Studio Sessions

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.


Not so very long ago the biggest venue that Tift Merritt played was general store in Bynum, North Carolina, a small mill town 12 miles south Chapel Hill. Crowds came with lawn chairs to hear her sing from the front porch. From that start she and her band gathered national renown.

Her first two albums got great reviews; the second got a Grammy nomination. And after a year on a road to promote that record, she found herself drained and prostrated with, she thought, nothing left to say. She flew to Paris to reconsider her career and ended up writing and writing and writing and rededicating herself to her towards music.

Much of her for latest album, another country, was written in Paris. And Tiff Merritt and her band join us today in Studio 4A. If you'd like to speak with her about her records, her music, life on the road or her public radio program, "The Spark," give us a call. The phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us You can also join us to our conversation on our blog at

And Tiff Merritt, nice to have you with us today.

Ms. TIFF MERRITT (Singer): Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Ms. MERRITT: Thank so much. It's so nice to be here. I'm such a fan.

CONAN: Oh, well…

Ms. MERRITT: I listen all the time.

CONAN: Why don't we start with a song?

Ms. MERRITT: Okay, great.

One, two, one, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of song "Broken")

Ms. MERRITT: (Singing) Once you were a straight shot, a shiny quarter in a new slot, night would keep the dreams that you got for afternoon. Then telling the truth got so hard, we were dancing in the backyard. Once I knew the end and the start, but now that's through.

Now you're broken and you don't understand what is broken falls into place once again. Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm, again and again and again.

Well, morning comes to clean up like nothing happened when your heart stopped. Like all the lawyers calling all cops to wave days through. Just close your eyes for this long, something's mixed up and something's gone. Only fingers can you count on, and one leaves two.

Now you're broken and you don't understand what is broken falls into place once again. Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm, again and again and again.

I think I will break but I mend. And it's these most loved losses, they are just old coin tosses, and these most loved losses are the hardest to carry.

I wish I were a freeway laid out clearer than a bright day. I'd run wide open down this causeway like brand new.

But I'm broken and I don't understand what is broken falls into place once again. Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm, again and again and again.

Cause I'm broken and I don't understand what is broken falls into place once again. Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm, again and again and again. Again and again and again. Again and again and again. Again and again and again. I think I will break but I mend.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

CONAN: "Broken." That's singer/songwriter Tiff Merritt and her band - that's Danny Eisenberg on keys, on drums Zeke Hutchins, Jay Brown on bass, and guitarist Scott McCall. I break and I mend again. Is that a - you hate to be - read autobiographical stuff into your songs, but is that…

Ms. MERRITT: Oh, of course. I mean, you know, I don't think anybody is going to look in my lyrics and know that last Tuesday I went to a grocery store and have a fight with my boyfriend or anything like that. But I just - I don't think if I were writing a about things I didn't care about or that weren't deeply connected to me, I think I'd be wasting your time.

CONAN: Hmm. But when you write, do you take on - it's your voice or do you take on other characters?

Ms. MERRITT: It depends. It depends. There's this song on this new record that I wrote from the point of view of a cousin of mine who had been killed in the First World War. And then on my last album, I actually wrote a song from the point of view of the man who owned the general store where I use to play. So you know, I just - I tried to be a good writer and I think a strong point of view is always the lynchpin of that. And, usually, I am writing from my own point of view, but I think, hopefully, the song has a strong enough point of view that when I finished with it, it will stand on its own, whether I'm there with my circumstances or not.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Again, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is And we'll start with Delyn(ph) - I hope that I pronouncing that correctly - in Corvallis, Washington.

DELYN (Caller): Actually, Oregon.

CONAN: Oregon. This time I wanted to cross the state border. I apologize.

DELYN: Oh, no problem. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DELYN: Well, I've been following Tiff for a while and I just wondered what keeps her going? I know she's young so that helps. But, you know, the music industry is the tough one, and I wonder what keeps her going through ups and downs.

