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"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.