Happy Hour with Tift Merritt

V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, sat down to chat with North Carolina native and critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated singer & songwriter Tift Merritt. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Tift at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, January 18th, from 5:30 – 6:30pm.

Your North Carolina upbringing. Where? Who? Why? 

Piedmont, pre-internet and chain store, “ask your neighbor” radio hour, era of thick regional accents, mother’s family, always thought I’d leave and always end up back.

How would you describe yourself musically?

I’m a writer first, who by hook and crook speaks music. I love to play piano.

As a hard-working, award-winning recording artist, musician, and writer, much of your career has demanded serious road time away from ‘home,’ but that road has now brought you and your daughter Jean back to North Carolina where you remain vibrantly engaged with music, but also some exciting new projects. Tell us about those, including your role as the new Performing Artist-in-Residence for the Community Histories Workshop and the transformation of the 308-acre site of the Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. (We hear you’re hanging out in some of our region’s best archives…)

I was extremely scared of how motherhood would change my career. You really can’t tour with a baby and no crew. But I’ve happily found that my canvas has widened---and my heart got bigger! In the past few years, I’ve been writing for the Oxford American, I developed a textile line, and I’m working on a site-specific piece focused on the former psychiatric asylum in North Carolina---the Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh.

I’m not sure if I changed or if the music business changed, but I’m deeply happy to be working on a project that asks hard questions about society, the importance of our margins, and the centrality of our outliers. It’s been a time of creative awakening and I’m not sure I would have had the courage to make such changes without my daughter grounding them.

You often combine forces with the North Carolina ‘roots-rock’ band, Hiss Golden Messenger, founded by Michael “MC” Taylor. As a former American Studies faculty member, I’m proud that you’re both alums from our excellent American Studies program at UNC-Chapel Hill.  Tell us a little about that degree, and how it has shaped your song-writing.

What American Studies gave me was a way to study artists and their work in context.  Of course, work speaks without context, but understanding work within a psychological, historical, and cultural moment bares insight into the common problems of making one’s own way, and that is what interests me most.  

Your recent album is entitled, “Stitch of the World.”  We care deeply about stitches and seams at V&V. Can you say a bit about the origins of that powerful title and the hauntingly beautiful song of the same name?

I spent some time in Northern California writing in a vista that was spectacular. It didn’t look real, but rather like a work of art that I had suddenly entered. At the same moment, I was getting divorced and the fibers of my life were falling apart. I thought much about the vulnerability of the ties that bind -- How strong should they be? How hard can we pull on them? Are we supposed to feel tangled? What if they fray too easily? I was sewing a great deal at the time, so seams and thread became a very important metaphor for me. 

Stitch of the World (album cover). Credit: Alexandra Valenti


Name one contemporary woman musician and one from the past that you admire.  What is IT about them that resonates with your life?

So many women artists have influenced my work and life and opened my heart.  Carole King, Eudora Welty, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Bobbie Gentry, Maya Angelou, Flannery O’Connor, Sally Mann, Kiki Smith, Belle Boggs, and my entire female friend brood. My friend, Hotelier Liz Lambert, is a huge inspiration; she is a true artist who makes her own way, seeks soul, works harder than anyone I know, and laughs the whole time.

One thing you particularly miss about North Carolina when you’re on the road performing? The Raleigh-Durham community?

Roots are not something you can fake. I have deep roots here. I want my daughter to have them, too.

I love the world. I love to travel. I love being in big cities and tasting new things. I especially love old cities where the architecture and public works are astounding feats of humanity. How was stockholm built? Paris and Rome? These places remind of us of times when people truly aimed for the stars.

What I love most about North Carolina is my community of friends and family. In the complicated now, I see many advantages to living in an interesting, smaller community with few of the hassles and expense of a larger, urban area. What is most important to me is my time with my daughter and loved ones and my time to cultivate projects. being here is fundamental to that.

As a working mother, a community activist, and native North Carolinian, what is your biggest hope for our community?

Can we please have a public transit from Durham to Raleigh and Chapel Hill? I am a huge believer in public transit as a democratizer. I am an advocate for not being in cars. I’d love to trade our American ideal of “citizen” as based in consumerism for “citizen” based in meaningful, long term community building, education, and celebration of diversity.

And, as it is Happy Hour, what is your ‘go to’ drink that says “I’m home”?

Oh boy. I drink rose, still or bubbly. No liquor.  

What are you thinking about right now in your work?

How to make meaningful content in a content flooded world. How to use technology in meaningful ways, the difference between information and knowledge.  How to participate in social media in a meaningful way (when I don’t want to participate at all), and it feels grossly arrogant in a world needing more love than selfies.

We hope you'll join us on the 18th to visit with our special guest, Tift, and enjoy a drink (and a song or two) on the house! In the meantime, reserve your free tickets and listen to some of our favorite Tift Merritt music below.