‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’
Singer/songwriter Tift Merritt seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the spring of 2002 with her acclaimed debut album Bramble Rose, but as is often the case, this triple-threat artist - a gifted singer, superb songwriter, and skillful guitarist - actually has plenty of experience under her belt. Born in Houston, TX, in 1975, Merritt's family moved to North Carolina when she was young and she's lived there ever since. Merritt first developed an interest in music when she was a child and while she was drawn to the rebellious spirit of punk and indie rock, she felt a greater emotional connection with more acoustic-oriented artists. Artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and, in particular, Joni Mitchell.
With these influences abounding, it quickly opened Merritt's ears to roots music and she soon began to immerse herself in North Carolina's active alt-country scene. Merritt began appearing on a semi-regular basis with the band the Two Dollar Pistols, singing duets with lead singer John Howie and playing rhythm guitar. Looking for a vehicle for her own songwriting, in 1998 Merritt formed a band called the Carbines with drummer Zeke Hutchins, guitarist Greg Reading, and bassist Jay Brown. Between the Carbines and the Two Dollar Pistols, Merritt was becoming a popular figure in the North Carolina roots music community and in early 2000, Merritt and the Carbines seemed poised to sign a contract with Sugar Hill Records. The deal fell through at the last minute, but when Merritt won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the annual 2000 Merlefest Music Festival, it sparked a new round of interest in her work.
Fellow North Carolina native Ryan Adams brought Merritt to the attention of his manager, Frank Callari and when he was hired as an A&R executive for the Universal-distributed roots music label Lost Highway, Merritt became one of his first signings. And While Merritt was signed as a solo act, she's continued to use the Carbines as her backing band, both for live shows and for the recording of Bramble Rose which came out in June 2002.
Having already met Tift six weeks earlier in the flesh, we now had the opportunity to chat more directly over the phone on this quietly sunny, mysteriously warm Michigan October day. I first wondered about her highly original first name: ”Tift is a last name. It’s a family name. So, it’s my middle name and I have an Uncle Tift and a young cousin Tift, but I’m the only female Tift. I figure it gives me a little extra weight to throw around because they finally named a woman Tift.”
Why name the album Bramble Rose ? ”When I wrote Bramble Rose I really thought at that point that I knew that I had some sort of an umbrella for the record, because I think the record is very much about from where I’m from. The sort of metaphor of a bramble rose. I walked by this wild rose which was growing on the side of the road and it looked like it was trying to get away from itself and it was all tangled. I mean, it was a weed but it was still pretty. So I thought that was a great metaphor for how I personally felt. I thought it was a really great thing to come back to when we had questions about what this record was when we were making it or how do we approach this and what do we do. And you just kinda go back to that idea of a flower in the rough.”
You say you set out to style this album ala early Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt … do you think you wholly succeeded in every area ? ”I think that’s a very hard question for me to answer, because hopefully I did something that was my own as well as holding up those records as ‘This is what I think a good record is’ or ‘This is what I relate to.’ So, I do think that we accomplished making a warm, live record that stands together as a whole and isn’t just a couple of singles and everything else doesn’t matter.”
Having written all 11 tracks yourself how is it that Lost Highway allowed you such debut creativity ? ”I think it would have probably been really scary if I hadn’t have been at Lost Highway. Being a debut artist I probably wouldn’t have blamed them for being a little bit more careful with me having not proven myself before. But really and truly they said, ‘Go do it’ and they really left me alone.”
When will the world be able to hear those original demo songs that never made it to this debut album ? ”It’s hard to tell. We’ll see. I just think that it’s really important to keep moving forward. You don’t want to just go through the motions.”
So, you won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the annual Merlefest. Then Ryan Adams puts you right in front of future Lost Highway A&R exec Frank Callari ! And then you bring out your debut record ! It truly seems as if your path to stardom was being mapped out for you at a very fast rate ! ”I know, it was a really incredible thing. Somebody was looking out for me. I think it was a period of eight months from when I won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, Frank Callari started to manage me and then I went into the studio and did demos. I then got a call saying that Lost Highway was indeed forming and that I was gonna be a part of it. So there was a little bit of a wait while they got their doors open, but it was very, well, bing-bing-bing.”
Has your life always been that easy ? ”No,” she timidly mumbles. ”We all have things we go through. I think I’m basically a pretty level-headed, hard-working girl and so I’ve gone through most of the level-hearted, heartbreaking girl troubles,” she laughs.