Ms. MERRITT: Well, that's so kind of you. One thing that's keep me going is this really wonderful band that you hear playing with me. They take wonderful care of me. But I think what probably keeps me going is music, you know, I end up at the end of the day. I don't think that - I don't think the music industry is something that's real. I don't think that going to a show and me being in my safe world at the stage and the audience being in there proper place of the audience. I don't think that's real, but I think that music is real and so, I think that's the part that I keep wanting to be part of.

DELYN: Oh, thank you so much for giving your gift to our world, and I love your music. Come to Oregon.

Ms. MERRITT: Thank you so much for calling.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. It's interesting, the music industry isn't real?

Ms. MERRITT: No, I don't - I mean, it's a reality.

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Ms. MERRITT: It's a reality. I mean, just like money is a reality and - you know, it's a reality, but it's not something that I buy into when people say, oh, you know, you - good things or bad things, when you get good reviews or when you get bad reviews or when you're - you know, somebody saying, you're going to be the next big thing or you're over (unintelligible) this many records, so now you're this. I mean, people are people.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MERRITT: And so I just try to really not get my head wrapped up in the music industry.

CONAN: Well, was that part of disillusionment when you went to Paris, that…

Ms. MERRITT: Yeah.

CONAN: …categorization?

Ms. MERRITT: Yeah, yeah. You know, well, I think probably what the biggest part of that was that I had been on the road for a really long time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MERRITT: And I'm sure that there are musicians that really thrive on the road. But it's hard, I found, for me, because I really feel a little bit lazy or not in my own element if I'm not making something. And when you're on the road, it's such a quest to find something healthy to eat and to have six hours of sleep, and to not leave something at the club. That, you know, at the end of doing that for a year, you feel a little bit like a monkey.


Ms. MERRITT: And I also found that I was lonely that, you know, I felt a little bit, like, the spotlight is something that should be moving. And people should catch it and it should move on. And I had just sort of been the center of attention be it just for, you know, some had 50 people in a very small club in the middle of Iowa or something. But I had just played that part for longer than I ever had. And I was just wondering where the introverted part of me had go on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: And I had to find it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And here we are and you're just heading out on another tour.

Ms. MERRITT: Yes, here we go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: I've got my power bars and vitamin C.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Do you look forward to it? Do you anticipate - have you arranged things a little differently?

Ms. MERRITT: Well, that - really one of the first things I did to try and fix my relationship with the road was start my radio program, "The Spark," because it gave me a really - "The Spark" is an artist-to-artist interview, a student-to-teacher interview program, which gives me a wonderful excuse to sort of corner some great artists that I cross path with on the road. And it gives me way to focus on things outside of what we're doing in, you know, the next 500 miles that we're going to cover.

CONAN: It's a program that's broadcast monthly and…


CONAN: …probably you could hear it on many the same NPR stations.

Ms. MERRITT: No, no, no. I'm talking syndicated. I'm way behind you.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: Yeah, I'm taking notes on you today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: No, it's on Marfa Public Radio and it's on the Web site. And it's, you know - it's just a wonderful way for me to learn about other artists. Because I think, you know, again, when the music - when I say the music industry isn't real. I think sometimes we are shown our celebrities or our artists in a way that they're perfectly formed and sprung forth with perfect hair and perfect product, and they haven't struggled. And I don't - it's not real from me, so I'm really more interested in that side of the story. Not the spotlight but the, you know, oh, I thought I was going to quit - oh, I had a cry, you know, like that.

CONAN: Well, I also know that you've said that it's an opportunity to really get together, get down to it and ask really personal questions. So…

Ms. MERRITT: Oh, are you going to ask me really personal question?

CONAN: We're going to a break right now. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But if you'd like to ask Tiff Merritt a personal question, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us We'll be back with more music and more of your calls. So stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're joined here today in Studio 4A by singer/songwriter Tift Merritt and her band - Danny Eisenberg on Keys, Zeke Hutchins on drums, the bassist is Jay Brown bass, on guitar is Scott McCall, also an integral member of the group, David Clemmer, the stage manager.

And if you've questions for Tift Merritt about her songs, her new album, her life on the road or her radio show, 800-989-8255. E-mail us at

We're going to start the segment with another tune.

