"Adjectives and adverbs are not what we need to be singin'," Tift Merritt told me during our interview. Like any good songwriter, the Grammy-nominated artist favors economy of words and simple language in her lyrics, just as two of her biggest literary influences are Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver. "A lyric needs to feel as if somebody could've spoken those words while standing in line at the post office," she said.
Merritt studied creative writing in college and has been writing across genres for a while. Songwriting is just one of her many creative outputs. But while Merritt might favor economy of language in song, her description of her writing process is filled with metaphors. She talks of "rolling around" in her creativity during the early stages of the process and of discarded song ideas as "pebbles on the trail to the next idea." She typically spends her mornings on words and her afternoons on music, because the lyrics require the sharpness of the morning. After lunch, Merritt says, that's when "you invite an instrument to come sit down with you."
Merritt's 2004 album Tambourine received a Grammy nomination for country album of the year, and in 2005 she received Americana Music Association nominations for album of the year, song of the year, and performer of the year. Her latest album Stitch of the World came out in early 2017. She's been touring extensively in support of it, and she's on the road now as well. Read our interview after the video.
How much writing do you do outside of songwriting?
Lately, I've been trying to do a lot more. My background is actually in prose; I went to a creative writing program for college, so my first love really is writing. I always wanted to be a writer. Short stories were my preferred mode of expression.
To answer your question, I always do a lot of collateral writing besides my songs. I think that's the right way to characterize it: collateral. It's almost collateral damage, because you can't just reach into your creativity and say I want to pull this out fully formed. Instead, you have to roll around in it. I will say that what I'd like is enough time to take my prose writing from something that was the initial flame of something--the initial motion of writing--and give it the energy to make it something complete. I haven't been able to do that for many years. I've been trying to be on the road less and to write more. I'm trying to write one thousand words a day, but it's tough given the fact that I'm a mother.
Being a songwriter is a tenuous balance. One one hand, there's being a musician with chops and maintaining that, and also keeping on the road. On the other hand, there's being home and having a writerly routine. I always feel spread a little too thin over both of those things. But the road ends up getting more of my energy because it's how I make a living. I would like to have more of a writing routine. I did take a year off to write my last record, and I was able to maintain a creative routine that gave me a lot of joy.
You talked about your prose writing and your songwriting. How different are those routines? Do you sometimes write prose that ends up being a song?
I don't think about that too much. At this point, I have pretty good instincts about what is a song, what is a poem, and what is longer story. I spend a lot of time thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of each of those forms. When I was younger, I actually would think I'll make this idea a song, a short story, and a poem, and then I'll see what turns out the best. But now I usually know the best form before I start.
I do tend to think about music as a different literary structure. It's a physical structure, a social structure, and a sonic structure, but it's no less a story. There's character and setting and rhythm and melody. They all work on behalf of the same cause. Music is such a huge canvas, much bigger than a page.
But to answer your question, I usually begin my songs with words. I freewrite and see where it goes from there. If it's prose, it still may end up as a song. There's a point during every freewrite where I'll suddenly recognize what form those words will take. If it's really wordy and if it really hinges on the words, maybe it ends up as a talkin' blues Dylan thing.
When you freewrite, is it with a specific idea in mind? What drives that freewriting session?
The act of writing, and what compels me to write, is an endless wish to connect. To not be alone and to make sense of life. But that's the existential answer to your question. On a more day to day, nuts and bolts answer, it depends on where I am in the writing cycle, whether I'm in the beginning, the middle, or the end. All those places require a different kind of energy. If I'm just starting something. I feel breezy and floaty as I feel around for what I want to write. That's a fun part of the cycle because I don't know what I'm going to make yet. There's no pressure. I just cast into the water.
But when you're in the middle, you have to get serious. You have to stay open, but you have to have some idea of where you're going and what you need. Finishing energy is the toughest. I think I may be stealing that notion somewhat from Buddhism, but when you are about to finish something, you have to get the specifics right. That requires a caffeinated kind of energy. But you also have to come to terms with what you've made, and that includes addressing its weaknesses. You can either go back and get it right, or you can walk away.
Is there more anxiety at the beginning of the process or the end of the process for you?
The ending is for me, because it's a reckoning. But anxiety is like frothy water, and I don't know that anxiety is the right word here. It's more about facing off with hard questions when you finish something. You come to terms with things like did I make what I wanted to make, am even capable of doing what I want to do, will this reach other people. When you start the process, you deal with some lightweight psychological anxiety, wondering if you're even good enough to do this or whether what you're trying to create will be as good as what you created before. But those questions are kind of self-indulgent, to be honest.
