to be a idea about how to navigate life. If you pull the seams too tight, they’ll break. If you aren’t careful with them, they’ll knot. Maybe the best way to navigate life is to try and be gentle with this thread and be joyful and light-hearted about how we are connected to everything. Spending time writing these new songs in these intense landscapes – the California coast and down on a dramatically beautiful Texas ranch – was a great reminder to be humble about it all.
NT: How did being pregnant with your daughter shape the songs on your new record?
Merritt: Most of the songs were already written by the time I found out I was pregnant, so a lot of them are not mining that specific territory. During that time though, I did move back to North Carolina from New York and I was worried that it would become extremely difficult to sustain my music career. As much as it was a very magical, hopeful process, there was also bit of the feeling of going blindly into something. I think motherhood, which I’m now experiencing, and the joyfulness and openness of it all will affect my songwriting in a completely new way from here on out.
NT: Some of the album was even recorded while you were pregnant, correct?
Merritt: Yeah, we recorded everything pretty fast and I was really worried that I would be too tired or would push myself too hard because I was almost in my third trimester. However, I found out that just being responsible for someone else and literally carrying someone else inside you made the physical experience of singing and playing music even better. You might be singing or playing into a microphone, but that sound is moving through your body and through another person. All of my musical experiences while I was pregnant were really special because I was conversing with my daughter. Whether it was my guitar right up against here or the sheer physicality of singing, I know that she experienced part of that and I really love that.
NT: One of the new songs on your NoiseTrade sampler is “Love Soldiers On” and you’ve said that you were initially inspired while you were watching ranch hands work their daily routine. How did that inspiration transform into the final song?
Merritt: I’ve always been fascinated by day-to-day process in life. We always talk about the “artistic” process, but we don’t talk about how everybody has a process, no matter what they are doing. Watching the ranch hands every day contributed to that thought. It was a very pastoral scene and it felt so romantic, like “Now I want to be a cowboy.” The other side of it though, is the monotony. However, there is such a cool requirement in keeping on going. That’s the stuff of life, especially in terms of love. Sometimes it’s about staying in the trenches and soldiering on. We don’t always hear about love’s small, quiet everyday victories, but they are so present and so important.
NT: Another one of the new songs represented here is the album’s first single “Dusty Old Man.” Sounds like you and your band were having some fun on that one.
Merritt: I had started playing around with open tunings on my guitar and it reminded me of an old Bonnie Raitt record that I love. The happy, carefree side of the blues, you know? I was thinking so much about that when I was writing and recording that song. I really love the driving beat of it and getting to hear Sam singing “Love” at the top of his voice.
NT: Speaking of Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), he appears on three of the songs on your new album. How did that musical partnership come about between you two?
Merritt: Yes, Sam’s a huge part of this record and he helped me with it so much. I have so much admiration for him and I feel so lucky to have a dear friendship with him. I was dealing with a lot of things during the writing process and I didn’t always feel like I knew what I was doing. I ended up writing from a really honest place because I didn’t always know what my own perspective was on some things. I was able to send him some of the songs during the writing process and he gave me such honest feedback. He also said he wanted to come out and be a part of the recording sessions and that was such a huge gift to me, both professionally and personally.
NT: You also spent some time touring with Andrew Bird in his Hands of Glory band and you appeared on the recent Hiss Golden Messenger album, Heart Like A Levee. What have you taken away from the experiences of working with those artists?
Merritt: I’ve learned so, so, so much from working with them both. Those projects are such huge gifts for me. You get to see how someone else creates, how they bring their passion to life, and how they run their band. Andrew is a virtuoso, so we come at music from such different places. Playing in his band and trying to help make him feel secure and free to shine has been super rewarding and I love singing with Andrew. I’ve also had such a ball with Hiss Golden Messenger and in some ways them reaching out to me during my transition back to North Carolina kind of saved my life. They were so encouraging and it meant so much to me. It is wonderful to be around them. I feel so fortunate to have both camps as my musical extended family and my friends.