You’ve been pigeon-holed as both Country and Folk, but where do you feel you most fit in ? ”It’s really a hard thing to say, but I don’t feel what we do is folk. When I was coming along in the music world, I wasn’t an indie rocker and it seemed like country was this very refreshing thing. Like, I could point to my ‘70s records and go, ‘I’m a country singer like that.’ But now that I’m out in the music world, I find that’s it’s really a lot more complicated then that. If you’re a country singer the rockers won’t play you and then the country stations won’t play me ‘cause I’m not country enough. It’s kinda frustrating because I think what we do is kinda good ol’ country rock with maybe some soul thrown in there to-boot. It’s just sad that music has come to ‘Please describe yourself in three sentences so we know what to do with you.'”
Is it true that your father taught you guitar as a child ? ”Yeah, he is what I call a ‘Saturday Musician.’ Every Saturday he’d sorta get out his guitar and his harmonica, or play the piano and as a young girl I just thought it was the neatest thing that I’d ever seen. Sometimes he’d call me up to sing with him and that was just the highlight for me. So when I kinda got the idea in my head that I could do that too, he showed me four chords and told me not to bother with the rest of them because I wouldn't need them.”
Can you play any other instruments ? ”I can play the piano a bit and sometimes the harmonica, but that’s just kinda, you know, messing around and stuff.”
Tell me more about the track, ‘Bird of Freedom’ ”I have a friend who’s father was killed in Vietnam and he’s a filmmaker and so he decided he wanted to make a documentary about his father. So he found all this interesting stuff out about his father and went back to Vietnam and found the battlefield where his father was killed and when he finished the film he sent it to me and asked me to write something. And so I wrote ‘Bird of Freedom,’ and I wrote it about the American ‘60s because it’s really hard to tackle someone’s father dying. So, I wrote it about the American ‘60s and all of a sudden we were in the studio and it wasn’t just about the American ‘60s anymore. It was very confusing for us so we decided that our job was to keep singing it.”
Sum up your feelings behind these three album tracks:
‘Sunday’ - ”Well, I think that was the most important song for me, because I really felt like it was part of the heart of this record that was gonna hold everything together and make it make sense. It’s also the most autobiographical song so I really wanted to get it right,” she laughs.
‘Trouble Over Me’ - ”Oh gosh, let me try and remember how we did that one. Well, I was just really excited about Ethan’s guitar playing on that one, to tell you the truth. That’s what I really remember,” she laughs again. ”Yeah, he did that really killer solo.”
‘Are You Still In Love With Me ?’ - ”Ah yeah, I think I’d had a fight with my boyfriend the night before and everybody knew it was gonna be really good.”
What’s the most interesting thing to know about Tift Merritt ? ”Oh my God,” she exclaims. ”I’m pretty plain, to tell you the truth,” she gently giggles. ”but, one of the things that I did that was pretty interesting was when I was about eighteen or nineteen I did a lot of moving around by myself with my dog, Lucy. Waiting tables and just being somewhere until I felt like moving again. Those were really nice times.”
What’s one of the most exciting things that you’ve ever done ? ”Well, all of this is pretty exciting and being able to travel as a family the way we are traveling, and getting up the guts to get in front of people is no small excitement.”
What’s the most dumbest thing you’ve ever done ? ”Well, no hideous outfits are coming to mind,” she laughs thankfully. ”but I will say that I’ve made the wrong choices in men a few times. Let’s see, I’ve also not finished college and I’ve only got nine hours left.”
So why haven’t you put those nine hours in ? ”Because it’s Geology and it’s Lab and I was ready to play in a rock band,” she laughs heartily. ”I did what I set out to do and I didn’t care what they thought about it. I’m actually gonna try and do it as I know it would make my mother feel better.”
What kind of a school girl were you ? ”I was always pretty nerdy and I did well in school. Books and records have always been my best friends. I learned how to socialize from being in a band.”
It’s been said that it takes you a long while to create a song ”Yeah, I think that is true. I’m sure as I go along the road of writing more and more songs there probably will be some songs that come off the cuff pretty quickly. But I tend to revise and I get fascinated with a feeling and it takes me a while to finish it ‘cause I’ll nurse it intently.”
All your songs seem so personal. Are they all about your experiences ? ” I think that the A number-one rule of writing is that you have to write about what you know. But I also believe that there’s also a certain amount of, for a lack of a better word, ‘craft’ that allows you to start off with something very personal and then by the time you’ve finished the song hopefully it stands on it’s own. And not just on what you’re whining about.”
What’s next on the horizon ? ”Probably a new record. I’m starting to write it and we’re on the road for about another two or three weeks and then we’re gonna be home so I think I’m gonna close the windows and lock the doors and get to it.”
Describe yourself in three words ”Minimalist family gal,” she laughs.
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
To win a copy of Bramble Rose just send an e:mail to me at with the subject title 'Tift' and the answer to this question in the text to:
Who was the founding member of the band along with Tift ?
Check out www.tiftmerritt.com for the answer !
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