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IT’S AFTERNOON IN NORTH CAROLINA, sun-filled and mercifully free of ice storms, hurricanes or any kind of natural disaster, and the superb singer/songwriter of southern soul-meets-folk-meets-country rock fare, Tift Merritt, is speaking from a room familiar to anyone who has turned into her “nightcaps” on social media over the past few years.

The room, with its fitted-in-everywhere books and stacks of papers, its instruments and mementos, has been the shadowy background to the personal messages and updates – sometimes accompanied by song, often with stories of what she and daughter Jean have been up to that day, or how her many projects and upcoming shows are going – which she would post irregularly, late into the evening, after Jean had gone to bed.

For most fans of her work, certainly of her music, these nightcaps had been the most access available during and after the depths of Covid. A lifeline even, and so damn nice it was like being tucked into bed just before the lights went out.

Today isn’t a nightcap but it is an update: Merritt, who was last here in 2015 touring with one of her heroes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, has confirmed she will be in Australia next week, a late addition to the tour of her friend and frequent show-buddy, Andrew Bird.

“It all happened very fast didn’t it? I’m so excited.”

She’s excited? How does she think we feel? But even as it sounds greedy, it has to be asked, is the visit a prelude to something more? An album release? Her own tour? A book of her essays from Oxford American magazine and other publications? A compendium of the interviews with fellow artists that she has been conducting for some time, most recently for the radio program, The Spark? An extension of her exploration of archival research into local history, especially in relation to women?

Anything at all? We’re not fussy.

“Not this year. I haven’t been resting on my laurels since I last saw you,” she says, as if the years of political and social activism, prose writing, those interviews, not to mention solo parenting since 2016, might be viewed as slacking off because there hasn’t been an album since 2017’s quietly stormy, warmly comforting, Stitch Of The World. “I have a number of projects that I’m working on that have music on them. I don’t know that anything will be released this year, I’m still finishing things or starting things.”

Whatever happens after this brief Australian tour – and Merritt says “I’m not making big announcements about anything” though she expects to announce some this year and bring one or two to fruition in 2024 – there won’t be anything lengthy that would keep her from her daughter. That’s what’s been front of mind for the past seven years.

“I was really, really scared to get off the road. It was a completely easy decision because of my daughter, but it was not one that was without some real fear and discomfort,” she explains. “So I had to think of new and expansive ways to be an artist and also a mom, and I’ve been working on projects that have music but a more multimedia and longer term and larger structures.”

Merritt, who has said that her original childhood dream had been to be a writer, until her father partially derailed her by introducing her to his record collection and a guitar, has proven herself quite a beautiful writer outside of music. She brings equal parts intellect and emotion to a graceful style that partly reflects her time studying creative writing at UNC at Chapel Hill.

However, equally important for her it seems has been building an alternative environment where creativity is valued and engaged with, and where its lessons can be applied to real-world issues.

“You know, I started doing those interviews about [the creative] process 15, maybe 20 years ago, with public radio, before podcasts were podcasts,” says Merritt. “It just got to be too much work – I always hoped I’d walk into a production team – but I was really happy that these came back during the pandemic and I’ve got this whole archive. So that will be fun to bring out.

“But the prose writing has been a really wonderful outlet for so much writing that I have. I do feel like music, the way we consume at these days, is without context, and these other mediums, whether it’s prose writing or interviews or public history projects, really allows for this deeper relationship with where music comes from and why it’s made and what it means.”

In this space between writing and making music and interviewing and researching she’s found “a really widening and satisfying place … a wonderful adventure". But wait, there’s more. Music more.

“I am planning on recording a new record this year, and then I got another record that I’ve been working on for several years that I want to finish next year. There are a few things coming.”

We may see some of this when she plays on the Bird shows, but what has she learnt from her engagement with other artists in interviews for The Spark?

“One of my favourite interviews was with Okwui Okpokwasili, who is a choreographer, performance artist and dancer, and I wrote this down when we were talking, this idea that when you are really working at a deep level you are reaching forward and backwards, the healing goes backwards and forwards, and you are kind of opening this very raw space there’s not really about time, it’s about something else.

“I love these conversations with artists in other formats because I think often in music we are just operating on this ‘how many people like us?‘ level, and I don’t find that very satisfying or interesting or faithful. So really getting down to the nitty-gritty of what is behind what people are doing and why makes me return to my desk with more purpose.”

Back at her desk with tips? Guidance?

“Yes! Like, okay Okwui is trying to get to this raw, rigorous, energetic space – what if I brought that to my writing this morning? What would that look like?” Merritt says. “Sometimes I think musicians speak through their instrument so it’s really satisfying for me to have almost like a public history study of people making their own way, because it can feel very personal what you are up against, making your own way. I think it’s part of pushing back on capitalist society and the way that it’s always done.”

Sounds more than useful for us regular folk too if we’re being honest

“I mean sometimes I’m talking to really heavy, esoteric people, but we’re doing it in a really under-the-hood, down-to-earth way, because that’s the only way to make that stuff real for anyone. And I think it applies to all of us. It’s not just something artists own; it’s really applicable to building our muscles to live the way we want to live, no matter what it is we are doing.”

TOMORROW in part two of this interview, Tift Merritt dives into the past in North Carolina and finds the fashions change but the patterns are visible if you get to the stories others haven’t wanted to tell.

Tift Merritt plays with Andrew Bird: The Forum, Melbourne, March 9; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, March 10; Tivoli, Brisbane, March 11


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