In recent years, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has found herself collaborating with a diverse group of musicians: She recorded and toured with Andrew Bird, MC Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger and classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. When it was time to return to her own work, she realized it was time well spent.
Tift Merritt With: The Suitcase Junket When: 8 p.m. April 6 Where: Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston Tickets: $20-$34 Info: evanstonspace.com
“You sharpen your own skills when you are trying to do a good job for someone else,” Merritt says. “Playing in Andrew’s band I was always trying to just sing right at the heart of the pitch and work hard on my rhythm guitar playing. Then you return to your own thing with a reinforced knowledge that sharpens your skills and gives you some courage and confidence.”
These last two attributes were something that Merritt needed plenty of as she faced life changes aplenty in her personal life. As her marriage fell apart, she fell apart. During the writing of the songs for her new album, “Stitch of the World,” Merritt says she learned how to let go and move forward.
“I think as a writer you sort of have this illusion of having perspective, and maybe losing that illusion brought my writing to a new place of honesty and a place of just letting go,” Merritt says. “But it was very scary at times.”
Themes built around life, loss, perseverance and hope ring true in Merritt’s new collection of songs. There remains a soulful honesty here that has been a hallmark of Merritt’s work since her first album, “Bramble Rose.”
But even though she had a pile of new songs, Merritt knew she needed an outside eye: “I couldn’t tell if I had gone far enough or if I had gone too far. I just didn’t have a lot of perspective at the time.”
ALSO IN MUSIC
Enter Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, a longtime friend, who volunteered to take a look at the songs and help her narrow her focus. “He ended up spending a lot of time with the songs and that was truly generous,” Merritt says. “He helped me look at the songs in a new way.”
Known for her country-tinged style, Merritt remains close to her traditional roots but also brings new sonic textures that light up the songs on “Stitch of the World.” “I love being part of a tradition,” she says, “but I also want to bring it a step forward in a respectful and ambitious way.”
After coming off the road with Bird and Dinnerstein, Merritt took some time off to simply write. It was a luxury rarely afforded but greatly appreciated. When focusing on writing, she also reads the work of one chosen author; this time it was the poetry of Raymond Carver. She was so taken by one poem, “My Boat,” that she approached the author’s widow Tess Gallagher with her song of the same title that employed portions of Carver’s poem as the lyrics. Gallagher agreed to let her record the song, a standout on the album.
“The poem just shouted that it wanted to be a song,” Merritt says. “The line that caught me was ‘no getting ahead or falling behind on my boat’.” I thought that was just a beautiful way to describe genuine human relations. I think it’s an important song to sing right now.”
As for the temperature of our times and an artist’s place in it, Merritt adds: “I think an artist bringing compassion and love into the world is really important right now. But on the other hand I think pointing things out and questioning is also an important part of an artist’s work.”
And after finishing “Stitch of the World,” the life changes kept coming: Just before giving birth to her daughter Jean (now 10 months old), Merritt relocated from New York to her hometown, Raleigh, North Carolina, to be near her family.
“It was a mixed bag,” Merritt admits. “I’m not a homebody. I like being out in the world. I hadn’t pictured moving home but this is for my daughter. I have deep and loving roots here in Raleigh.”
And now she’s heading out on the road with a baby in tow. What will that be like?
“I’m still learning,” Merritt says with a laugh. “But I have learned two things. First that a show is a really wonderful refuge for me to relax rather than something that is pressure filled. The second is that spending time with a child is a really fulfilling and joyful thing that takes a lot of energy and focus. If I have a good day with my child, the show is a piece of cake.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.