I last sat down to talk to Tift Merritt in January 2008, in a coffee shop in Manhattan. It was a period of intense transition for the country-soul singer, songwriter, and Raleigh expatriate. The major label Lost Highway had just dropped her after two records, and she'd dispatched to an apartment in Paris, writing alone with only a piano. Back in New York, though, she and her longtime drummer and partner, Zeke Hutchins, had settled into a 265-square-foot Greenwich Village walk-up apartment, from which she was restarting her career with the charming third album, Another Country.
Eight years later, Merritt, now forty-one, and I meet in another coffee shop—this time in Raleigh, just a few blocks from the house she's renting in the old Oakwood neighborhood. She's been here three weeks, and she admits she's still living largely out of boxes. She's currently mixing her sixth studio album, and she's seven months pregnant with her first child. Merritt and Hutchins split long ago, so she's adjusting to the Triangle without him—again, another period of intense transition.
This time, Merritt and I sat for an hour to talk about the present but especially the past, given the recent reissue of Bramble Rose, the debut LP she released on Lost Highway fourteen years ago. She's practicing to perform it in its entirety for the first time.
"There's a lot going on," she says, smiling and blinking in the noon sunshine. "But it's interesting to be home."
INDY: You recorded Bramble Rose fifteen years ago, in 2001. How has it felt to reconnect with songs that are now teenagers?
TIFT MERRITT: This is a really complicated time to look back. That's a little bit like me to stick my face into something loaded. That's what writers are prone to do, so I didn't shy away from it.
I'm not a huge fan of looking back, but having just moved back and having so many things going on, I thought it would be a nice time to reconnect with my old friends, if nothing else. Creatively it's really interesting to look back at that record. I have a lot of opinions about it, mostly about the writing. I can see I was really more of a short story writer than a songwriter; the songs are so goddamn long. I'm glad to see the arc of where I've come. There is a recalibration that happens when you do this kind of thing. Maybe that's what I was hoping for with all of the change that is going on in my life—to sort of touch base with where it started. That record was a lot about my family and who I wanted to be and planting a flag. That's a really clear, straightforward place to come from. I like that.
Last year, Don Henley released his own version of "Bramble Rose." Did that give this album a retroactive boost?
We wanted to do what we could to support the Bramble Rose record in light of that. Universal was sweet and allowed Yep Roc to reissue it, which doesn't always happen with those larger companies. It's funny, when I was making Tambourine, Don Henley's bass player was involved. He was like, "You know, we play 'Bramble Rose' all the time in our sound check with Don Henley." That was twelve years ago. Then, I was actually playing the Cradle with Andrew Bird in 2014. We had all had a fair amount to drink that night. I woke up, and there was this email from Don Henley. I thought, "I better get up, get some coffee, and look at my email again." He said, "I have cut a cover of 'Bramble Rose,' and I wanted to make sure that it is cool with you. I actually felt like I needed to bring another layer to it, so Mick Jagger did it with me and Miranda Lambert." I couldn't believe it.
Is it more significant somehow since it's the title track from your record—a thesis almost?
It certainly is what I wanted to stand for in a way. There actually was a bramble rose—I don't remember the exact proper name—but it was a wild rose that I saw. It's in Oakwood, on a bank, on a street. I was probably twenty-five or twenty-six years old, and I was really trying to become the person I wanted to be. This wild rose wasn't really polished. It wasn't perfect. It was, on some level, self-sufficient and determined. There was some grace in that. It was this amazing burnt orange color. It will come up in July, if it's still there.
You've said that relationships to old records are never black or white, that they evolve. What do you like from Bramble Rose right now?
I'm always surprised at how much I like "Sunday," but I don't play that one very often. If there is a piano at the gig, I'll probably play that song. It feels very, very true to me, but it is very labored with the whole band. There are so many changes, and it's such a long song. This isn't one where I'm like, "Hey fellas, 1,2,3,4."
I think "Supposed to Make You Happy" is one of the more special things I've written, just the simplicity. I'm working on a new record now, and I can feel my eyebrow raise on particular sounds, minutiae required to turn in a one-hundred-percent-loved work. I couldn't tell you one of those details on Bramble Rose. Those things fade away, and you don't remember what you labored over unless it is a really special thing. I remember how I wrote "Supposed to Make You Happy." It was a really simple, no-nonsense process. Those times are really special. You've gotten out of the way of something that needed to be said.
What don't you like?
People like "Diamond Shoes" because it is a fast song. People like fast songs. But it is a very flawed song. There are just so many parts, so many long phrases, so many changes. They're not, like, stupid, but how about we not make War and Peace into a four-minute song? I can remember talking to Ethan Johns and him saying, "We need to throw this part out," which is a producer's job. But I'm a writer first, and I can't mess with the words very easily. I sort of have the same reaction these days.
Did you change them?
I don't know. I'm stubborn, but I'm also a very whole-hearted collaborator. Ethan and I sat down before that record was made, and he made a lot of suggestions that I definitely took to heart. I came home and rerecorded things and thought about what he said. I'm generally protective of my words, but really getting the red pen out and being heartless about editing was important.
What did you learn from that process?
Having songs that shirk traditional song form and go on for six minutes are important. If you were gonna put seven of them on one album, I would suggest editing yourself a little. I see myself transitioning into a shorter form on Bramble Rose. It's very interesting to go back and musically see how I was trying to support that many words.
My first two records are on a major label, and that wasn't always easy, either. I had to fight to write my own songs and to keep my own band. It wasn't a cakewalk. I don't mind thinking about that at all now, because I'm very proud of how we held ourselves.
One thing about Bramble Rose is that we really wanted to go from being a bar band to being "recording artists." This is the first time that we're standing in front of Neumann microphones. You want to gather your heroes and your best ideas and your high-mindedness. But by the time we finished touring Bramble Rose, I felt like I wanted to incorporate the energy of being a bar band that we had had. Bramble Rose can be a bit of an interior record. I wanted to test that.
Does that happen after most records?
You try not to get your records to be a reaction to each other, but how can they not be on a certain level? You have an experience, and you go through, "Well, I'm gonna have this other experience now." You do always have to push forward, but you have to do it in a way that feels true to your organs. There are a lot of things I haven't accomplished, but I do think I've done that. That began with Bramble Rose, where I thought about what Ethan said. Then I decided, "Hey, here's my line. We are gonna include this six-minute-and-fifty-second song, good or bad."
Has revisiting this material made you feel like you're being transported to some earlier version of yourself—especially now that you're back in Raleigh?
Surreal is a word. Emotional is a word. If my life were a little more intact, it would be more joyful. But it has been hard, just because Zeke and I aren't together anymore. My life has just changed a lot. It's really good to stop and say, "Holy cow, look at all that's happened." I've sorted through those old pictures, I guess. I'm trying to savor it in whatever way I can and allow it to seep in to what comes next.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Native Soul"