By Scott Schinder
Tift Merritt’s sixth studio album, Stitch of the World, finds the North Carolina-bred singer-songwriter-guitarist delivering some of her most potent country-soul songcraft to date. Such poignant originals as “Heartache Is An Uphill Climb,” “Love Soldiers On,” “Icarus,” “Something Came Over Me,” “Eastern Light” and the title track are rife with heartbreak and healing, while “My Boat” movingly borrows from Raymond Carver’s poem “Where Water Comes Together with Other Water.”
Reflecting the influence of the end of Merritt’s marriage to her longtime drummer Zeke Hutchins, Stitch of the World was written on a friend’s farm in Marfa, Texas, in a rented California cabin, and in Merritt’s adopted hometown of New York City. She recorded the 10-song set in a mere four days with a studio band that included guitar icon Marc Ribot, steel-guitar specialist Eric Heywood and Iron & Wine mastermind Sam Beam, who served as co-producer and backup singer. The album benefits from its stripped-down creation, with forthright performances and unfussed arrangements that amplify the songs’ emotional immediacy.
Stitch of the World‘s release follows the birth of Merritt’s first child (she was pregnant during the recording), and her return to North Carolina after stints living in Paris and Manhattan. In the five years since her last album Traveling Alone, the artist branched out with a variety of extracurricular musical pursuits, recording and touring with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein, working with Andrew Bird’s old-timey combo the Hands of Glory and toured with North Carolina alt-country ensemble Hiss Golden Messenger as an auxiliary member. She also saw Don Henley cover her composition “Bramble Rose,” the title track from Merritt’s 2002 solo debut.
Stitch of the World features a pretty emotional set of songs. There seems to be a lot about surviving and persevering and moving on in these tunes.
I think so. I’m too close to it to sum it up in one or two sentences, but I do think it’s talking about the unexpected, and life kind of getting to the edge of the map of what you thought you were doing. With creativity, it can be dangerous to think that you know what you’re doing. At a certain point, you kind of have to hand it over to hope and just let it go. I had a period of time where that was kind of scary, and I didn’t really have a lot of perspective on myself or my life, and I think that’s an honest perspective to write from.
I think I write my way through my life, for good or for bad, that’s my nature. And this album is definitely a product of that process. What I like most about this record is that it doesn’t tie anything up neatly, and it’s not pretending to.
I don’t think of my work as therapy or a diary. I do have a private space that is absolutely mine, that I wouldn’t drag the rest of the world into. I think that you deal with things as honestly as you can, and you try to make something that’s a satisfactory answer to your own questions.
What’s the significance of the album title?
Usually there’s a song on every record that everything hangs itself on, and I felt like “Stitch of the World” was that song this time. I really feel like things are connected, and that things have meaning beyond what we can see. It’s a hard thing to have faith in sometimes, and I think it’s a really loose and delicate thing.
I spent a lot of time writing “Stitch of the World.” I rented a cabin on the coast of California for my 40th birthday, and the view was so spectacular. It was so perfect; it looked like those felt cutouts that you have as a child, and you make a landscape with a moon and an owl and a tree. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, how did I end up thrown into this as well?” I believe in the unseen stitches, and the longer I’m alive, the more I believe in them. You can’t yank on them too hard, but they’re still there.
What was the birth cycle, no pun intended, of the album, and these songs, like?
It was very much getting up in the morning and writing, and then looking back at what I had written, and working on that some more, and going to an instrument and trying to bring the music to life. It was a really nice writing routine, because I took some time off the road. I wrote a lot, and that usually means that you lose perspective, because you’re looking at maybe 20 songs before you go into the studio. If you’re not careful, you can lose sight of which ones are good and which ones are too vulnerable and which ones are not vulnerable enough.
I really like making records quickly and live, where you really have to be there in the moment. Nobody has a lot of studio time these days, because budgets are so much smaller. If I had my druthers maybe I would have done a little more experimentation in the studio, or maybe tried to record a few more songs. But at the end of the day, that’s the record. I think I did my best writing, and I went in the studio and did the best I could, and tried to show up and be there every moment of the way.
How pregnant were you when you were recording, and do you think that that made a difference in the way the album turned out?
