The last two times singer/songwriter, sometimes-folk singer and sometimes-rock ‘n’ roller Tift Merritt passed through New York City, she felt like an outsider in her own city. After moving out of Manhattan, she wrote much of her newest album, Stitch of the World in the West and Southwest before returning to her hometown of Raleigh, N.C.
There, Merritt welcomed two babies into her life. Her first, her daughter, arrived about nine months ago, whereas the metaphorical one—her sixth studio album Stitch of the World—came in late January. With baby and vinyl in tow, Merritt trekked back up to her old New York City haunts to open for Hiss Golden Messenger at Music Hall Williamsburg and grace the Paste studio with her presence, music and trademark cackling laughter.
Between her two recent visits, (and before she sets off on another string of tour dates that starts tomorrow) Merritt sat down with Paste to discuss the realities of both of her major new additions, as well as the important of place in her creative process.
Paste: You’re a new mom! Congratulations! How are you feeling these days?
Tift Merritt: I think being a mom is pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me.
Paste: You’re still playing shows, though, and did a bunch of dates opening for Hiss Golden Messenger. What’s that been like? Based on their last album Heart Like a Levee, family life is certainly important to those guys, as well.
Merritt: Everyone in Hiss Golden Messenger is super supportive of me trying to do it all. [But] it’s very different to be a woman in a band and have to reckon with family life than to be a man and be able to leave. I physically can’t be away from my daughter at this point and probably for a while. And I like it like that! I think that the workingwoman—is true in any job—it’s a different kind of reckoning. And the child wins!
Paste: How has your pre-show routine changed? Or even your public performance/stage persona?
Merritt: I…breastfeed my child until the moment I have to go on stage! Otherwise [I would] love time to practice by myself to gather myself in a deep down way.
The other thing I really love about being a mom is that being on stage has a really new sense of quiet. There’s a sense of, “Oh my god, I don’t have to be dong two things at once now! I’m gonna have a beer and play rock ‘n’ roll and I’m gonna enjoy myself!” It’s a really powerful time that is mine. That matters to me. It matters to have that time to get to the music. If I can use that time well and express that part of me that’s maybe on the backburner as I’m running around after a six-month-old, it’s such a great feeling to have a beer on stage and turn my amp on!
Paste: You used to live here in New York City, right? But you recently moved back to your home state?
Merritt: I knew I was going to need a lot of support and I wasn’t sure how the pieces of this were going to work out…Being a musician and figuring out how to make money is really tricky these days…I think no matter when you have a child you have a set of questions and problems that you have to reckon with. Mine was that waiting a long time proved my idea of who I am was pretty predicated on being a writer and a touring musician, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to that. That was pretty scary. That’s how I’ve provided for myself—and presumably my family—so I just really needed a lot of support.
I can tell you I wasn’t really thrilled to leave New York because I’ve always had the sense that this is where the artists and the bohemians and the funky people are and that’s where I belong…But it’s been a really surprisingly wonderful thing to be back in my hometown. And that’s not an easy thing to come back!
Paste: How have you been coping or reconciling with moving back to your hometown as an adult?
Merritt: It’s mostly through my child and her relationships with people I’ve known a long time and family members. And also there’s this simplicity: I walk everywhere. I don’t have the pace of the city or the financial pressure of the city one me. And that just allows me to breathe. When you have a job and you’re a mom, there’s not a lot of extra go around, so every little bit helps. I just think that my ability to focus on my daughter is really what my life is about right now, and my ability to be present and quiet for her. And no matter what town you’re in, that’s a really hard thing to pull off.
Paste: It seems like, on your newest record Stitch of the World and in chatting now, that place is very important to you.
Merritt: You know, place has a lot to do with my work, period. I’ve always felt like a sense of place was a cornerstone of what I did, no matter what the place is. In the same way places have flavor—that’s what a sense of place is, I guess—people do, too. And a rock show does, too. And a song has a vibe. And I think that potency to feel like a particular place is really….it’s an indicator that something is standing out and working. It’s steeped in something palpable.
Paste: You wrote this record in a number of different places, too. Where did you go and why?
Merritt: I wrote this record mostly in California—I rented a cabin for my 40th birthday!—and I spent a lot of time at my friend’s ranch in Marfa, Texas writing this… You never know how your subconscious takes something in and eats it, but for me, I know those place directly influenced my writing in the way that “Wait for Me” is about those really straight roads out in West Texas and wishing life was like that, which it’s not. “Stitch of the World” is about looking off a cliff out in California and being like, ‘The world is such a beautiful place that doesn’t even seem real [and wondering] how do I fit into this? I’m certainly not in charge!’ So there are some direct ways that where I was affected me; But I think what I wanted to do was go some new places sonically. Playing with open tuned guitars, and I love traditional song structure…but I also wanted to earn that by doing some other things and going some new places that way.
Paste: How do you feel playing these new songs, since many of them seem to come from raw places?
Merritt: They do. On one hand they come from some particularly raw and really sad places that [makes them] hard to play them sometimes because things that happen in life are not always things that just heal up. But I don’t know that that’s real, either. I feel really excited to play them because I feel like they are real and I feel like they have some potency to them that I’m really proud of. I feel like they’re the door to wherever I’m going next.
It’s been a really long time since I’ve done solo shows by myself and it’s been really empowering to do that and remember that I can stand on my own and play electric guitar…When you really have electric things to write about, it’s hard to harness it. It’s hard to handle it. You don’t want to make it overly neat and you don’t want to drain it of its rawness. And if you aren’t really writing about life, then it’s just boring!