Since we're discussing the themes of her new album Another Country, it seems appropriate that Tift Merritt is speaking from the back of a tour van somewhere in the English countryside. The Houston-born, Carolina-bred singer/songwriter is making the trek from London to Sheffield with her five bandmates, and despite losing her cell phone signal twice, she sounds like a woman who loves where life has taken her.
"I'm definitely having a whole lot of fun," she says. "I'm so lucky that my job is to play music. After a while on the road, you might long for clean laundry and a good night's sleep in your own bed, but for the most part, it's just really, really fun."
Fortunately for her fans, Merritt never keeps her enthusiasm to herself. On stage, she's an inspiring spitfire, tossing every ounce of her tiny frame into routinely overpowering performances. And though she's probably best known as a thoughtful country balladeer in the Emmylou Harris tradition, Merritt can just as easily hit you with a stirring soul number right out of Dusty Springfield's playbook. Either way, she's a singer who demands attention.
"That's what I like best about performing—that intensity," Merritt says. "You know, being on stage is pretty safe. You can throw yourself in all the way without it having too many real-life consequences."
Live renditions aside, Merritt's latest album may be a little more mellow than its Grammy-nominated predecessor Tambourine, but it also happens to be the 33-year-old's most daring creation yet. To fully understand why, you can start with the album's clever title and its multiple interpretations.
First, in a literal sense, "another country" refers to France, where Merritt actually wrote the majority of the album's wistful, introspective tunes.
"The whole thing was really just an accident," she says. "I just was so tired from all the touring, and a little dislocated in my own life, so I decided to take myself on vacation as a reward for all the hard work I'd done."
Merritt chose Paris as her destination, with just one small caveat—she needed a piano.
"So, believe it or not, I Googled ‘Paris,' ‘apartment,' and ‘piano,' and I actually found something!" she says. "Originally, I was only going to stay in Paris for about two weeks. But I ended up staying for a lot longer, because, I don't know, something just started churning within. It was one of those times where everything that was going on around me kind of lined up with what was going on inside of me. So I started to write like a mad woman."
One of the songs Merritt wrote in Paris was the album's eventual title track, in which she turns the phrase "another country" into a metaphor for human relationships.
"I usually have a moment when I'm writing a record where I realize, ‘Oh! That's what this is all about! And it kind of started to come together under that umbrella when I wrote that song," she says. "I realized that being in another country and so far from my life and so far from my own language meant that I couldn't really take very much for granted. It was about my own place in the world, my own dislocation. But also, on a broader scale, it's about the idea that all people are different countries. We can be so far from each other in many respects, but still translatable."
Many listeners have also ascribed a third meaning to Merritt's choice of the "Another Country" title, believing that the Nashville outsider was offering her music as "another" option for country music fans disillusioned with the industry's establishment. While Merritt admits she's had her doubts about where she fits into the music industry as a whole, she's quick to shoot down this particular theory.
"I can see how people might think I was going for that sort of statement," she says. "But I just don't really believe in a genre. I don't think music should ever be about the music industry, because music is real, and the industry isn't. So people can read into things if they want to, but that's really not what that song or the album is about."
For all its complexities, Another Country is an album that anyone can enjoy for its sheer beauty alone. Whether it will bring Tift Merritt the level of success her talents deserve remains to be seen. Of course, success is also a relative term.
"I'm sitting with five guys in this van who would probably define success as having a bus!" Merritt says with a hearty laugh. "But for me, it's important to keep art in art's place and commerce in a really practical place. So I think my ultimate goal is to write and make music that I'm proud of, and hopefully have something good to say. Simple as that."