Tift Merritt and Zeke Hutchins live lightly. The couple's 265-square-foot apartment in New York's Greenwich Village resembles the dorm room of a college freshman with immaculate taste and Francophile tendencies.
It's pouring and cold outside, but the white-walled room is bright. A white leather couch, with two watercolors of Parisian street scenes resting on its back, claims half of a wall. Four dozen bottles of San Pellegrino sparkling water sit atop a refrigerator, and six cans of La Sueur early peas rest on a small set of kitchen cabinets. Beneath the lofted bed, a long desk holds two laptop computers, several dozen travel, photography and art books, and a modest collection of CDs. Rock bands share space with jazz and blues musicians.
"Good thing we're a bunch of minimalists," Merritt says in humble welcome, flashing her subtle Southern smile.
Beside the door, a corkboard hangs lined with to-do lists, idea sheets and a map of the world. One memo mentions finding a manager, producer and label, but the more telling note reads like a songwriter's tip sheet or a summation of the record Merritt just finished. The dogmas "Beyond Genre," "Tell a Story" and "Be Original" are scrawled into small boxes, and Merritt has written notes beneath each point: Norah Jones and Feist beneath the first, and "Good Business Sense vs. Too Arty" beneath the second.
"The crazy board was invented when we were drunk. We made a lot of lists and a lot of plans, and we did a lot of thinking," says Merritt. "It's important to focus where you're going on your own. And it's also important to have crazy dreams. ...That's why I've kept that crazy board."
Merritt and Hutchins have played music together since the winter of 1997, when they met while taking two American Studies classes at UNC-Chapel Hill. They both started college late: Merritt, raised in Raleigh, moved to Wilmington after high school to wait tables and to play music in restaurants. Hutchins, raised in Durham, had been touring in his rock band, Queen Sarah Saturday, since high school. He convinced her to bring a cassette of songs she'd recorded in New York to class. Two days later, he was crammed in her kitchen playing drums. They've mostly been together ever since.
In the last 10 years, Merritt's gone from regional sweetheart who played The Cave and Humble Pie and sang on a 1999 Two Dollar Pistols EP to a national up-and-comer: She has released two records on a major label, made a music video in Rome, been supported by the N.C. Symphony, toured the country's theaters and festivals, done the late-night television circuit, and started a radio show for an NPR affiliate. But after her first two records sold less than 120,000 copies combined, Merritt remained an up-and-comer, although adoring critics wondered why she wasn't huge. Critical laurels weren't enough for her major label: Lost Highway dropped Merritt late in 2006.
But Merritt and Hutchins took their careers back into their own hands. They found a new label and a new manager. In October, when they moved north, they also found a new chance to build a successful career on their own terms.
Another Country, Merritt's third and best full-length album to date, has been on store shelves for about a week. So far, the returns look good: Merritt played The Late Show with Jay Leno the night before the record was released, and she's charting at radio stations that have never before touched her material. She's been traveling alone for two months to pitch the record to radio programmers from Indiana to Ireland. The record has been perched at No. 1 on Americana Radio for three weeks, and she grabbed the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Heatseekers chart the week after Another Country was released.
A five-week national tour with dates in Canada, a slate of appearances at South by Southwest, the Grand Ole Opry and Merlefest: It's a hectic schedule more befitting a presidential candidate, but Merritt is energized and swears her career has never been better.
"There's been a different enthusiasm. I didn't do anything like this last time at all. I did a few radio visits, but nothing like this. This is a lot more intense," she says, a mix of optimism and weariness in her voice. "There are very lucky, luxurious, amazing times where I'm allowed to disappear and really delve into what I'm doing, but I think that you don't have a choice."
Three years ago, Merritt made a deliberate choice—to get away. She was exhausted from touring behind her second album, Tambourine, which was nominated for a Grammy. An admitted Francophile who had a crush on her French teacher in grade school, Merritt found privacy in May 2005 in Paris, where she rented an apartment furnished with a piano.
"It was random, but it was a time in my life when not everything was making sense. I wanted to take a vacation from everything," she says. "I was kind of thinking I didn't want to play music anymore. I was feeling more like a monkey than an artist."
For four years, she had been grist in the record industry's mill, and the returns were underwhelming. One week, she was sitting in the audience at the Grammys as a nominee; the next week she was playing for crickets in Ohio. Her career was stalling.