(Soundbite of song "Another Country")

Ms. MERRITT: (Singing) Lost hours and secrets too. No one will find but you. Falling is like brand new rain, Places I have never been. I thought these things would come to me. Love is another country, and I want to go. I want to go, too. I want to go with you. I want to go with you.

But I'm broke down right here. My heart won't come out clear. I get lost on the inside, too. How could I make sense to you? And when you walk away from me, you're further than another country, and I want to go. I want to go, too. I want to go with you. I want to go, too. I want to go with you. I want to go with you.

If you should lose you place, this world should hide its face. And go where you can't follow to, I will come and look for you. And you can just hold onto me, Strangers in another country. Cause I want to go. I want to go, too. I want to go with you. I want to go, too. I want to go with you. I want to go with you. I want to go with you.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

CONAN: "Another Country," the title track of Tift Merritt's new album and she's with us here today in Studio 4A.

Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And let's go to - oops, I have to hit the right computer, that would help. This is Marty(ph). Marty with us from Farley, what state is Farley in?

MARTY (Caller): Yes, hi there.

CONAN: Hi. What - Farley? What state is that?

MARTY: Oh, that's in the state of Iowa.

CONAN: Iowa. Okay. Go ahead, I'm sure is not it's not that little town with 50 people in the - well, never mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: Yeah, that's about of how many people are in my town, I swear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What you got? She got everybody then. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: Yeah. No, I was just - I'm being introduced to your music. And I was just knocked out by that first song. And I'm an aspiring writer myself.


MARTY: And I just - I'm always kind of interested in finding out, you know, creative processes…

Ms. MERRITT: Sure.

MARTY: …that various writers use. And without showing your cards too much, I think I just…

Ms. MERRITT: No, no. I'm happy to show my cards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: Yeah. I'm just…

Ms. MERRITT: It's a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: I'm just curious, I have - since I started writing songs, I also got into - deep into classic literature and reading…


MARTY: …heavily. And I don't know if that's the right process or not. But your songs are well written…

Ms. MERRITT: Thank you.

MARTY: …and your voice is exquisite. I mean, it's this beautiful voice on top of all of it.

Ms. MERRITT: Wow, you're such a nice caller.

MARTY: Just kind of curious what your creative processed may be.

Ms. MERRITT: Well, I - you know, it's funny because when I am in a creative time, I like to be isolated. You know, I like to not be fettered by some calls and e-mails and errands and that sort of thing. And I do end up reading and writing prose and just telling a story in as many ways that I can. I find that if things are working and if I'm actually working on a good song and it's going well, that the music and the lyrics are married and they never - one never gets too far ahead of the other.

So I might find the structure for the verse and the chorus and lay that out a little bit earlier than the lyrics is finished, but it never becomes, oh, I have this great tune, I wonder what words I'll put with it. Or I have this word I wonder what the melody would be? It's something that starts together and that's usually how I know that I should keep going. Does that help at all?

MARTY: That helps out tremendously because I often thought about writing prose, as well, and then picking up ideas out of that. I understand Bob Dylan wrote a lot by using that technique.

Ms. MERRITT: He definitely wrote a lot, didn't he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: Right. But no, that's fabulous and I am delighted to talk you. I'm going to drive to Borders this afternoon and see if I can find a copy of your music.

Ms. MERRITT: You're the best. Thank you so much. Good luck with your writing.

MARTY: Thank you. God bless you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks with the call, Marty. We have a question here in the studio audience.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Oh, well, it's Jackie Northam. I'm one of the reporters here at NPR. I just wondered, you were talking about how you were disillusioned after you are dropped from your label, and that you went to the best place on Earth to regroup - Paris, and that type of thing. How long did it take for you to - actually to regroup? And, also, was it a gradual kind of re-enchantment with your art, your music again? Or was it - that one defining moment we just talked, that this is what I have to do?

Ms. MERRITT: Well, it's funny; I actually was dropped when I came back from Paris with this new record.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: Which ended up being fine. I mean, you know, it's all fine. I'm not a bitter, disenchanted person. But I was at the point where I was really tired. And I think what happened was, when I was in Paris I was able to wake up in one city over and over, which helped a lot. And then I had this apartment with a piano in it and I loved to play the piano. And I didn't have any designs on anything, you know, but I just started to write and I was such a surprise, it was such a surprise.


