Don Henley’s Grammy-nominated album Cass County kicks off with a music memory that can never be taken away from Tift Merritt. The collection opens with the title song of her 2002 debut Bramble Rose and features Henley, Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert each taking turns singing her words.
“It was such a huge gift that Don gave me,” Merritt told CMT.com. “I’m so grateful. He wrote me an email that I’ll never forget while I was on tour with Andrew Bird. I was totally hung over after a hometown show with my friends and I just thought, ‘I cannot be reading this right.’ It just took my breath away. You don’t have very many moments like that in your career. It’s something you can present to your parents, ‘Look! See you believed in me. Sorry it was really scary along the way and that it still is sometimes.’”
Merritt is speaking over the phone from her New York apartment before a coffee outing with classical pianist and former tourmate Simone Dinnerstein.
On Friday (Jan. 27), Merritt released her sixth studio album Stitch of the World — a collection of songs written in the wake of several life changes. She was turning 40, her marriage was ending, and she decided to take a year off the road to see what would happen.
After touring with Bird and his old-time band Hands of Glory in 2015, she secluded herself in nature to put her life to music. She visited a friend’s ranch in Marfa, Texas, where pastoral scenes on the high plains provided daily inspiration. Watching the ranch hands carry out their daily routine led to “Love Soldiers On,” a song about how love persists and pushes forward no matter what.
Watching birds learning to fly and dust themselves in the driveway inspired “Icarus.” The concrete jungle of New York City led to “Something Came Over Me” and “Eastern Light.” Hiking the trails near her California cabin led to “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb,” “Proclamation Bones” and the title track.
“‘Stitch of the World’ started with looking at a vista in California, and it was so beautiful,” she said. “It just felt not real and like it was sewn together. I thought how lucky I was to be sewn into that picture, too.
“I also do a lot of thinking about the invisible emotional things that tie us together and how you can’t pull on things too hard or hold things too tightly. There was a certain emotional resonance that I could follow. Suddenly, it was like sewing life. When the needle goes into your heart, you can’t pull too hard on the thread, or it will break.
“It felt very honest for me to think about emotional life in that way. I sort of hastened myself to jump gladly into it all.”
By fall 2015, she started recording with MC Taylor for one of his Hiss Golden Messenger projects, and around the same time, Merritt found out that she and her boyfriend were expecting. While she was six months pregnant, Stitch of the World was recorded over four days in Los Angeles with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam co-producing.
During our recent interview, her daughter could be heard baby talking on the other end of the line between questions.
CMT.com: Are you seeing the world through a different eyes raising your daughter?
Merritt: That’s almost an understatement. I revert back to I am who I am, but having a child, I didn’t know I would like it so much. I really and truly would settle down on the farm and have five more if that was in the cards.
How do you perfect your use of words in music?
My first love is really writing, and that’s my way into songs. I feel really at home writing prose. … When I write music and when I write prose, there’s rhythm, melody, excitement and tension. You just have to give yourself time most of all.
What was the hardest song to write?
I think the hardest one to write was “Stitch of the World.” I spent a lot of time on the lyrics — not so much in a difficult way — just trying to get them right. “Eastern Light” was a hard one to write because I think really straight forward songs are often really emotional to write. So I think maybe that one was somewhat difficult.
How does writing about love and heartache help you understand it more?
Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just digging a hole. It really depends on where your heart is. It’s about being honest with yourself — whether you’re covering terrain you’ve already covered — and it helps if you’re asking the right questions. If you’re just beating the shit out of yourself, that’s not really helpful. If you’re just mad at someone else, that’s not generally helpful, either.
Was nature your favorite co-writer this time around?
Absolutely. That’s so right because these beautiful landscapes that I was staying at were really lifting my heart and my eyes. I think that emotional life has cycles just like nature does in the way nature changes from day to night. … There’s something good about walking that’s really good for thinking.
How did working with Sam bring out the best in you?
He’s a wonderful person. He has the biggest heart. My favorite thing about Sam is his ability to find counter melodies and getting insight in my own writing when I didn’t have a lot of perspective on my writing. I think it really helps to have somebody to talk about that stuff to see what’s actually coming across instead of what’s speaking to you. Sam is great at that, and that was a huge gift that he gave me.
Did your time working with Andrew Bird, MC Taylor and Dinnerstein influence the sound of the new collection?
To watch other people in their process and watch them cultivate their noise is just super rewarding and inspiring. Andrew and Simone are such musical virtuosos. The thought and care they put in every single note is just stunning. It’s just this really thoughtful way to fill space with music. There’s a lot you can think about.
Does it kind of surprise you to look back on your work from when you first started?
Absolutely — probably not in the way that you would expect. Sometimes I look back at my work and I’m full of uncertainty and anxiety. I can pick out a few moments where I wonder, “Wow, I wonder how I did that.” But I will always be my toughest critic, and I will always know all of the scenes behind everything that was made. So I probably look back with pretty harsh eyes but with a lot of love, too. I’m very proud of all the things that I’ve done and especially of the people that I’ve worked with. My critical eye is one that is raised on my writing and what is still left to cross.
Does life feel like a country song?
Yes, there have certainly been moments where life feels like a country song, but I think it feels more like a really long poem. It’s a little too multi-faceted to just put in one song. Life is always changing so if it is a country song one minute it is a different song the next minute.
Merritt starts a three-week tour through the Netherlands and the U.K. starting Saturday (Jan. 28) in Amsterdam. Her 2017 tour picks up stateside on Feb. 19 in Kansas City.