The only way to cause a rift with Tift is to try to box her into one genre. Her musical heroes never had to put up with it. What’s that all about? George Byrne asks Tift Merritt
OVER THE course of several years interviewing artists who are promoting new albums, one develops an instinct as to just how happy they are with the actual process of promoting their work and right now Tift Merritt seems to be really enjoying herself. Despite this interview coming at the end of a day of press and radio promotion for her third album, Another Country, she's in bright and perky form in the Trinity Suite of the Westbury Hotel, flirting with the camera and posing coquettishly on the couch.
After the snapper leaves, the petite North Carolina native notices an elaborate chandelier hanging from the ceiling and regrets not being photographed beneath it. “I would have stood on the table for that shot, no problem,” she says.
Clearly not shy, therefore, when it comes to the business of promotion, and hugely interested in movies, art and literature (before the interview proper starts rolling we discuss the incredible film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and she casually mentions the fact that director Julian Schnabel “Lives across the street from me in New York” and is enthused that Cormac McCarthy's The Road will be filmed by John Hillcoat, who directed The Proposition), Tift is a delightful interviewee, not afraid to speak her mind and clearly enthusiastic about her new album which, she admits, wasn't the case when work began.
“With this one I wasn't really trying to aim for anything in particular,” she explains. “I just wanted to write songs. I was tired. After being on the road for so long I was just burnt, so I went to Paris for what I thought was going to be a vacation.
I was convinced I had I had nothing to say — perhaps ever again in my life — but I was just so relaxed there and started writing again. I was there for three months and there were never enough hours in the day to write, it was just wonderful.”
That well-being and contentment can certainly be heard on Another Country, which differs in style from both its predecessors — the stunning 2002 debut Bramble Rose, which saw her rightly hailed as a successor to Lucinda Williams and Emmylous Harris in terms of songwriting ability and vocal prowess, and the more soul-influenced 2004 outing, the Grammynominated Tambourine. However, one thing which is guaranteed to stir Tift into something resembling a tirade is the tricky subject of genre and how she's perceived as an artist.
“Genre is like a coat sometimes,” she says, “and if we decide to go for a pedal steel backing or a horn section it affects how the music is perceived. The song is still the song.
“Tambourine was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Album and it doesn't sound country at all and while Bramble Rose did sound more like a folk-country record, mainstream country radio in America wouldn't even look or sneeze in its direction. You get told that you're too rock for country radio and too country for rock radio — what do you do?'
Luckily for Tift, other parts of the world weren't as constrained as her native land.
“In the UK, magazines like Mojo and Uncut really got behind Bramble Rose and were incredibly supportive, as was my hero, Bob Harris. In fact, we got more radio play in the UK than we did in America, where things are so fragmented it's ridiculous. It makes no sense either. Look, if any musicologist or, indeed, regular listener were to really look at folk, blues, country, rock’n'roll and soul they'd quickly see that they're fingers of the same f *-ing hand!
“All my favourite artists took inspiration from every area,” continues Tift, really on a roll now.
“Van Morrison was influenced as an r'n'b singer by Ray Charles, Ray Charles himself went on to make million-selling country records — what's the big deal? Why should I keep my head down and just do one thing, when all the people I love and respect draw from everywhere? Okay, rant over,” she adds with a thoroughly disarming smile.
Tift's remarkable debut album Bramble Rose — one of the best debuts of the decade by any stretch — was a clear indication that a major talent had arrived, the heartbreaking laments of Supposed to Make You Happy, the title track and Are You Still In Love With Me?, which sounded like nothing less than an Edith Piaf soul-baring filtered through the spirit of Elvis's Sun take on Blue Moon, sat easily alongside extremely sturdy band songs, no surprise really given that Tift and the Carbines had been gigging for years and were thoroughly at home with the material.
“Myself and Zeke, the drummer, started the band in college,” she says, “and we basically just kept getting more and more gigs: that was the grounding. There was no major plan or anything but, having said that, I think that while long-term plans are redundant as there's no safety in being an artist, it's important to be business savvy, to have a sense of who you are, what you should do, where you're going and what you're worth.”
Tift is finally making it to the Kilkenny Rhythm'n'Roots Festival this year and has recently undertaken to presenting a public radio show, The Spark, which features artist-to-artist interviews, the first being Nick Hornby.
“I love Nick's writing and, of course, he did include Trouble Over Me from the first record in the 31 Songs book!” laughs Tift. “But the reason for the show was that I was lonely on the road, really disconnected and I wondered if other artists felt the same way. I wondered if I was just a shitty artist and should hang it up, so I wanted to talk to other artists about that and that's how the show came about.
“I've always had a selfish interest in how artists behave. I'm interested in how these people live and maintain their fire and integrity – hence, The Spark. Oh, and I love vanity projects!”
Another Country is in the shops this week.
Tift Merritt plays two shows at the Kilkenny Rhythm'n'Roots Festival over the May bank holiday weekend