Many reviewers wondered aloud why Merritt wasn't famous. The answer is complex, but given her career trajectory and musical history, the problem seems to stem from improper marketing and identity crisis. Merritt's debut CD, Bramble Rose was a promising, if half-there, country singer/songwriter homage. But on the disc's cover—clad in a leather jacket, her steely gaze directed away from the camera—she looked tougher than the album's sweet Southern center.
The follow-up, Tambourine, was a brazen, soul rave-up with country accentuations, featuring top-dollar players like the Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell, Jayhawk Gary Louris, and Lone Justice's Maria McKee and her former bandmate, drummer Dan Heffington, who played with Bob Dylan and Jakob Dylan. Again, the cover—a close-up of Merrit's windblown, heavily made-up face—offered no clues as to who she really was. She looked more like a product—say, Sheryl Crow—than herself.
"Tift has always struggled with every aspect of the creative process, or with trying to bring people into what her complete vision is," says Jay Brown, who has played bass with Merritt since 1999. "I don't want to sound negative about Nashville, but a lot of that stuff's just really formulaic, trying to make it fit in whatever box it's trying to go in. Squeeze it here. Make it popular music. Make it country."
Yet for Merritt, being labeled "country" is confining. As a songwriter and listener, Merritt is interested in the intersection of country, soul, rock and folk. On more than one occasion, she has opined that those forms have more in common than not: "I don't believe in genre. I believe in music," she says confidently. "I don't ever want to get caught in the clichés of a genre. I always want to go further than the predictable."
Nonetheless, her record label, Lost Highway, needed something it could sell, even if the music wasn't entirely the band's or the songwriter's vision. On Bramble Rose, everyone offered advice, Hutchins remembers, from well-meaning friends and fans to the opportunity-seeking label associates. On Tambourine, the label had even more rigorous demands.
"On the second record, there were similar types of struggles—the label expecting and wanting certain things from Tift, and their delaying the process [of recording] was hard on Tift and the band," Hutchins says of the back-and-forth process Merritt describes as a moving target. "It's like, 'We've made a record, and we're trying to go in and make the second record, but we're having to ask everyone around us to put their lives on hold until the label says go make the record.' Trying to write a record and get it approved to record it, that's a struggle."
Merritt wanted to escape from the stress. She explored the city, taking pictures with her Holga, a toy camera whose cheap construction makes for unexpectedly interesting pictures. She watched people go about their daily lives. It was there—observing craftsmen ply their trade slowly and meticulously, like the wine vendor who knew something about every bottle in his store, or a dressmaker creating one garment for weeks and weeks—that Merritt learned it was OK for success to arrive through devotion, diligence and patience.
"It was really nice to be like, 'Wow, they're doing the same thing I'm doing—spending hours and hours and hours on one teeny little detail, one rhyme,'" she says, laughing. "'Maybe I'm not crazy.'"
So Merritt started writing again, her wounded muse nurtured by the new surroundings, just as her good faith had been renewed by the idea of sticking with her skill. The songs that came from that piano, she says, healed her, inspiring her to create and to succeed because of past failures.
When her lease on the first apartment expired, she found another place with another piano. During a brief trip back to America in fall 2005, she played the songs in Nashville for then-manager Russell Carter, Brown and Hutchins, who had previously heard a handful of MP3s. Hutchins and Brown could hear the change instantly.
Brown was immediately taken by how personal Merritt's writing had become.
"Like the song 'Something to Me,' in the third verse, she says, 'Doesn't mind the long day/ if she comes around the right way.' That's a big statement," he says. "I can remember us doing a radio show and people not knowing who she was or anything, and she played that song. That lyric really had an impact on me. ... Just finding a medium to express herself in the right way. That's the struggle."
Hutchins believed the third album was ready, but Lost Highway was unsure. "When Tift came home from France, she pretty much had 15 or 16 or 17 songs that, in my mind, could have been the record right then. Then you have the label go, 'Well, I don't know.' And that whole process begins again."
So Merritt returned to Paris to perform several shows and to write more songs. Finally, a year after first playing the tunes for her backing band, she headed home. In one day-long session with producer John Plymale at the Durham studio Overdub Lane, Hutchins, Brown, Merritt and former bandmember Greg Readling cut 12 songs. "That's how freed we felt, in a weird way," says Hutchins.