I was six months pregnant, but I don’t know how much of an influence it was. A lot of the songs were written long before I went into the studio, so this isn’t a record about being a mother or being pregnant. But the physical experience of playing music when you know that you’re already sharing it with someone you love is a really beautiful thing. I was worried that I’d be tired, but being pregnant really suited me, and I had lots of energy. She was my good luck charm before she even got here.
What was Sam Beam’s involvement in the album?
Sam is a fabulous person and a dear friend and a great musician. I had always wanted to work with him, and I sort of floated the idea, and then I bumped into him in the airport and said, “Can I send you these songs?” I was so nervous about them, and I didn’t know if they were any good, and he called me up and said, “I can tell that you’ve been working hard,” and that absolutely meant the world to me. I told him about the people I was getting together to record, and he said he wanted to come.
To have Sam as a listener and a contributor was just unbelievable to me. He came up with these amazing countermelodies, and he’d always have great questions, like about what’s going on in the third verse of this song, and what it needs to keep it interesting or keep it alive. I don’t think that my songwriting and my melodic sense will ever be the same after the things that I learned from working with Sam.
Your records seem to have grown more personal and introspective, as you’ve become more proactive and in-control in the record-making process.
I think that that’s true. I think that I wouldn’t be doing this is I didn’t feel like I was saying something that felt substantive to me. I think that going inward is usually the first step to that, and hopefully you come out with something that doesn’t leave you isolated and alone.
Life is a learning curve, and now that I’ve made six or seven records, I think I know a lot about what I like and what I want, and how I want to push forward. I really enjoy the studio now, but that isn’t to say that there isn’t pressure. If you’re serious about what you’re doing, there’s a part of you that’s truly at stake every time that you go in. That feeling that you’re really giving of yourself in an essential way, it’s really exciting, and it’s kind of what I live for. You just have to move forward with what you do, and you have to honestly follow what’s sparking your fire.
The day-in day-out process of being an artist and making things, that is the prize. I’ve never been tremendously commercially successful musician, and sometimes that’s hard, because I have to keep going, and I usually have a little bit less frosting on this cake to work with. But at the same time, it’s really a privilege to keep going and following my own compass.
Does it take a certain amount of faith to keep going?
I think there is some faith involved. I think about it every time I make a record. I think, “Do I really want to go and live in the van and do it all over again?” And the answer is always yes. It’s a little bit different now that I have a daughter. I don’t know that I can sign her up for the trenches, the way that I signed myself up for it. But I think it’s a nice way of life, to wholeheartedly believe in your art. That doesn’t mean that you don’t doubt yourself and your decisions 18 times a day, but the music life is an endless source of goodness.
Sometimes I sort of fantasize about being a writer and staying home and writing from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and not having to go to Iowa to play a gig. But the truth is that music is a really palpable connection from one person to another, and that’s really, really important to me.
You’ve been involved in some interesting collaborations lately, like Hiss Golden Messenger.
I toured with them a bunch this fall. The Hiss Golden Messenger folks are so dear, and Mike Taylor reached out to me. He and I had become friends, and when I was moving back to North Carolina, he and his posse just adopted me. I was involved in some shows at Duke University while they were conceiving their new record, and it was such a pleasure to be around them and to make music with them. Then they said, “You’re in our posse now, you’re coming back to North Carolina and you’re gonna be a mom, you can keep making music, and we’re cheering for you.”
I went out and played with them for five or six shows, and I really learned how to be on the road with my daughter. Hiss Golden Messenger is a family operation — they all have children, and they were all so encouraging and kind. They’re such good people, and they really cheered me on, and I’m really grateful to them, especially to Mike. I don’t know what’s on the books touring-wise with them right now, but I can tell you that I will make sure that we’re singing together at some point in the very near future.
Was moving back to North Carolina a big thing?
I really miss New York. There’s something really special about waking up every morning in the most vibrant city filled with the most vibrant people. It was amazing. As much as North Carolina is my heart, it was hard to go back home and have my life take a different path than I expected. It was about being near my mother and father, and it was about being able to have some time and space to be with my daughter. It was a practical decision, but it was hard, and a piece of my heart is still in New York.
We have a pretty full schedule through June, though, and I’ll be going out with my little girl. She’s up for it, she loves it, and it feels really good to be a good example to my daughter.