“I’m gonna be Molotov !”
It’s just as well that Tift Merritt came round for dinner. Worrying about the cooking stopped me being so nervous about talking to her.
How did this come about ? Well, it’s a tale of jetlag, Oliver’s Village Café in Belsize Park, delayed flights, extensive use of London’s many transport options, Hampstead in the sunshine, fruit tarts from Le Pain Quotidien, and The Times crossword. But I’m afraid that’s all of that story that you’re going to get. Instead, let’s head into an evening of lemon almonds, and Tribute drunk from Soviet-leader-commemorating glasses at my patio picnic table.
Tift arrived around seven o’clock, at which point I was somewhat behind with my preparations, not having finished the aubergines early enough, and with the French beans still cooking. So we talked as I put the final touches to the sauce, and continued as we ate.
I started the conversation with this famous stranger like anyone used to living in London would: with transport and geography. Sizzling introductory chat… We discussed living in big cities – my experience being many parts of our capital and hers her home of New York and a couple of periods residing in Paris. She admits she’s never unlocked the secret to navigating London; I wonder if that’s even possible, unless you’re a Knowledge’d cabbie. Paris and New York are another matter she feels, maybe not to know, but to be comfortable with – the former at least in part a case of cracking the arrondissements and the latter made easier by Manhattan and the bridges.
She’s in town touring last autumn’s “Traveling Alone”, playing with a full band in, amongst other places, Leeds, Glasgow, at Cornbury and culminating in this Friday’s British Summertime in Hyde Park. But we met on the eve of a performance of her more recent album “Night” with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The two of them took to the stage in the Purcell Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, on Monday 1 July.
It was a challenge preparing to interview Tift – not just because of my being a fan, and not just because it’s happening in my house, but also because she’s been interviewing for some time herself, through her radio show “The Spark”. Where that leaves both of us is in treating this, as she does that enterprise, more like a conversation than a straight-ahead interview, in trying “NOT to be a journalist”.
She explains that she is like “most people [who] would rather be doing what they love than talking about what they love”. She concedes that although she is in the position where she has to do promotional work, she doesn’t think “oh; there’s interviews to do !”. She grins broadly with a little sarcasm but also a slew of good humour, gives a yee-ha arm swing and lets rip a hoarse guffaw.
The conversations that she has with others are different, however, from the normal experience of talking within the “record cycle’.
“I feel like the interviews that I do with artists have a purpose that is not mine completely. There is a discussion to be had about making your own way and [this] work that certainly I need to have and that is comforting to me on a certain level. But I have always been very surprised at the response that I get: that other people need that conversation too. So I think about what I do in a very documentary sense [saying to them] can you tell me about your process, can you tell me about your success and failure and can you tell me this so that we can have it … as a document of their experience of the world because that experience is really very singular.”
This sense of putting down a record of the reality of creating brought us on to talk about Studs Terkel, the US historian who laid down the stories of ordinary Americans, drawing from his wealth of oral histories. We discussed the wonderful Letters of Note, showing some of the unseen worlds of, for example, Maurice Sendak and John Steinbeck, through their correspondence. We both had cause to draw breath, and beer, when we considered the modern biography and, as she put it, “how tacky it is going to be when people start putting these books together with email correspondence in there”, Tift crying out “that’s so bad I have to drink !” We were out of Brooklyn so I popped back inside for pistachios, Tribute and Peroni Gran Riserva.
Listening back to the tape, it was delightful to hear the sounds that accompany normal conversation, often unheard, unremembered: the jogging of the table with knees and feet; the clink of bottles on glasses; the long, slow passing overhead of distant jumbo jets; the swallowing of beer; the clatter of shells into a bowl. It feels a very homey recording.
Part of me was wondering, the first time I listened to the pause in our conversation, whether or not Tift might have left a hidden message or joke, but it’s just the quiet of the evening, the no-sound of someone relaxing in warm air under a clear pale-blue sky.
I brought out some of my favourite glasses: small tumblers from the Soviet museum in St Petersburg featuring the pictures of previous eminent Communists – the choice this evening being between Chernomyrdin, Molotov and Yeltsin. Tift was straight in there: “I’m gonna be Molotov !”. We then undertook a brief beer tasting, before she settled on the Tribute, not least having realised that, with jet lag, the Peroni might be a stretch too far. It hit the spot: “that’s a REALLY good beer”. She’s not wrong.
Comestibles distributed and glasses refilled I asked Tift if there are things that she brings with her when she goes on tour: to remind her, to comfort her, to protect her.
“Absolutely. And especially in the beginning. I had an old train case that we called my mojo case …with a set list from our first standing ovation … some things from my grandmother and my grandfather, and notes people gave me…”
“I am definitely a collector, and at this point I have to be a little bit unceremonious about my travels … I have a technical list of things that I have to bring that just grows and grows the more I become pickier and pickier about my sound. So at this point I do have a few things that I bring on tour that are sentimental but it has grown less. So I always have a shawl because I get cold, and for many years I had my grandfather’s silk scarf that he wore. But it’s really at my desk at this point rather than in my suitcase. I have a pinboard for things that I find or care about.”
I say that I was similarly an accumulator of items for a long time – notes and gifts from friends and family members, but also pictures, bracelets, some Guatemalan worry dolls – all to help me cope with fear of flying. Losing some of them on one particular far-flung trip caused a crisis moment that eventually led me to understand that all the people that were around those totems and all those feelings were still there to keep me safe.
Tift has “mixed feelings about that sort of thing. And I’m thinking about a piece of jewellery that I lost that was really important.” She comments that “you do lose things in your life that you realise are only a symbol – you are looking for a way to express the meaning of what you feel; you might lose the thing but you don’t lose the meaning.”