NORTHAM: But did that - excuse me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Go right ahead, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Did that down time help define your music better, change your music, make it better somehow?

Ms. MERRITT: Well, yes it did. And what I think happened was, first of all, in this period of time where I was tucked away from my life and my culture and I really had this freedom, there was nothing about writing this record that was a means to an end. It just was.

And there was never an expectation about how many copies that I had to sell, or I - you know, there was never anyone looking over my shoulder and I was never thinking, oh, this might hurt someone's feelings. I just became very unguarded, even more than I had been before. And it happened without even - before I even noticed. I think that was really what happened.

But when I came back to the states, I had the bulk of this record and certainly was off on my way with this record and that when I was dropped. And I sort of had to - I cared about these songs enough to say, you know, I have to figure all this out for myself.

CONAN: While Jackie was taking over the show, I went and filed news spot on Beluchistan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let me ask you, you were talking about the distractions that you don't like when you're writing.


CONAN: Did you get a cell phone when you were in Paris?

Ms. MERRITT: I did, but I didn't know the number.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: So it would only ring, you know, every once in a while. But I did. I did have a little French plastic cell phone.

CONAN: A time for another tune. Do you have to get back to the piano?

Ms. MERRITT: Oh yes. Is that okay?

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. MERRITT: Oh no. You know, I'm going to play the guitar.

CONAN: You're going to play the guitar on this one, all right.

And this is going to be "Something To Me." Again, from the album "Another Country" by Tift Merritt.

(Soundbite of song "Something To Me")

Ms. MERRITT: (Singing) The song I love the best, the one my father taught to me. The kindness of a stranger is just from an unseen wind. But an old friend at my table is by far the finest thing this tired mind could give to me. Oh, the colors of the man I love are deepest blue and green. And it isn't very often that I say just what I mean. Cause this feeling seems to scatter and these words fall in between. For what I miss I'll just tell you this.

It's something to me. It's something to me. I don't know what it comes to and it's not so much to see, but you take tomorrow so long as you know, it's something to me. It's something to me.

Gentle is the road within me and it's gently I depart. Cause these well-worn threads of daylight will sometimes come apart. Giving way to all the shadows where no one can hear your heart. So down in the dark, if that's where you are.

It's something to me. It's something to me. I don't know what it comes to and it's not so much to see, but you take tomorrow so long as you know, oh, it's something to me. It's something to me.

Well, the tender hands of morning have given up a new sunrise. And we all get up together in our ordinary lives. Going one step for another, giving up has crossed my mind, but I'll take a long day, come round the right way.

It's something to me. It's something to me. I don't know what it comes to and it's not so much to see. But you take tomorrow so long as you know, it's something to me. It's something to me. But you take tomorrow so long as you know, oh, it's something to me.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. MERRITT: Thank you.

CONAN: Tift Merritt and her band. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

A lot of people - you were in Paris, I didn't hear any accordion in any of those tunes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: Well, if we have time to play one more, we'll go that direction for you.

CONAN: Well, let's see we have just enough time to hear about two-thirds of it. So…

Ms. MERRITT: Perfect.

CONAN: All right. And we're going to keep talking here while Tift Merritt abandons her guitar to the hands of David Clemmer, the stage manager, and races over to the mighty Yamaha.

Ms. MERRITT: I don't think it's never sound so exciting as it just did now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: Our thanks to Tift Merritt and her band: On keyboard, Danny Eisenberg; drums, Zeke Hutchins; Jay Brown on bass and; guitarist, Scott McCall. Our thanks to stage manager David Clemmer, too. And of course, thanks to our engineers Neil Tivolt(ph) with help Chris Nelson and TALK OF THE NATION technical director Drew Reynolds.

Coming up Easter is the hat's most popular holiday, but for some people no outfit is complete without that perfect shapo all year round. How to wear hats? A primer, coming up next.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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