Story + Interview by Sandra Davidson
It was big news when Tift Merritt returned to Raleigh, North Carolina last year. Born in Houston, T.X. but planted in the City of Oaks by the age of two, the Grammy-nominated songstress began making waves in the early 2000s with her dynamic voice and evocative song writing. Last year she and her daughter Jean moved back to her hometown after a nine-year stint in New York City, marking a new chapter of Tift’s career anchored in family, writing, and roots. Tift, a 2019–20 N.C. Artist Fellowship Awardee, shared her thoughts on North Carolina arts in a 50 for 50 interview below.
Tell me about your creative process. How does the work come to be?
How does my work come to be? These days, because I’m a mom, it comes to be whenever it can, but I like to spend time with books and materials and my thoughts and start something and then I like to revise it and shine it and polish it and watch it walk away on its own.
What is your earliest memory of music?
Well my earliest memory of music and making music is spending time with my father. When he was home from work on the weekend, he would play piano and play guitar and harmonica and sing. I can remember sitting next to him on the piano bench and my feet not touching the floor. I think that music, at that point, was how I shared my love for my father with him, and that’s a very fundamental sense of expression. So, it started there.
How did you come to live in North Carolina?
My family moved here when I was two. My father was from Houston. My mother was not crazy about Houston. As families go, we ended up here. My mother’s family had been here, so my daughter Jean is fourth generation Raleigh.
When did you first started writing your own music?
I started writing and making my own music when I was a teenager. I think I felt very certain that I wanted to be a writer long before I thought that I could possibly be a musician. Music was this beautiful, strange language that was really powerful, and I felt lucky to be a part of it, but I never assumed that that would be what I was when I grew up. I still don’t take that for granted. But I think I’ve always felt very steady that I was a writer. So that was my door.
What do you remember about the arts community in Raleigh from your childhood?
I grew up in Raleigh when it was a small town and when there was no internet and when finding a record that you loved was a huge secret revealed. My experience was of a sense of place, of a pocket of the world that was not like anywhere else, where accents were very strong and everybody knew your parents and there were all these crazy cousins in every Southern gothic family, and a lot of great stories. I remember in my teens finding books or movies that moved me. I remember my dad giving me Blonde on Blonde. [I remember] finding a Tom Waits record and an Emmylou Harris record. The doors to the world were opened in a wonderful way. I had much less access to information, and so information was more influential and more pivotal and more impactful.
But I think the sense of place that I had in Raleigh was really special. It’s always been my frame of reference for home and also grounded me in the most lovely way so that I could go out in the world and do these interesting things.
As I understand it you had a great mentor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s creative writing program. Can you talk a little bit about how arts educators and mentors have touched your life?
I’m so fortunate that I have an amazing collection of mentors that have been touchstones for me. I think, first and foremost, Doris Betts at UNC was a huge influence on my life and my character. She was someone who was truly an artist but also truly of a family. Her family looked like mine, and she had an incredible work ethic and an incredible moral compass. For me, signing up for a bohemian life was at once very exciting and very different than what I had come from. So she gave me some foundations that felt like home, and she taught me to answer my own questions. Arts education is so important, and especially now with a daughter, I think about it. I think arts education is really about teaching people to make their own way because usually people who are making really creative and unique work are having to make really creative and unique choices in their life. I don’t know that that is the strongest muscle in our societal body at this point. I think making your own way comes with a lot of common problems that can feel very personal that actually are beneficial for people who are not artists. I think about Annie Dillard or Bob Dylan or Emerson or Thoreau. A lot of these great people forged their own path. I think that artists really have that in common. You have to fill a day with your own volition. You have to make choices that feel true to you, period. Those are really tough things to do that often isolate you and make you feel like you are an outsider. It takes a lot of faith to take that path. Arts education is thinking creatively but it’s also building a lot of strength and a lot of personal compass. I hope my daughter has those things.
You mentioned place really being your defining, driving creative force in terms of growing up in Raleigh. Will you talk about how that shows up in your process as a writer and a singer now?