However, Lost Highway didn't share their enthusiasm, even though the label seemed to initially. Before the band played a show in Cincinnati in October 2006, Merritt's representative at Lost Highway called to say the demos were "a big step forward," remembers Hutchins, and that she would pass them along to the president of the company. Two weeks later—while Merritt and Hutchins were vacationing in Carolina Beach, waiting for the green light to make album No. 3—Lost Highway called. The label dropped her.
"It was hard. There were a few days were I didn't get out of bed, and I was going, 'What are we doing?'" Merritt recalls. "We had no manager. We had no label. It was scary. But these songs took care of me, and I knew I had to take care of these songs. There was a surprising amount of calm. I loved these songs. I just thought, 'Well, if this isn't right, let's just get right.'"
The rain is still pouring in Manhattan, but Merritt—dressed in black with a blue umbrella in one hand and three new books in the other—steps onto Broadway. She lifts the hand holding the books and hails a cab. An uptown-bound taxi pulls over. She scurries toward the driver's window, blurts her address and opens the rear door. She crawls to the other side of the back seat and shakes the umbrella dry.
Riding south down the island, Merritt starts talking about Raleigh. Back home, she had started to feel out of place. Her friends were getting married, having children, working business hours. Reenergized, she was getting ready to launch into her career.
The move north works in two seemingly contradictory ways: It provides a level of big-city anonymity similar to that get-lost-and-experience-things space Merritt found in Paris, though it also allows her to be closer to her new business core.
Paris was a creative bloom for Merritt: In addition to writing songs, she also photographed a book's worth of street scenes, which she'll release herself later this year. Merritt hopes to continue that creative drive in New York, so that she's not so tied to surroundings that she can't work or take career risks.
After Lost Highway dropped Merritt, her former manager also bid adieu. Hutchins managed the band as they began fielding inquiries from other labels. And they established their own terms: They wanted to be on an independent label. They wanted to build from their small but strong fan base. And they wanted to work again with George Drakoulias, the producer who helmed Tambourine. To do that, they would need a label with a budget. Fantasy Records—which, since 1949, has released records by Vince Guaraldi, Lenny Bruce and Creedence Clearwater Revival—heard the demos. They wanted to help Merritt make the record she had in her mind a reality.
"This relationship was like, 'This is the record we want to make. If you want to do business with us, you know what you're getting,'" she remembers. "I felt very put at ease with their ease with what they heard."
They signed to Fantasy, found a new manager and realized from experience that they wanted to work with these people, not simply for or alongside them. Merritt found a house for the whole band in North Los Angeles and they moved to California for a month, spending their days recording with Drakoulias and their nights living together.
Fantasy representatives dropped by to hear the sessions. Lost Highway didn't want to use Merritt's band for the expensive Tambourine, but Fantasy did. They finished just in time to play with the N.C. Symphony in Cary last September.
A month later, Merritt and Hutchins were in New York. Her new manager and the publicity firm working Another Country are both headquartered within a few blocks of the couple's apartment.
"We've always been as hands-on as we could, and now we have a team around us that relies on us to be hands-on," says Merritt, adding that, at Lost Highway, management disasters would blow up in her face because she never had any input. "It's a different thing where Zeke and I are just sitting at the table with everybody else, and defining our own career. That naturally means things are going in the direction they should be going, whether this record does well or not."
It should do well, though, and so far, it has: With a horn-fed soul track ("Tell Me Something True"), a gentle, breaking drifter ("Keep You Happy") and a windows-down, optimistic rocker ("Morning Is My Destination"), it feels like a statement from someone who would say she believes in music, not genre. A resilient spirit, driven by images of reflective long days and adjusted expectations, unites the tracks.
And the cover—an overexposed, off-center, beautiful shot of Merritt staring inquisitively into the camera—captures her essence. She and everyone in the band agree this is the closest they've come to realizing her entire vision. As for Lost Highway, tough luck.
"I've had bigger heartbreaks. Nobody got sick. Everyone's OK. We're going to be OK," Merritt says, smiling broadly. "We've learned that you don't live and die by your record label. We just don't think about them that much anymore."
Tift Merritt performs with her band at Carolina Theatre in Durham Saturday, March 22, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $21-$24, and Sara Watkins opens.