On one of her finest songs — "Another Country" from 2008's album of the same name — singer-songwriter Tift Merritt turns a trip abroad into a metaphor for human connection. "I want to go with you," she coos, her voice hovering vulnerably above the lushly produced, piano-driven anthem.
Jump forward five years and it's hard not to hear the title track of Merritt's latest album, Traveling Alone, as a sort of companion piece to "Another Country," if perhaps more in the sense of a photonegative. "If he's not at home," she sings succinctly over a sparse acoustic guitar, "well, I always had a taste for traveling alone."
" 'Traveling Alone' is really about an interior landscape," Merritt says, quick to distinguish the song's theme of independence from that of actual loneliness. "You know, while 'Another Country' is about the idea of people being countries unto themselves, and the effort to bridge that gap, I think 'Traveling Alone' is more about forming a moral code for making your own way. I think that's the question: How do you participate in a world that you often can't relate to or agree with? We all have to negotiate that."
It's probably no coincidence that Merritt — a North Carolina native now based out of New York — was without a label or manager when she wrote many of the songs on Traveling Alone. More than a decade into a critically lauded career, she was now essentially alone at the wheel, free to steer her fifth studio album in any direction she pleased.
"So, I financed it," says Merritt. "I made all the arrangements — every takeout receipt was in my hands. And I really was surprised at how much I enjoyed it! It just made everything really simple, because the only people involved in the record were the ones I invited to be there. We didn't have to listen to anybody else. And it was kind of wonderful. It was risky too, obviously. But you have to put yourself out there and take a risk sometimes. It's rewarding!"
To her credit, Merritt greatly reduced that risk factor by recruiting an all-star cast of collaborators to help her make a live-off-the-floor, "Let's do this right now" record. Produced by Nashville native Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Decemberists, Neko Case), Traveling Alone was recorded in Brooklyn in a little over a week, with contributions from Andrew Bird, drummer John Convertino (Calexico), steel player Eric Heywood (Son Volt), guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) and longtime Merritt bandmate Jay Brown.
"You never know for sure how everyone is going to work together," Merritt says, "but I think it was important that all these people are very tasteful players — minimalists. They believe in space and in leaving you your own. They don't play with their egos. They play with their hearts. And the difference is so tremendous."
Not surprisingly, Traveling Alone quickly found a home on the Yep Roc label, which released the album last fall. For Merritt, it's her third label, following flirtations with mainstream hits on both Lost Highway and Fantasy Records. Back in 2002, her debut Bramble Rose broke the Billboard Top Country Albums chart (No. 47) with the video for "Virginia, No One Can Warn You" earning regular play on CMT. It was a blessing and a curse in a way, as lazy genre tags have dogged the versatile Merritt for the past decade. Onstage, she can certainly channel the nightingale of Emmylou Harris from time to time, but her spectrum is far broader, gracefully bouncing from R&B struts to folk-rock to piano balladry. She even recorded an album with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Night, which will be released on March 19.
So, has Tift Merritt, country artist, just been tragically mis-marketed all these years?
"Well, at a certain point, I don't even care," Merritt says with a laugh. "I don't think anybody thinks that the music business appeals to the highest common denominator in its marketing, you know? I really just look to my friends who are painters, or filmmakers or novelists. ... We're just making what we make and exploring new colors. I wouldn't know how to arrange my brain into a single, sellable compartment if I wanted to. I live in the music, not in the music business."
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needs more candlelight! i like this song.