By now, Tift Merritt is familiar with the road. Since the release of her sophomore album, 2004's Tambourine, the singer/songwriter has logged 40,000 travel miles by asphalt and air. "After Tambourine was released, we went on a massive tour through the United States, Canada, over 11 countries," she explains. "You know, some European audiences knew my lyrics better than my American fans."
Merritt eventually took a rare break from the road, escaping to France to write much of her third record, appropriately (and tentatively) titled Another Country. Her deal with Lost Highway Records ended earlier this year, though. Before recording Another Country, she had to find a new home. The Fantasy label, one of the 21 imprints managed by the Conord Music Group (Heads Up, Stax, Takoma), will release the album in February or March 2008. Today, she's in Los Angeles, putting the final touches on Another Country with Tambourine producer George Drakoulias. She and her band rented a house in Laurel Canyon to fulfill what she calls her Joni Mitchell/Graham Nash fantasy.
But Merritt generally doesn't stay away from the stage for long: While recording the album with Drakoulias, she's been helping to stage a homecoming like she's never had before. She'll perform with the N.C. Symphony for the first time Sunday night, presenting new arrangements of material from her first two albums and the title cut from Another Country. Exactly a week before the concert, she still hasn't rehearsed with the symphony, but Merritt seems nonplussed and confident. At least she'll have some familiar company onstage: Longtime bassist Jay Brown and drummer Zeke Hutchins will join the performance.
"None of us have much of a classical background, although we practice and study as much as we can. We're all more of ear musicians," says Merritt. "My father taught me a lot about playing music by ear and that's generally the approach I take."
McCrae Hardy, an arranger who often collaborates with the N.C. Symphony and the pop songwriters it's working with, has rearranged the band's songs for orchestral glory. "I'm no musical virtuoso," Merritt confesses, "but it's a wonderful experience to play with those who are."
Tift Merritt performs with the N.C. Symphony at Booth Amphitheatre Sunday, Sept. 2, at 7 p.m. Gates open at 4:30 p.m., and admission is free.