Tift Merritt’s Expanding Horizons

When Tift Merritt was old enough to leave home, she did it with pure rock-and-roll attitude. There was no way she was going to college. She wanted to be an artist, and she didn’t think that could be taught. “I wanted to see if I had guts, and I wanted some real life, and I didn’t want anybody to tell me what to do.” So she went out into the world and became… a waitress. She also wrote stories, wrote songs, painted, played the guitar, and started gigging.

After four lonely but fruitful years of real life, she made her way to New York City. “I called my parents and said OK this is it I told you I didn’t want to go to college I’m going to keep freelancing doing what I’m doing up here.” They answered that “if you chase your rent up in New York City you’ll never have your own record.”

It was the one argument that she couldn’t ignore. Even her friends were on her parents’ side. So she signed up, “begrudgingly,” at UNC-Chapel Hill, where, she says, “the Creative Writing department and the American Studies department really took me in.”

I was really able to be my own person but to have this wonderful infrastructure of encouragement and knowledge around me. … I don’t know if someone can teach you to be a good artist but these people certainly taught me how to be a better one, they certainly taught me a whole lot and they gave me a lot of really constructive space to run, and I think it really saved me. I think it really saved me. I’m always, always so grateful for that, and it was when things started to make sense for me. But I was looking for some very particular things, and I found them, and I think that’s why school was so meaningful to me, because I wasn’t floating at all. And the people around me didn’t let me float, either.

Merritt’s recent residency at Duke, then, wasn’t the first time a North Carolina university gave her the space to expand her artistic horizons. What she did at Duke wasn’t nearly as life-changing as going to college, of course, but it was still a dramatic step out of her comfort zone as a musician. Merritt is a singer-songwriter whose work is firmly rooted in rock, country, folk, and blues, and as a musician she’s largely self-taught. Thanks to Duke Performances, she was here to collaborate with Simone Dinnerstein, a classical pianist best known for her vibrant interpretations of the music of J.S. Bach.

Even though classical crossover isn’t that big a deal these days, the combination of two artists with such strong personalities but no obvious musical overlap made this project especially challenging and gave it its own special charm. As Merritt explained to Peter Blackstock, she met Dinnerstein through a radio interview. “It was totally natural to want to find a way to spend more time together and learn from each other. Our experiences come from such different directions, but are somehow so compatible and end up feeling very much like we are searching for the same thing, however differently.” So it wasn’t a musical concept that brought them together — they didn’t get to talking and realize that they were both dying to do Schubert in the vernacular or anything like that. They just decided to make music together, and then they had to figure out what kind of music that would be.

The problem wasn’t just that there’s no overlap between their repertoires, it was also their fundamentally different approaches to making music. Rebecca Ritzel, who interviewed both women for the News & Observer, describes an amiable give and take between a pianist who’s used to working from a detailed score and a guitarist who’s used to playing by ear — habits that reflect very different ways of thinking about the balance between composition and improvisation. They work in different rhythmic worlds, too. Even the stage etiquette had to be negotiated. During the first of their concerts, Merritt joked about insisting that there was no need to bow when they came on stage because at that point they wouldn’t have done anything worth bowing for.

The program they put together was loosely organized around the theme of “Night,” but it was also a show about their collaboration — highlights of the experiments they’d done together. Each artist played some of their core repertoire solo, kind of like a control. Three compositions written for the occasion came closest to being a half-way meeting. Most of the other selections involved the two getting together to do a song from one world or the other, so one of them was close to home and the other was on unfamiliar ground. Because of the irreducible quality of Merritt’s voice, the pieces from the classical realm — compositions by Schubert, Schumann, Purcell, and Faure — produced the most striking and original hybrids.

When Merritt talked with Blackstock she hinted at some of the things that brought her and Dinnerstein together as musicians. For one thing, she described her friend as a person with “tremendous guts,” and for Merritt guts are clearly a big deal. Surely it says something about both women that they launched their partnership with a 90-minute set of live music. It would have been a lot safer to go into the studio where things could be redone and polished, or to put together an eclectic group of instrumentalists and arrangers to bridge their differences. As it happened, they did call on some musical help. Three composers wrote pieces for them to do together, there was a new solo piano composition by Daniel Felsenfeld, and they got some fine arrangements from Jenny Scheinman. They also found a venue that nurtures experimentation. But when showtime rolled around it was just the two of them, no second takes allowed. Five hundred strangers, every one a critic, got to decide how much they appreciate the Bach virtuoso when she gets funky on the Wurlitzer and how much they like the folk-rock diva when she sings a 17th-century aria with a little country catch in her throat.

Merritt also said that when she heard Dinnerstein perform, the music was “passionate while also so precise,” and I think that’s another indication of the values they share. Of course, a pianist specializing in Bach had better be precise. But when Dinnerstein sat down in the middle of their program to play Bach’s music, the fierce intensity of it was stunning. Merritt is an exuberant performer, and her passion is impossible to miss, but there’s a strong element of precision in her work, too. It’s not so much in the singing — her music isn’t the kind that’s supposed to sound precise — but in the songwriting.

The way Merritt described it during her songwriting master class in the Nelson Music Room, it took her a while to figure out that it’s ok to sweat over a song (for more about her talk, see the fine write-ups in the News & Observer and Duke Today). With rock and roll there’s an “air of flippancy.” It’s as if Keith Richards was just lounging around one day thinking, “yeah, I need a love to make me happy,” and even though his attitude is “I’m not really even gonna lift my finger to explain to you how I feel,” he somehow ends up with a great song. It doesn’t work that way for Merritt, who said, “as much as you might strive for this very casual feel, there is a very formal language and structure that you have at your hands when you’re writing a song.”

Merritt started her talk by comparing songwriting to fiction writing, which is what she studied in college. A song, she said, comes down to about three sentences — if the feeling she wants to convey can’t be boiled down to about that length, then a song is the wrong medium for it. And if it is a song, the music does a lot of the storytelling work. At one point she noted that “melody is a lot like plot line,” and later she said, “meter and melody and chord structure, pace and all of those choices… are just like choosing strong words, they’re just like choosing a character or setting or plot….”

“What is really interesting about songwriting is the time that the language and the music come together and they feel like they were meant for each other,” she said, adding that “I can’t ever force that.” But she doesn’t sit back and hope that it will just happen, either. Finding precisely the right combination of words and music is serious business, and she’s not about to let rock-and-roll attitude get in the way of a good song.