Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has been compared to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. She also has received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album. The kind of music she makes doesn't attract much commercial attention — and that seems to suit her just fine.
Merritt's latest album is called Traveling Alone. The title, she tells NPR's David Greene, speaks to the value of being self-sustaining.
"I think, at the end of the day, I have an outsider's heart," Merritt says. "You always hope that you're going to find that place where you belong — you know, you follow the map or the playbook that everyone in the world seems to have, or understand, and you will arrive at the place where things make sense. And I think ... that's a little naive, and that you have to build that place yourself. And that's a lonely thing to realize, but also an exciting one."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Musician Tift Merritt describes herself as having an outsider's heart; a perspective that helped fuel the restless, haunting songs of her new album, "Traveling Alone."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING ALONE")
TIFT MERRITT: (Singing) This morning, if it's always gone, funny, you say; wouldn't faze me none. Might feel like I just got home. You know I always had a taste for traveling alone...
MONTAGNE: You'll hear a lot of Emmylou Harris in this voice, though Tift Merritt's mix of desperation and hope hasn't brought her the commercial success to match years of critical praise, and a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album. MORNING EDITION's David Greene has been taken with the combination of sweetness and vulnerability in her songs; something on the display when the two sat down to talk, and Tift Merritt mentioned she'd brought along some items from home, to put her at ease.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Describe to me what you're talking about.
MERRITT: Well, in my apartment, above my desk, I have a corkboard where I pin things while I'm writing - notes to myself, what's important to me, what I'm focusing on. So by the end of writing a record, I have this kind of crazy paper collage. And I was a little bit nervous, so I thought that I would bring some pieces of that with me, to keep me centered.
GREENE: Can you tell me what a couple of those notes say, that you decided to bring?
MERRITT: (LAUGHTER) Yeah, one of them says stop (BLEEP) around.
GREENE: We might have to delete that.
MERRITT: I just had to tell you.
MERRITT: One of them says: It's up to you; you're driving. One of them says: Work harder. And I have a picture of a beautiful drawing of an Eskimo woman on a log, with a banjo as her oar. In the chaos of traveling, and all of that, this is a little part of how I keep close, and tend, the things that are important to me.
GREENE: Tift, the name of the new album is "Traveling Alone." And I guess I wonder if a feeling of being alone, was part of making these songs.
MERRITT: Yes. You know, I think at the end of the day, I have an outsider's heart. And I think you have to pose the question of, how do you participate in a world that doesn't always make sense to you, but has so much meaning and beauty at the same time. And you always hope that you are going to find that place where you belong.
You know, you follow the map - or the playbook - that everyone in the world seems to have or understand; and that you will arrive where things make sense. And I think you actually - that's a little naive, and that you have to build that place yourself. And that's a lonely thing to realize, but also a very exciting one.
GREENE: You're painting this - this kind of sad portrait of someone who...
GREENE: ...sees a lot of meaning in the world but feels like, you know, you're on the outside. So tell me more about why you feel that way.
MERRITT: I'm a odd bird. I have a sense of restlessness that happens when I try to participate in things that are just the noise of life; that don't really make sense to me; that feel watered down, that feel not meaningful..
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "SWEET SPOT")
MERRITT: (Singing) Nothing fancy, nothing fake. Nothing wasted and no deal to make. What you'll need is what you want to take. And what you take, you use...
I do think that traveling alone is a metaphor for inner life. You know, we - at the end of the day - are completely responsible for ourselves. And I don't think you can let that get watered down.
GREENE: What is an example of a setting where you feel this restlessness that you're talking about?
MERRITT: I can't watch TV.
GREENE: Why not?
MERRITT: It seems silly. And I spend so much time on the road and...
GREENE: You think TV feels cheap to you, in a way? Or...
MERRITT: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely. TV feels cheap to me, and I feel dirty after I watch it.
MERRITT: I don't have a TV and yet we - you know, you go to a restaurant these days; and there are 10 TVs on, and there is music being piped in, and there is - you know, life has this casino feel. And sometimes, I feel like modern life - all around me - is trying to trick me into forgetting what's meaningful, by distracting me.
GREENE: Your musical career has its roots in times spent with your father, growing up in North Carolina.
GREENE: What were those moments like?
MERRITT: Well, my dad plays music by ear. And I can remember - as a little girl - on Saturdays, that was what he loved to do. He would get his guitar out, and his harmonica out; and he'd play Percy Sledge songs at the piano. And I can remember sitting beside him, and my feet not touching the floor; and singing with him. And I just - the feeling that a daughter has for her father, is huge; and that was - music was the expression of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL NOT HOME")
MERRITT: (Singing) Didn't mean to stand up. I didn't mean to daydream. I didn't want to hear it calling my name. Regular life don't suit me anymore. Oh, I got to get going. I'm still not home. Oh, I try so hard, and I'm still not home...
GREENE: Tift, where's your destination - and why haven't you gotten there yet?
MERRITT: Well, you know, I'm probably one of those people that's never going to get to my destination because that's part of what's being a writer is about. And I think that's part of what life is about - at least, for me. I do believe that life is a process, and we're always growing and seeking and trying to feel our way to the next place. So I don't find a sadness in that. I think that's, absolutely, who I am.
GREENE: Tift Merritt, best of luck with the new album.
MERRITT: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
GREENE: Really a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE WAY")
MERRITT: (Singing) The road ahead looks clear and straight from far away...
MONTAGNE: That's singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, speaking with David Greene about her new album, "Traveling Alone."
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE WAY")
MERRITT: (Singing) Sometimes, pressing through the shadows, I find a little shade. Sometimes, my heart is all I got... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.