If you’ve been lucky enough to see Tift Merritt and her guitar kick up a cloud of dust in Marfa, or steal the show from Billy Jo Shaver at The Hotel San Jose in Austin–or any other venue for that matter–then you’re already smitten. Her Southern moxie, angel voice and wistful, emotionally precise lyrics make you feel every line she sings.
Tift has been a bright light on the Americana scene since her first album, Bramble Rose, was released in 2002. The North Carolina native’s latest album, Traveling Alone, comes out today via Yep Roc Records, and it’s already been praised in The New York Times as one of her best. Her album tour kicks off October 5th with Justin Townes Earle, son of Texas legend Steve Earle, so we caught up with her in New York City, her current home, for a quick chat before she hit the road.
You’re just back from touring with Mary Chapin Carpenter, and you’re about to kick it up again. How do you restore yourself when you’re back in NYC?
I make soup, go to yoga, see friends, play music, and nurture my life the best I can. I’ve lived in the country and I love being isolated now and then. On the other hand, in NYC there’s a certain amount of disappearing you do, and I find comfort in being surrounded by others and watching people feed their children, pick up their morning coffee, and run errands. It somehow confirms that we’re all in this together.”
What’s the vibe of your new album?
I wanted to make a record that was self possessed and comfortable with itself. The message being, here I am right now, and this is enough. As for the writing, I had to earn this one. I had to be ready to write it. It’s like vintage leather or soft old velvet, there are no shortcuts to getting there.
Tell us about the title track, Traveling Alone.
At a certain point in your life, you feel the weight of time and understand how ridiculous it is to live by anyone else’s map. The effort of being compliant is wasted energy. For people like me who have made a career of making their own way, you have to have your own code. You have to define it yourself and know what you’re dedicated to. I’ve always taken great comfort in the fact that that very little matters except love, integrity, and art. Everything else is just noise.
So “Traveling Alone” is a metaphor following your own internal compass?
As you get older, you understand that you are completely responsible for keeping your own fire alive, and that weight feels good.
While Traveling Alone is about forging your own way in the world, Tift is a big fan of the refuge and company of other people’s music when she’s behind the wheel. So we asked her to put together her ultimate traveling mixed tape, which includes everything from “Big Road by Bonnie Raitt “she made it at a summer camp with a great cast,” Tift says, “the whole record feels spontaneous and fresh” to Lucinda Williams “Jackson,” which Tift calls “quite possibly the greatest driving song of all time. It’s a map of the heart in your hand.”
Buy Traveling Alone and listen to Tift’s favorite road trip jams here: