Resting across this floral couch, a two-seater love seat by the window, I feel the breeze coming through the muggy, sweet-scented night air. I’m taking in the humidity, the thick oxygenated air and the seaside climate of Newport, Rhode Island, and this warm September evening feels peaceful and temperate as the wind blows gently through my reading corner. It’s the perfect couch for reading and, as I just discovered, moonlights as a pot-smoking corner, as well, when my hard-working friend Dan takes a break from his aches and pains after a long day as a carpenter.
When I’d visited a few weeks ago, the couch had doubled as my clothes shelf while I slept on the air mattress a few feet away. “Nice couch,” I’d said and Stella, Dan’s wife, replied “Yeah, that’s where Dan smokes his pot.” We snickered, and I ceremoniously thanked them both for lending me the drug lair so I could air out my bulging carry-on.
Stella’s a visionary artist who paints sweeping, bold, brightly-colored landscapes in oil on canvas, and this large room used to be her studio. During that first visit, it was my guest room and creative corner. Over the next week, I found myself totally jiving with the vibe of Newport in late August. I flew home, rented out my place and used some air miles, which I’ve been stock-piling over the years to book a one way ticket back for September, the locals’ favorite month and, as Stella puts it, “the nicest month of the year.”
Sure enough, warm sunshine and fewer tourists – myself excluded – greeted me upon my return. Week one found me on a long foam surfboard, standing up and mastering the white wash, riding the wave all the way in but not quite mastering how to gracefully exit the surfboard. I noticed people smiling and nodding at me when I’d come out of the ocean, prompting me to laugh at myself (a common occurrence, really.)
I marveled at the perpetually humbling nature of the sport. One minute, I’d catch the tail end of a real wave, on the right part of the break for milking a ride to the shore and I’d emerge triumphant from the sea. Ten minutes and three waves later, I’d be pitched over the surfboard, leash dragging me deep down to the sandy bottom before I’d emerge, waterlogged and ego-boggled. The ocean wins again. The ocean always wins; you just need to figure out how to play by its rules.
It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re learning to surf.
To surf and to write and to be somewhere new, where no one knows my name, were my main objectives this month. Tonight, as I enjoy the breeze and finish a book on Hank Williams, Sr. – an important distinction, that suffix – I feel content to be here. On the box, Tift Merritt sings Stray Paper, singing the way she does, reflective, searching, subtle and understated, yet full of grace, like a fine French film. Her sound goes perfectly with the rustling curtain, intermittently brushing my shoulder as I turn the last few pages of “Lovesick Blues”.
I first heard Tift at the 7908 Aspen Songwriter’s Festival in Aspen, Colorado, where she effused about the lovely piano at the Wheeler Opera House and her joy at being able to spend some time quality time with it. “I love the Wheeler Opera house and having a stage to myself and a beautiful piano,” she says in our interview. “I just remember that everyone was very sweet to me and I got to meet Allen Toussaint. And that the weather was lovely and made me not want to go back to the NYC concrete!”
I recall her gracious stage presence, her easy way with her audience and her down-to-earth yet poetically worded observations: “we used to sleep real late and play our records loud”. And now that it’s not so good, says the song, time to stop the madness. “All the reasons we don’t have to fight any more about what we lost, things we swore,” sings Tift. On to better things. Morning is My Destination. Time for Mixed Tapes and a Good-Hearted Man.
As I listen to the honest, revealing lyrics in I Know Him Too, exploring emotional entanglements with the emotionally unavailable, I’m beginning to think Tift and I have more than a few things in common. I hesitate as I write this, lest I come across as too much of a fan. I’m not dangerous, Tift; I just have excellent taste in music.
For example: Tift, too, has a salt tooth, and she, neither, has a TV. She tells me she’s a sucker for black and white movies and vintage French textiles – who isn’t? Those two don’t count.
But the list goes on. Tift surfs; she hosts a public radio show; she likes to write and, according to her website: “can be found renting an apartment with a piano in a town where no one knows her.” I like the sound of that tonight because that’s what I’m up to, too, minus the piano and my two friends, downstairs. Every now and then I play with re-inventing myself or, rather, immersing myself in new surroundings. I like to be somewhere unfamiliar to observe who I really am, to notice what natural personal qualities rise to the surface.
Tift elaborates, for my better understanding. “It’s not like I’m looking to re-invent myself – I’ve always been who I am. But I like being alone. I like having time and space to look within and find something new, without feeling like I am neglecting something from regular life. I like to have a chance to get outside of expectation and look deeper. The hustle and intensity of life – how much I feel things – sometimes I need a chance to step back privately.”
A native of North Carolina, Tift grew up amidst a diverse musical palette. She’s been likened to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris, who’s a huge Tift Merritt fan herself, but I want to know who has influenced her music, without necessarily influencing her sound. “Generally, I am most draw to artists who have their own feel in such strong way that their writing is just steeped in a particular eye on the world. Joni Mitchell. Tom Waits. Bob Dylan. But sometimes you just admire how deep down the feeling comes from, like Percy Sledge or Mississippi John Hurt,” she shares. “You don’t have enough time in your life to listen and learn from all that’s in the well of music. It just depends on what you need to learn and are looking for on a given day.”