In the end, it's a weightier idea to think abut the fact that you've put yourself on the line, opened yourself up for everyone to see, and invested so much of your energy. And you have to be ok with whether it works or not. That strikes a deeper current in me.
Does your writing process have any rituals? Is there an environment in which you tend to get your best writing done?
Morning is best, and caffeine is good. I like to be in one place with a nice view, surrounded by books I love. But I also think that you have to get over that stuff and not rely on those elements as crutches because if you think you really need them, then you won't write.
If I have my dream morning, I get up, make coffee, then read for about 20 or 30 minutes. Then I go to my desk and I write until I feel like I'm finished. Once that's done, I revise song lyrics from the day before. When I'm done with that, I move to instruments. That sharpness that your brain has in the early morning is good for words but it's a little too tight for music. But as the day goes on, things get a little wider and less specific. And that's when you invite an instrument to come sit down with you.
You mentioned revision. I've always said that the best revision process involves making your writing look as unfamiliar to you as possible. Is that why you wait a day before you revise?
It's easier to do that with prose, I think. But with music, revision is a daily process. I look at a song every day. I have to get it exactly right before anything happens. And if it isn't happening, I will step back and set it aside for a while. But most of the time, if it isn't happening, it's not going to happen no matter how long I set it aside. It was an idea that made me feel good, but it wasn't a great idea. It's a good idea to keep revising, but it's also not a good idea to get attached to how great you think your ideas are. You have to know when a "not" will always be a "not."
I don't hear that take too often. Songwriters usually tell me that they return to their discarded ideas and are often able to make them work after setting them aside.
I do have plenty of those old ideas, and they make me want to throw up! Laughs. Just kidding, of course. That just felt good to say. I have all of those old songs on my computer and in my notebook. And most of it looks like terrible 8th grade poetry. It makes me terribly uncomfortable. I do think that it's important not to discard ideas for good because one of them could be a pebble on the trail to the next idea. And that's what I do. It's not that I return to an idea a year later to work on it again; it's that the idea stirs something else in me. It's a sacrificial lamb for whatever comes next. It sharpens your pencil.
How often do you hear or read words that make you think I have to write that into a song?
It's not quite as direct as you describe, but reading always fills me with the feeling that I need to go to my desk and write. So does music. It's an urgency, a fullness that propels me towards the need to create. It propels me to deal with whatever is bubbling inside of me. As an artist and even as a mom, I forget sometimes that I have relationships with other people's works that are every bit as real to me as the relationships I have with my family and friends. It can be a painting, a film, a book, or a record. Those are the things you turn to with what is most intimate inside of you. Spending time with that art when it means something to you is so important. It's not at all about the person that made them; it's about the art itself and how it makes you feel.
What writers do you have those kinds of relationships with?
It changes a lot. Cormac McCarthy and Annie Dillard have both meant a lot to me. So have Jack Gilbert and Raymond Carver. Faulkner and Eudora Welty too.
Many songwriters I've interviewed have also cited McCarthy and Carver.
That makes sense. There is an economy of words in those authors that you also see in songs. The pace of a novel does not have that economy the way a novella does. There's not always the urgency in a novel. But every word matters in the works of McCarthy and Carver. They are also very understated in their writing, and you have to have that in songs. Adjectives and adverbs are not what we need to be singin'. They write nouns and verbs in everyday language, and that's really what songs should be too.
It's very rare that I use a four syllable word in a song. It needs to feel as if somebody just said that while standing in line at the post office. That's part of what allows folk songs to ring true. It's an everyday subject matter, and that's fundamental principle of what I'm working in. Those writers do that, but while their language may be simple, their ideas are not. They're writing about the spiritual world, the invisible world, the emotional world, and the territory inside them.
McCarthy is the guru of that, at least in my mind. I'd love to be a fly on the wall during his writing process. When I was young, I wanted to go to the town where he lived and just hang out outside the grocery store until I ran into him. I wanted to see what he had in his cart. Laughs.
Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is one of my favorite novels. Few songwriters mention him, though. As far as style, he and McCarthy are pretty different.
That's one of my favorite books too. His characters are so vividly drawn. But I am a southerner, and I've always been fascinated by the intergenerational stories in the southern Gothic genre. I'm looking for how to tell my own stories, and perhaps Faulkner tells stories in the way I'd like to tell them. I grew up around those kind of storytellers: my grandfather would take 30 minutes to tell me three sentences.