Tift Merritt :: http://www.tiftmerritt.com
“What I’m trying to do is make an album in the style of early Linda Ronstadt, early Emmylou Harris, and early Bonnie Raitt – just trying to make my voice do the right thing and to write some good songs.”
Tift Merritt stated her artistic ambitions right before entering L.A.’s Sound Factory last September with producer Ethan Johns (of Ryan Adams fame) to begin recording Bramble Rose, her debut album for Lost Highway. And from the haunting acoustic musical introduction of “Trouble Over Me,” to the classic Appalachian twang of “Virginia, No One Can Warn You,” to the wonderful melodic country pop of “I Know Him Too,” to the bluesy autobiographical “Sunday,” Bramble Rose certainly accomplishes these stated lofty goals. But unlike her musical heroes who especially very early on were interpreters – albeit great interpreters – of other people’s music, Bramble Rose is 100 percent Tift Merritt. Which is to say she wrote all 11 tracks herself. It’s a display of amazing songwriting talent for a debut release, no matter what the era.
“I’m usually fixated on something that I feel and I don’t understand, and I try to put that into words,” says the 27-year-old, Texas-born, North Carolina-raised singer-songwriter-guitarist of the talents that were first celebrated when she began winning writing awards as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s generally more about me at a private level, and I sort of pretty it up into something I can show to other people,” she laughs, “But I think I do tend to write about the things I feel way down.”
With her longtime band, formerly known as the Carbines, Tift has been one of the most acclaimed artists on the vibrant Raleigh, North Carolina music scene for the past four years. Although she began writing songs and “playing for myself” as a young teen, she didn’t venture into the clubs – initially as a solo performer – until she was 19.
“I didn’t enjoy it,” she recalls now. “It was small college bars where I was alone and some drunk guy would be screening, ‘Play some Jimmy Buffett!’ So I stopped for a while.” She continued writing and recording songs “for herself” until meeting up with drummer Zeke Hutchins. “He set his drums up in my kitchen,” she recalls of the jam session, “and he said, ‘ I’m sorry. We have to have a band!'”
The Carbines immediately got attention on more than the local scene. A major label was there and interested at the very beginning. Writing about Tift in No Depression magazine, Raleigh critic David Menconi described her songs as evocative of “the lower left corner of Dixie – the mythic, mystic, wide-open spaces of the Southwestern frontier and the hardheaded people who call it home,” and her singing as “a malleable, drop-dead gorgeous voice that can be brassy like Patsy Cline or soft-spoken like Emmylou Harris.” He added: “And Merritt isn’t just a pretty face at the microphone; she’s also a terrific guitarist who could get by playing lead guitar in a lot of bands.” (For what it’s worth, Tift modestly describes herself as a “good rhythm guitar player.”)
“There were Sheryl Crow comparisons and all that,” says Tift. “But I didn’t think my writing was at the level where I’d come into my own enough to go into a studio and make the record I wanted to make. I hadn’t developed enough as an artist. So we just kept doing our thing. And I just kept writing. And it was all a very natural progression.”
That natural progression led Tift and the band to record an early demo tape for a major label with North Carolina power-pop legend and former dB’s coleader Chris Stamey. Although five of the songs were rerecorded for Bramble Rose, Tift now describes those early sessions as “my first album that the world won’t hear – sort of a ‘ juke joint girl’ record,” claiming the new release as a “more mature” effort.
That progression also led Tift to open as a solo performer for one Ryan Adams during his Heartbreaker tour stop in his old Raleigh stomping ground. Ever since, he’s been “really sweet and totally supportive of my music,” she says. (In fact, later, a solo Tift would also open for Adams during his Heartbreaker stop at L.A.’s Troubadour, playing in front of a crowd that included Elton John and Alanis Morissette, among numerous others.)
An impressed Ryan brought his new discovery to the attention of his manager, future Lost Highway A&R exec Frank Callari. This was not long after Tift had won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the annual Merlefest in the North Carolina Mountains in 2000. Jim Lauderdale – another Callari connection – was one of the judges, as was a previous Chris Austin winner, Gillian Welch. “Ryan had been pushing him,” she laughs. “And I guess enough people mentioned me to him in the same day that he said he realized he had to call.” As legend has it, Callari greeted her with “People are saying I should be managing you.” She jokingly replied: “Well, what took you so long?” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Six months later, after Callari assumed his Lost Highway gig, Tift became one of the first debut artists signed to the label. Then in late September, she entered the Sound Factory with her original band – Hutchins on drums, bassist Jay Brown, and Greg Readling on pedal steel guitar and dobro – and with Ethan Johns handling lead guitar duties as well as production. Longtime Tom Petty cohort Benmont Tench added piano to some of the sessions over the next five weeks.
“We actually did the entire record live,” she proudly says. “I played guitar and sang at the same time – and we all went in there aiming to get the take. Ethan said it was going to be live, but I always thought my voice would be overdubbed later. We went in and he put the guitar in my hand and said, ‘ OK, sing.’ So it really forced me to take my singing to the next level. I focused in on getting the performance. And I feel like I can now really call myself a singer. Because I really did sing it the way it is on there.”
The result, of course, is Bramble Rose, 11 gems from a brilliant new songwriter whose music is as fresh as it is classic…