A MOTHER’S NATURE: Tift Merritt talks motherhood, writing and the road

Touring is not for the faint of heart. Without a child, it is an animal exercise in mileage, calories and sleep, which leaves me plagued with thoughts about what my karma must be that I have landed in a sickly-colored motel in this or that middle of nowhere. Touring with a child is more pleasurable, a true exploration, but frankly, tiring.”

A SONG FOR THE ROAD: Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt heads to downtown ILM with The Suitcase Junket. Photo by Alexandra Valenti
A SONG FOR THE ROAD: Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt heads to downtown ILM with The Suitcase Junket. Photo by Alexandra Valenti

The excerpt is from a column singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has been writing for The Oxford American, called “The By and By.” It’s essentially about being a mom on the road with her daughter, Jean, who is now 15 months old. Originally from North Carolina, Merritt studied creative writing at UNC Chapel Hill, so she’s no stranger to storytelling beyond chords and choruses.

“I’ve been lucky this year that I’ve had a lot of creative work,” she tells encore of her latest endeavor. “It has been a lot to balance with being a mom—and I tend to side with being a mom.”

When deciding what to share with readers, it’s less about picking and choosing anecdotes. Though there are usually times when things go wrong, it’s more about the lens from which the stories are told.

“I like to look at [them] with a lot of humor,” she explains. “Maybe this is presumptuous, but I think things I am struggling with on the road are actually what’s interesting about being on the road. . . . That is the hard thing about writing, but that is the point of writing: It’s just not about presenting this perfect, clean, let-me-show-you-who-you-think-I’m-supposed-to-be. It’s, hopefully, more of a real letter to home than that.”

Being on the road comes with challenges, especially as a mom, but it also has beautiful experiences and endless mishaps. Long hours, lost sleep and little pay balance with simple enlightenments, like first words and lost baby shoes.

“I enjoy writing about my motherhood a lot because I think it’s a really wonderful experience and it’s not about yourself,” she continues. “I think it’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever known. The road tends to be the secret world people find interesting, and I can try to shine a light on the fact that it’s a little more complicated.”

To talk about Merritt’s music and songwriting means talking about raising Jean. Ironically, before having a child, Merritt thought bringing kids on the road was an exceptionally terrible thing to do. However, it’s been a joy.

“Having this traveling companion gives the journey a whole other side,” Merritt tells. “It’s about exploring leaves, seeing a dog, touching water. I couldn’t care less about how many tickets I sell. It’s not a distraction per se, but I found the road to be a lot more fulfilling, having this tiny little witness for whom I am a tour guide.”

Jean is already getting into drawing, painting and other creative explorations as a toddler. She’s also listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Howlin’ Wolf  records with her mother, with “The Muppet Show” theme song shuffled in between. The two even sing to each other.

“At this point, she’s really interested in making noises, period,” Merritt says. “I try to listen to great music with her, and I want her to know about listening actively rather than just knowing music is something that’s just piped into every grocery store we go into.”

Merritt’s childhood education in music was a little different. She was introduced to guitar around 9 years old or so. But she’s less concerned with cultivating a passion or drive for music in Jean. She feels more responsible introducing her to the world and realities of life.

“Like, ‘This is night, this is day, this is winter, this is spring,’” she notes. “I think it’s really as simple as that. We all make ourselves promises about how we are going to be when we get the opportunity [to be a parent], and I realize this time right now is what I have with my daughter—and I have the choice to bring her the world through my eyes. It’s not a perfect world, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of challenges. I just try to remember what a short period of time that being little is . . . it goes really, really fast.”

Jean is starting to walk and run. If traveling becomes bad for her child’s growth, Merritt says she will step away. As of now, the artist is touring to promote her most recent record, “Stitch of the World” (January 2017). Matt Lorenz, the sole member of The Suitcase Junket, is opening the show at Wilmington’s The Muse on Thursday, and will be sitting in on Merritt’s set. Joining, too, will be James Brown on bass, Matt Corrigan (drums) from Hiss Golden Messenger, Eric Heywood (pedal steel guitar), and Alexander Sauser-Monnig from Mountain Man will share vocals.

“It’s an interesting cast of people,” Merritt observes. “It’ll be a louder sound than is on the record, but I think that is also the nature of recording. You have this canvas that really holds something that is thread-like and bare and small, and then can extend in a live situation.”

There’s a soothing nature to “Stitch of the World.” Merritt’s voice is quiet and delicate, much like a mother telling a story to her child. Yet, power emotes from the lyrics. They are sweet, soft, lovely, but hit hard subtly with acoustic guitar and a few faint instrumentals. She sings in “Love Soldiers On”: “Bruised up and skinny as a stick / no one I know so underpaid / Been around the block about a hundred times today / Won’t leave you alone, no matter what you say.”

“My Boat” is an adaptation of a Raymond Carver poem of the same name. Despite Carver’s reputation of not being cheery in his writing, Merritt connects to undertones of hope. “He talks about human relations in such a beautiful way: ‘There’s no getting ahead or falling behind on my boat.’ It really captures decency.”

The song even took on a new life before Merritt’s own eyes, given the political climate and discourse currently pulsating across America. “My Boat” reminded her of the positivity and goodness in the world, thus the recording reflects unity.

Also on the album are ties and knots, borne of a period of transition for Merritt, including divorce, turning 40, and being pregnant while recording.  “I certainly metabolize everything that happens to me through work,” she says. “Hopefully, that process is one that travels enough distance beyond my small life.  . . .  That isn’t to say you couldn’t find me in there in great doses, but, hopefully, I’m pointing in different directions larger than myself.”

Merritt moved back to Raleigh, NC, in 2016. At first, she was hesitant to leave her life behind in New York City.

“I’m not somebody who likes to double back,” she admits, “but I will say it’s been a tremendous gift and a really wonderful thing for both me and my daughter to find ourselves back in North Carolina with our family, and our amazing community of friends and years and years and years of history. It’s actually been pretty darn wonderful.”

Tift Merritt + The Suitcase Junket
Thursday, Aug. 17
Doors at 7 p.m.; Show at 8 p.m.
The Muse • 208 Market St.
Tickets: $22-$40

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