I think sense of place runs through my work because it may be how I define authenticity—if it feels of something, of myself, of something unique. Sense of place is a really complicated idea because it has to do with having roots and being of something, but it also has to do with the ability to extend beyond and be equated with something greater. I think all of my heroes have a real sense of place. Eudora Welty is so of Jackson, Mississippi, and I always admired the fact that she didn’t have to go and invent drama in her life, that she never ran out of things to write about looking out the same window for her whole life. I think that’s beautiful and of depth. If you can be yourself in a small town, there’s nowhere to hide. If you are bumping into your neighbors and your family and you’re not anonymous somewhere, I think there’s a real beauty in showing up for that. I moved back here from being in New York City for nine years. That was hard. I loved being an artist in New York City. That’s the dream, right? But I realized that, for my daughter, my grandmother was buried just down the block, my mother is across town, and you can see the progress of human life. To give my daughter roots, it’s done. She knows just about everybody we walk by on the block. I think that’s amazing.
I know you first as Tift Merritt the musician, but you see yourself as a writer first and foremost?
I think that’s probably how most people think of me because that’s what I’ve made my career doing. But I’ve always been skeptical of that mechanism inside that wants to be in the spotlight. I’ve always been skeptical of the vanity of performance and the energy that is being in front of the camera. I’m always conscious of turning my eye back to the world. I wouldn’t pursue getting on stage if it weren’t for the feeling of having written something that I wanted to get up and say. I also just will probably always have more confidence as a writer than I will as a musician. I’ve played with virtuosos, and I know I’m not a virtuoso. I feel I’ve become fairly fluent as a musician, but there are a lot of people who speak with a lot more nuance than I do. I use the tools of music to be a storyteller. Words are my first language.
I know you collaborate with a lot of musicians around here. How would you describe the creative community in North Carolina now that you’re a part of?
I have to say that I think that my creative community here in North Carolina is everything. It’s saved me time and time again. I have such amazing lifelong friends here that I went to college with or played gigs with in my twenties. Sarah and Victor from Raleigh Denim lived in the same building with me in New York. We touch base with each other about having our own businesses and the struggles of independence. What is so striking about North Carolina now is the incredible caliber of people here that, actually, when I moved to New York City I felt odd that I was maybe one of the only people doing what I was doing. Now, I’m one of an amazing family of writers and filmmakers and poets and collaborators and designers. It’s a really fertile place.
Why do you think people are drawn to it?
Having the universities that we have and having a conglomeration of amazing, livable, beautiful cities is amazing. If you are going to be in the creative class at this point you need to have a place that is livable and friendly and somewhere that you want to raise your child and have a real life. London, San Francisco, New York, and Paris are very, very difficult places to do that. So, I think people are attracted to the space, the breathability, the possibility that can exist here. Plus, the fact that spring here is like nowhere else.
So, you have a lot of creative things in the works here. Are you able to talk about you have in the hopper?
I don’t know yet. No, I can’t…My projects right now have to do mostly with two decisions. One is the decision to not be on the road anymore for myself and my daughter. The second is the decision to really stay here, and so a lot of my projects are about North Carolina right now. I’m trying to rehab an old motel just down the street, the Gables on Old Wake Forest Road. I’m very interested in the Dorothea Dix Park reconstitution and exploring the hundred and seventy-five years of psychiatry that are embedded in that earth. I think there are some stories to be told, and I think music and art can be a way to metabolize and heal and proceed with a sense of peace into the future at that height. So, I’m really interested in that. Then of course I’m always sitting at this desk writing.
How do you think the state could better support artists?
I’d have to think about that for a long time because I think being an artist is a complicated thing right now. Immediately in terms of practical life, I think of how hard it is to get health insurance as a freelancer. I’m always a little concerned that we take our independent thinkers -which is this really foundational American principle - and isolate them in that way. I think that arts education is just important and valuable for everyone. Again, I think it’s about thinking for yourself and having the strength and clarity to think for yourself. Building those muscles takes time and practice. Any kind of general cheering we can do for our pioneers and the people who are willing to make their own way is really important, whether it’s health care support, financial support, calling attention to their work, or just helping the independent thinkers of tomorrow, but I think it’s really a fundamental thing to cheer pioneers and making your own road because it’s a tough way to go, but it’s really worth it. It’s worth it to have those people in your community.