All aspects of songwriting tend to be personal for Tift Merritt. It's just that the stories she weaves into her music aren't always her own.
Take two tunes from her fine new album, See You on the Moon. The first, Feel of the World, is a letter of devotion to her grandmother, who died last spring as Merritt's record was being cut. But it's told from the perspective of her grandfather, who died in the 1970s.
The other, the meditative After Today, came from conversations with a juvenile public defender who chronicled the lives — and, in some cases, life sentences — of inner-city children.
"It's funny," says Merritt, who performs in Lexington and Louisville this week. "We're talking about this record being so personal. And it is. But I feel very much like these aren't really my songs. Feel of the World is very much my grandfather's letter to my grandmother. After Today isn't my story, either. But it deserves a microphone probably more than my stories.
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"You just have to try and open yourself to what someone else has to say. You never know how affected you will be as a writer. Sometimes your own stories are the things you have so little perspective on that they come out really murky and horrible. And sometimes they come out crystal clear. It's just one of those things where, as a songwriter, you keep you fingers crossed and try your best to get out of the song's way."
For the past eight years (longer, really, if you count her early tours with the alt-country band Two Dollar Pistols), Merritt's songs and stories have come through loud and clear. When her debut album, Bramble Rose, was released in 2002, she was promoted as one of the leading new voices in Americana music. Successive records, though, were seldom tied to specific styles or sounds. Sure, elements of rockish country and folk are always prevalent. But it's the narratives, and the perspectives surrounding them, that drive Merritt's music.
That was especially true when Merritt, 35 — who was born in Houston, raised in Raleigh, N.C., and now lives in New York — set to work on her last studio album, 2008's Another Country. It was written and fashioned, as the title suggests, during a brief residency in Paris. The music on See You on the Moon, thankfully, didn't take her to the cosmos, but it did come from a place other than Another Country.
"On Another Country, I was really isolated and on my own," Merritt said. "I was kind of writing my way out of the woods, really. See You on the Moon was more seamless. I took a few months off the road, and the songs came very quickly. It was an extension of Another Country in that I wanted to follow through on some of the things I learned while writing and making that record. The new record isn't quite so introverted, though. But it's just as personal."
One noticeable tie to Another Country emerges in the song arrangements. See You on the Moon builds on its predecessor's lean song structures. Merritt credits the spaciousness of her new songs to listening to the early '70s pop/soul records of Bill Withers. You hear it especially on the hushed harmonies that Kentucky's Yim Yames (otherwise known as My Morning Jacket's Jim James) adds to Feel of the World and on the subtle piano and brass setting that frames After Today.
"The songs tend to take care of themselves," Merritt says. "They really dictate what needs to happen more than some idea of what you would like them to be. We just wanted to make sure we didn't put too much on these songs. We wanted the open space to be like a member of the band."
Then there are the instances when Merritt's stories were truly not her own. See You on the Moon includes two cover tunes — Live Till You Die, by overlooked '70s pop songsmith Emmitt Rhodes, and Danny's Song, one of the first folk-pop creations of Kenny Loggins. But it was Anne Murray's hit 1972 version of the latter that prompted Merritt and her band to record it — that and a bit of reflection on more far-reaching life themes.
"Danny's Song was basically a late-night studio accident," Merritt said. "We were having a studio discussion about Anne Murray's hair along with a debate as to whether she was cool or not. Tucker (Martine, who produced See You on the Moon) came to Anne's defense. So did I.
"But we were also all at this point in our lives where things had come full circle. My grandmother had died, but I had also just gotten married (to her longtime drummer, Zeke Hutchins). Our bass player (Jay Brown) was about to get married, and Tucker and his girlfriend were about to have a baby.
"Suddenly, this song that we had really attributed to our parents comes along and has a very pertinent meaning to our lives."