Tift Merritt didn’t know if she’d have anything left to say after a grueling world tour a few years ago. So the wistful singer-songwriter rented a flat in Paris, wandered through the neighborhoods and lingered at the piano, eventually getting back in touch with the simple life. Fully refreshed, she carried her new songs to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and recorded a new album, Another Country, produced by George Drakoulias. Although Merritt grew up in North Carolina and now lives in New York City, she’s still enthusiastic about her French connection.
CMT: How would you describe Paris to somebody who’s never been there?
Tift Merritt: It’s very European. It’s very different from an American city. And, you know, it’s old. The buildings and the streets, they aren’t made for cars. There are these beautiful, winding streets and these beautiful old buildings and then the cities…. The city planners in the 1700s and 1800s did an amazing job because there are so many beautiful views.
The beauty of Paris is very overwhelming, but what I really find so inspiring about Paris is the intimacy that I experienced there. It’s a very artisan-oriented community, as opposed to mass production. There’s a very intimate relationship that the dressmaker has making her dress in the window and the man in the fromagerie setting out his cheeses. There’s an intimacy and a pride taken in these very small tasks. To me, I felt this amazing sense of connection because I would think, “Oh, this is what I’m doing at my house all day. I’m spending all these hours on this one line, and I’m not crazy.” All these people are doing the same version of that. People really live with their windows open, and they live in the street, and I think that openness really opened me.
How long did it take before you could finally relax and recover from the tour?
I really went to France for that very reason. I was touring in Europe and thought, “I’m a grown woman. I’m going to take a vacation. I’m tired.” I really was at a point where I didn’t think I had anything to say. I rented this flat with a piano that I found on the Internet, but only because I thought it would be kind of therapeutic and being alone would be good. I was very surprised when I started writing and the intensity that I was writing with because I really didn’t think I had anything to say. It was very unexpected. I guess the part of me that is kind of left alone when I’m performing all the time had a chance to have all the time it needed to catch up, which was awesome.
A lot of these songs mention feeling broken, along with daybreak and heartbreak. What is it about the imagery of breaking that appealed to you as a writer?
(long pause) I think that change was probably in my thoughts a lot, and change that you can see around you in your world can be a metaphor for what you’re feeling inside. I definitely was feeling like another country myself and kind of a faraway, strange one. I definitely felt broken down myself, so I guess that’s the unfancy way to say it.
How do you find motivation to take a risk like you sing about on “Hopes Too High”?
I’m usually up to the risk. I think it’s really easy to romanticize going somewhere new and becoming this other person and starting over. I think it’s an instinct I have sometimes to just get out from under the weight of all the things we carry in day-to-day life. Unfortunately it’s not a permanent solution but that sense of clearing out of here, letting go of all the things that are weighing you down. … One day I will learn how to cope more like a regular human being. (laughs)
“I Know What I’m Looking for Now” is a reminder that you can get out of a mess and that goals can change. Did that song start out as positive and encouraging, or did it evolve into that?
That was a song that really wrote itself. I didn’t labor over it and you have to be so happy with that. … I think that sometimes when you’re on the road for a really long time, you can certainly lose perspective really easily, but I really had this chance to get acquainted with everyday life. It was really very, very simple and small things that were really making me so happy when I was in France. I think in those times, those really small and simple things make us filled with everything we want to be filled with. I think that is what real happiness is. I was really lucky to get such a charge from having an exchange on the street with someone … to say, “I’m sick I need some help,” and somebody at the pharmacy would take care of me. Things are easy to take for granted, certainly on the road, but probably all the time. And I think when you’re not taking those things for granted, life is very magical.