“There are plenty of things that I have lost because I was unorganised or frustrated with the maintenance of day-to-day life … because I wanted to just simply tend to my work or what I was thinking about. Which on one hand is really important and on another hand is really selfish.”
“I think now I have made friends with day-to-day life and that makes things much easier.. I think a lot of artists think that day-to-day life is infringing on this purpose that we have and I don’t feel that way [any longer].”
She also notes that some of those losses of important things are “about being a kid” or at least being younger, and that attachments, and behaviours, change. That sense of development and maturation is something that comes up time and again in our conversation. She talks about the “really personal decisions” that you make as you go through life. Inevitably, our discussion turns to “Tambourine”, her 2004 album that some assumed would be the moment that she would break through, and that breaking through in that style, that way, was what she wanted.
“Tambourine was probably the point in my career when there was the most commercial expectation. And that period of time after Tambourine was one of great questioning for me, personally, but I think it was on a much more private level than most people would know.”
“I mean it was my lifelong dream to work with George Drakoulias, and I am so proud of that record, I thought I executed what I meant to execute. What was really hard to digest was having done that and being told I was a commercial failure and being dropped and the reality of living in a van.”
“I think that was the first point in my life where I really felt, um, I had performed so much that I started to feel purely a performer, which I don’t… I love the energy of performing but I love performing from the creative wellspring that is that every performance is new. I don’t do the same show every night, I try to start from a really genuine place, and after a while that can be really taxing, on your personal life, and on your mind. I enjoy being the centre of attention when I have it and when I feel good. But I was really, it was the first time I had toured month after month after month and we you know lived in the van and I just sort of thought ‘oh, is this what we have been working towards ?”
That’s something significant to admit to, that level of tiredness and uncertainty. And I think that that is as deep as she will go, noting that “there is a life underneath the surface that is going on and that you might not be invited to”. Although she also means that as a warning to those living their lives too much in public, whether celebrity or no, because that private life is important, “and you have to make that for yourself”.
So, after finishing “Tambourine”, she thought “’where do I go from here ?’”, something meant “personally as much as artistically”. She wanted to make a record “that had energy but was more intensely personal”, that would explore the flip side to the ”power in speaking to the collective.”
“What I really needed to sort out was this feeling of one person speaking to one person. That was sort of the manifesto of that record [2008’s “Another Country”], you know, it had to be different. I was really proud of what I did after ‘Tambourine’ because I kept going and there wasn’t a script anymore…”
This is a fiercely principled individual. She’s warm, and engaging, easy to laugh and no shirker of eye contact. But something that burns through the conversation is the intensity of her focus and the deep-seated need to be honest with herself no matter what:
“I do things because I feel them and if it touches someone else that’s great, but I suffer the consequences of not being able to do something that’s fake – I just can’t, I won’t. Every time I make a record I just know more and more that you have to answer your own question and make your own meaning and it’s not going to come from someone outside of you, which is probably why I wish that commercial success were a true driving force in my life, because then maybe I would have gotten it !”
She’s very aware of not having wanted to “make the same record over and over” and trying to avoid “becoming a parrot of [her]self”. Key in that is avoiding any kind of engineered novelty, “growing in a genuine way, not in a way that is filled with artifice but in a real genuine longing for and hunger for the next balloon to go up.”
At this point I asked about writers like Carver and Hemingway who did spend a lifetime honing very individual styles (although comparable) of ruthlessly pared-down language and expression. It’s not as though Carver was trying his hand at historic romances or Gothic novels after all, I said. Tift swiftly leapt to the defence, pointing out that I don’t know that, and that there “there is a private life of the artist as well as the public life.” Who knows what Carver did or didn’t write that we haven’t seen, stories or snatches of prose that were attempts to learn or experience new approaches, experiments that eventually had an invisible effect on his writing ?
But then, and this was the part of the conversation that means most to me as I look back on it, Tift politely admonished me when I talked casually about “trying on” different techniques and styles.
“It’s all a question of voice, which is you have to speak with your voice as authentically as you can but you can’t have that voice be narrowed by artifice.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t use the words ‘try on’ – that’s a way to say it but it’s not like a cloak or an accessory. As an artist, you think about why different art affects you – you’re studying your craft and you are trying to incorporate things that maybe didn’t come to you naturally so you’re thinking about it and you are trying to integrate it into yourself in a way that it becomes natural in your work. True artistic growth is not as superficial as saying ‘Hey, I wanna be like that, and so I am going to google it and see what it looks like.’”
I asked her about all the people who do make those decisions and do those things:
“You have to hold yourself accountable for the creative decisions that you make and if you make a decision because it is easy and it is superficial you better damn well know inside that you did that. And not congratulate yourself for it.”
We’re lucky I think, those of us enjoying Tift Merritt’s music, (and those of you yet to hear it) that the person responsible for creating it takes it so seriously, and works so hard at it. Having felt that honesty and integrity, and been gently upbraided for a little flippancy in the face of it, has only made her output seem stronger and more impressive. There is determination and individual responsibility there – but joy and wonder and humour and sorrow and exploration too – and seeing Tift on stage the next evening showcased all of that.
And before she headed back to Belsize Park, she even offered to help do the dishes.
Not a chance.
- Interview: Matt Reid – Documentary Director (backseatmafia.wordpress.com)
- Little Triggers – St.Bernard (part 2 of Backseat Mafia on Tour: York) (backseatmafia.wordpress.com)
- Live: Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt (backseatmafia.com)