DID MUSIC NEARLY LOSE Tift Merritt in the past couple of years? As we saw in part one of this interview, as good a songwriter and singer as she is, the impressive nature of her non-music writing and her ability to forge a connection with her subjects in a series of interviews about the creative process had fans of her musical output worried.
A return to Australia this week, with Andrew Bird, has only partly soothed those worries.
“I think I’d have to get a really high-paying job on a TV station to interview people all the time,” Merritt laughs heartily from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I think it’s the difference between a journalist speaking with an artist and I’m coming in as the student. And my own questions ground all of that, and it’s a lot more meaningful if I’m in pursuit of my own questions in my own work, and then taking it back to that place.
“Which isn’t to say that my work hasn’t changed a whole lot, but it’s still there; it just hasn’t been forward-facing in a while.”
When she goes in in as a student, how do other artists and creatives respond to her? More than anything, it seems that they value that she is coming in with an open, inquisitive mind and spirit.
“The first thing I want to say is that I’m really a completist. It’s so annoying and unnecessary, but I really want to get as granular an understanding. I want to get my own understanding of what I think this person is doing, and I want to have a really real appreciation for their body of work, which takes a lot of time,” Merritt says.
“It’s really a pleasure but I think most of the people that I talk with a surprise that I know as much about them as I do and I think that’s just simply a good entry point, where this is not a rote task and I’m actively listening and I’m kind of falling in love with the person for doing what they do. If I’m knowledgeable and genuinely touched by it, that’s just a very easy place to begin.”
It’s respect really, isn’t it? Respect for their work, by preparing; respect for what they’re saying by asking them to tell you more, so you can understand. But it’s not just with fellow artists that this principle holds up with Merritt. Her research into her corner of the state – where she grew up before leaving for several of the corners of the USA, returning to Raleigh, where here parents live, around the time of the birth of her daughter in 2016 – has been a cornerstone of her work in recent years.
Among the areas of research is a former hospital/asylum which operated from 1856 until a decade ago, and a repurposed cotton mill. How have her investigations, which resulted in among other things a song cycle centred on the asylum, changed her perspective on an area she thought she knew?
“The easy answer to that is the layers of place, and the stories that we are not told. It isn’t that everyone’s saying ‘don’t talk about that’, it’s more like we are busy and we don’t look back at how the history of the site affects who we are today. How a hundred years ago and today have a real relationship,” Merritt says. “I’ve been doing a lot of site-specific work here, working in music and objects and an old hotel, an asylum, archival research looking for lyrical presences in all that, and I’m just surprised at how much repetition there is and how much the present and the past are not cleaved from each other.”
Knowing more about the roots, the motivations, and the tragedies and successes – both personal and community – can’t help but have an effect.
“I think there are things I’ve learned about myself too, which is that stepping back from the music business for a minute has given me a little more perspective on what parts of me fit in that, and what parts of me are really not interested in that,” says Merritt.
“Which isn’t to say that I’m not interested in music, but I think celebrity is not a good thing and not a way to be a good writer. Coming as a writer from a really different place than that is really important to me.”
If all of her was motivated by and satisfied by music, it would suggest a rather limited perspective.
“I think the music business at present is really something that often asks people to give it their whole lives, and I can’t do that. I’ve redefined that and I think I’m happy about that.”
The central part of her life, her daughter Jean is not coming to Australia, and in fact that absence from Jean is why she will only do hit and run tours like the Andrew Bird tour. But then again Jean has ready been here: when Merritt was last in Australia unknown to most was the fact that she was at the time pregnant. And about to change everything.
“I think it’s worth saying that I was really aware, consciously, of how becoming a mother was going to blow my life up, and everything that I had built my own sense of happiness on, which was being an artist,” she says. “So it’s just a huge triumph that this is way better. You are here for a lot of reasons other than yourself, and it’s a really meaningful way of being in the world. I actually love being a single mom, being the person at the helm, being the person who shows her that it’s messy and I make the calls and we do this.”
Rather than keep Jean from the attention, Merritt regularly places her within her writings and her responses to art and the world generally, saying “it is staggeringly easy to write about Jean”. The work in fact feeds back into her parenting, being an example to show the seven-year-old that a messy, complicated world isn’t a reason to step back.
“To bring that full-circle, I also feel that part of my work has been along those lines: thinking about how to push the story forward for women,” explains Merritt. “So much of women’s music is forgotten and we have this kind of fixation on celebrity, but there are so many women who we don’t know their stories, who were absolutely revolutionary and important and speak to where we are today.”
What can Jean, or we, take from that?
“There are so many lessons about strength and beauty to learn from them. So I’m interested in that place and I certainly don’t want her thinking that being behind the microphone is the be all and end all of life,” she says. “We really have such a limited sphere of influence [with our children], right? My most powerful influence on her is my example.”
And that includes engagement in the political process at grass roots and at its power-influencing levels – “activism has become really important to me” - in a state that in recent elections has become very contested territory.
“I didn’t really feel like I had a choice to be honest. I live in a state that’s really a swing state, and for all the times that I’ve thought, I’m out, I’m going to Portugal, I’m really grateful that I’m in North Carolina where I can try to make a difference in a place where there is a difference to make,” Merritt says. “Staying in your lane is truly not that interesting. And also, how did we get to this moment? I couldn’t sit still and not do anything, right? I couldn’t.”
It's not a universally held opinion in the arts, when the backlash can be virulent.
“I understand that a lot of musicians don’t want to touch it, and part of that is because there are a lot of haters out there and that is difficult, but I’m in a really unique position because, maybe because some open about who I am, but I’m also kind of friendly and not scary. I’m able to be a plucky ambassador in some ways so I’m going to do that,” Merritt says with a smile.
“I think a lot of out what is our obligation to Bohemian idealism and intellectual seriousness, these things that we as musicians claim. Do we have an obligation to fight for those things, to fight for progress and women’s rights and anti-racism? I think we’ve inherited a space that we need to live up to. I think not speaking up in the time that we’re living in, is really dangerous.”
Preach! And furthermore, I can confirm that Tift Merritt is friendly and not dangerous, if she is in need of a testimonial.
“As Audrey Hepburn says in Charade, I only bite when it’s called for.”
Tift Merritt plays with Andrew Bird: The Forum, Melbourne, March 9; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, March 10; Tivoli, Brisbane, March 11