Ultimately, Tift developed her songwriting by way of prose writing, through the Creative Writing Program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’d been waiting tables, writing and playing gigs, working towards finding her own creative path, but calls her time at UNC a very formative experience in fine-tuning her career as an artist. “I was trying to make a creative life and something of value for myself on my own. I didn’t think anyone could teach me how to be an artist. And in part, that is true. But I was very isolated and alone, and once I was a student at UNC, I had a lot of wonderful, experienced writers around me who gave me some signposts and helped me join the world a little. They taught me, most of all, how to be my own best editor. There is a part of me that wonders if being a short story writer wasn’t where I belonged. I could hole up in a farmhouse somewhere, stay home. I will say for many years Eudora Welty was my hero and who I wanted to be like, because she was an innovator, wrote deeply, and did what she wanted, yet seemed also to be a very kind person.”
But then there was the red piano, the piano at the Wheeler Opera House – so many magical instruments waiting to accompany her thoughts. Words set to music resonated most deeply, as a form of expression. “I feel like the creative writing program armed me with a few tools to chip away and hold some ground, to mine something that powerful. But music is such a vast and beautiful feeling,” says Tift. “A really beautiful instrument is like a really beautiful person or a really beautiful turn of phrase. It just sings. It doesn’t have to be fancy or perfect, or make sense. It just has to speak in its own way and that makes all the difference. I have a little 3/4 guitar that won’t quit right now. It just has to feel good.”
While at UNC, she met her future husband and main collaborator, Zeke Hutchins, who set up his drums in her farmhouse kitchen and encouraged Tift to explore her music. Tift’s played with Ryan Adams, Amos Lee and made some beautiful music for Lost Highway Records, named after the Hank Williams I’ve been reading about. She’s won a lot of prestigious awards including the Americana Music Awards’ Song of the Year for the aforementioned Good-Hearted Man. And she does the simplest, most graceful rendition of Danny’s Song, my favorite love song of all time.
We talk about radio. On my own public radio show, Sonic Byways, I explore the regional, musical, personal connections between artists. I try to find out more behind the words and sounds that make me feel alive. One night, I feature Tift alongside the Drive-By Truckers and fellow Lost Highway recording artist Hays Carll; whether or not they’d be featured in the same music review, I’m not sure, but musically, the three artists’ sound and sentiment just go together. She’s hip enough to hold her own within that 60-minute set and her style strikes me as a little bit outlaw, when all chords are said and strummed.
Tift’s own radio show, The Spark, stems from a similar motivation to mine – to learn more about artists that inspire her, move her, add more mojo to her own creative quiver. Her focus extends beyond music, however, as The Spark features interviews and guests across the arts spectrum, including authors, poets and sculptors.
“I’ve learned a lot from The Spark interviews, and the main thing is that I’m not alone,” she explains. “My interview process is very instinctual and the whole thing is really simple. I study someone’s work and then whatever makes me curious about how it was made, I ask them about. I like to focus on how people turn corners, grow, keep integrity, and take risks in their process. How process stays alive. Sculptor Kiki Smith said she just does what occurs to her and somehow that really blew my mind. OK. Easy as that. And it is. Rosanne Cash told me her manners keep her rooted to the world when she gets lots inside. I like that. Somehow I’m always handed something about the grit and humility and belief necessary to keep going. There’s no secret door.”
Tift likens her own creative process to leaping from great heights – over and over. “Process is such a huge question. Process by nature is a process. It changes and it should change, but generally you just have to throw yourself off the cliff. What keeps me on the path is me. I love to practice. I love the feel and mystery of making things. And if I didn’t have some place to throw all my intensity, I would really be in trouble.”
Just as I start to think Tift and I could fill in for one another on the air, that maybe we were separated at birth or during neighboring piano lessons, I learn that she’s an actual surfer. As in, she surfs real waves.
I am in awe. My own near miss with the real deal has left me giddy all day; this morning, I inadvertently caught a Big Girl wave, as I call it. As I stood up on my 9-footer, the ocean literally dropped underneath me, like I’d missed a step going down the escalator stairs. I was so startled that I shrieked out loud to no one and everyone, all at once, and instantly fell from the board only to wash all the back up on shore.
I realized I wasn’t ready for a real wave.
Tift, however, has spent many hours and many days nestled betwixt Big Girl waves. “I like surfing because it is a great thing to throw yourself into. It wears you out in the best way,” she explains, mirroring my thoughts on the perpetual salt-water spin cycle that, for some reason, keeps me coming back. “I like the timing of it all, getting that part right,” she continues. “I used to live next to my best friend on the ocean and we surfed everyday together. We talked on the water, took waves, and helped each other carry the boards back. It was such a lovely period of time to have such a close friendship and something we loved to do together as an expression of that.“
While I listen to Tift, relaxing on my floral shelf, she’s on her way to spend some time with friends. She’s working on a new record – we both call them records, not albums – but at the moment, she’s taking a breather. “I’ve been writing a lot and just seeing where it takes me,” she shares, “but I’m on a bit of a break from the road; right now, I’m headed to West Texas to see some friends and have a campfire.”
As much as I learn about Tift Merritt and what makes her tick, I’m not surprised by what I’ve uncovered. Anyone named Tift is bound to add something interesting to the mix. “It’s a family name,” she explains. “And traditionally a man’s name. I have a cousin Tift and an uncle Tift. My brother and I have called a moratorium on naming anyone Tift for a while because it gets a bit crazy at Thanksgiving. “
For more info on the 7908 Aspen Songwriter’s Festival, visit: www.wheeleroperahouse.com.
For more on Tift Merritt: www.tiftmerritt.com.