Tift Merritt

“Tift Merritt and Chris McGovern”…

I have to say there’s something about the sound of this that cries out for collaboration (and in general, it just sounds awesome), but I decided that those names together really are better suited for the purposes of me interviewing her for The Glass, so, something great still came out of it!

Tift Merritt, as you know, is a wonderful singer-songwriter that has garnered wonderful praise and has made 6 albums in the last 10 years (two of which were live), and even though her music is described by some people as alt-country or alt-folk, during this particular chat you’ll see where she really stands on that.
As you may also know, Tift has been collaborating with concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein (whom I also interviewed) and recently performing several concerts together giving audiences many great perspectives on the connections between a classical style and a folk style of music, and places in-between as well. As I write this, they are working on a CD of this music.

CM: How did this collaborative thing with Simone Dinnerstein come about?

TM: We had the chance to meet, and we just genuinely became friends and fans of each other. She was actually the one that said “We should collaborate!”. And then she got Duke University to help us put the collaboration together. I didn’t even know how we were going to have band practice because I don’t read music per se, and certainly not as fluently as she does, and she said “I don’t play anything that’s not on the page”, so how to even begin was a complicated process. I think that, at its core, this is really a conversation between the two of us talking about what we both value and what we do, and where that overlaps, and a lot of times, that’s a very complicated question, yet sometimes it’s a very simple question, so we try to find the places where it’s a simple question.

CM: The thing is, a lot of musicians in classical have been working with people from rock or from folk (or other genres), and it’s largely because somebody of the two of those feels that it’s a good idea to go outside of their box and experience what that’s like, and see if there’s a way that it sort of charges up what they do–I found that there’s a lot of people that find that it does. It recharges it in a lot of ways, and stylistically, they don’t abandon their style. Simone doesn’t play like a blues or a country player on the piano when she’s playing with you?

TM: No, I think that we both try to be ourselves. She’s a great improviser, she’s playing rock and roll, and she’s really good at it. It’s outside of her comfort zone, but I think with the kind of space, and improvisation and kind of freedom to choose voicings–She’s great at arranging and choosing voicings. I’m glad that she’s had a place to give herself credit for that.

CM: How did you guys work with the Schubert piece “Night and Dreams” (Nacht und Traume)?

TM: Simone wanted me to think of “Night and Dreams” as a cowboy song and play harmonica. I rewrote the translation in a plainspoken way that felt right to me.

Only In Song/Night and Dreams (“Night and Dreams” is Franz Schubert, arr. by Dinnerstein and Merritt; w/Simone Dinnerstein, piano; live at WNYC; 12/2/11; Courtesy of WNYC)

CM: Does it do anything new for your end of things at all?

TM: Of course it does! I’ve always been someone who practiced my instruments dedicated to a craft, but I think this is given me a level of comfort for a new kind of mindset to practice. To bring a kind of “Wow, I better give this song its due, I better do a good job, I better bring some reverence”–to kind of bring back that kind of appreciation of a song to my own work has been super valuable. I also think Simone’s pocket is extremely deep, and the emotional level she brings to music is really deep. I think with the best musicians, you’re just kind of laying it down as deep as you can go, and then kind of looking over and going “Alright, I went there, now what are you going to do?”. She and I just go deeper, and deeper, and deeper, and deeper…That’s a great way to challenge each other, there is no bottom, so that’s been really wonderful!

CM: It always sounds great! Is there going to be an album of the two of you?

TM: We’re actually recording it this week!

CM: Is there a title?

TM: I think we’re going to call it Night, which is what the original concert was called.

Philip Lasser: Walk Me Through The Night (Simone Dinnerstein, piano; Opening performance of Night at Duke University, Durham, NC; 1/21/11)

CM: Have you thought about doing other collaborations with people from other genres?

TM: To truly collaborate with somebody, you have to get under the skin, you know, really get down to the nitty gritty. I think collaborations at a superficial level–You know, even making dinner with someone on a superficial level takes a lot of time, and a lot of care, so, I really love the collaboration with Simone, but I think a good collaboration sends you back home to your own work with a sort of renewed spirit. It really has to be natural and not forced. At the moment, even thinking of another collaboration is a little more to take on than I possibly could.

CM: You should do a record with Metallica!

TM: [sounding a bit sarcastic] Yeah, sure!

CM: [laughing at my own silly but irresistible joke] Well, Lou Reed did it!

Mixtape (music video)

CM: What you do is consistent, I love that sound. Do you consider what you do alt-country, alt-folk, or like a folk-rock? Josh Ritter has also gotten those descriptions.

TM: I don’t have any problem with any of those descriptions, I think I’m a singer-songwriter–Each one of those is sort of encompassed by that. In a way, I’m tied to the tradition of roots music, for sure. I think all of those categories–Where will those words be in a hundred years? Probably gone.

CM: True enough! I never hear anyone say “Alternate rock” anymore, because it seems alternate rock became regular music, and it got so embedded in the framework, that people just stopped using the term. After a while the terms are just terms.

TM: I think we always see that when you make music that transcends semantics.

CM: After a while it doesn’t matter that it’s country or whatever–I love the sound of a pedal steel guitar, and I’m not from the country. I’m from Queens, NY, so, I can’t explain that, but I love the sound of it!

TM: You shouldn’t have to explain it, it’s a good sound!

Virginia, No One Can Warn You (music video)

Click here to buy Tift’s music on Amazon.com

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