By Jeffrey B. Remz, April 2008
"Every time we were going home (to North Carolina), we were getting weirder, and it felt like we had two speeds in our life - on tour and not on tour...We don't have children. We have a weird schedule. We have a weird life. We belong with the bohemian new Yorkers," she says jokingly."
It wasn't always that way, of course. Born in Houston, Merritt moved to Carolina as a kid. She played small clubs in the Raleigh and Chapel Hill area. In 1999, she released a 7-song EP with country band Two Dollar Pistols.
She eventually signed with Lost Highway, an edgy wing of Universal Records based in Nashville. "Bramble Rose" received much praise, and "Tambourine," produced by George Drakoulias with help from Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers, earned a country album of the year Grammy nomination.
Life seemed good, but it didn't turn out that way at least for the short term. Lost Highway sank a chunk of money into Merritt and didn't receive the financial return. "I don't really know what was in their minds what wasn't working or what did work, but I think everything really turned out for the best. I was nominated for a Grammy. Was I disappointed (about the split from Lost Highway)? Yes. I tried my best, and I'm sure that they did too, and obviously it wasn't working."
Merritt doesn't spend all her time in music. She now has a radio show, The Spark, on a National Public Radio show in Marfa, Texas. The idea is that Merritt interviews other artists. The first four interviews of the show that premiered in January were with author Nick Hornby, poet CK Williams, painter Wolf Kahn and the bluegrass band Nickel Creek.
"I just got lonely on the road, and I wanted a way to speak to other artists and find out what was really going on in their lives and how they make their work," says Merritt, explaining the genesis of the show. "The road can be such an isolating place. I was crossing paths with interesting people, but just briefly and quickly and I couldn't get the gumption to ask them what I wanted them to ask them. I think that artists are kind of portrayed as perfectly formed geniuses. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the hard stuff and the honest part of what being an artist over a lifetime is like. I want to learn about that from other artists. I go into these not so much as a journalist, but as a student."
"I love it. It's incredible. It's wonderful. I got inspired by these other people and what they've accomplished and what they think about and how they struggle, what they think. It's just amazing, and it's so amazing to become intimate with someone else's work and someone else's life in this focused way and then to get to talk to them. It's really inspiring. It consistently shows me that life is not easy for anyone, and you have to be brave."
"I get to do whatever I want," says Merritt, adding, "It's really my little thing. I do it on my computer, and I edit it myself. It's really fun."
Close to four years is a long long time to be away in the music business, especially in this day and age where everything seems in a tizzy. Acts seem to have very little longevity. The idea of career development seems all but out the window with labels looking for the pay off now.
How does Merritt feel about finally going back into the fray? "It's always a little scary when it's suddenly out there to be judged. It doesn't matter how strong you are. You have this awareness of that. I did my part, and I don't really have any control over the rest of it. I just really keep my head down and keep working."
Merritt and her band hit Europe in May and then tour the U.S. this summer to remind music fans of her presence. "We'll be putting miles on that van," says Merritt.
And with the change in "Another Country," Merritt emphasizes the need for an artist to stay true to their muse. "I think there is a lot of temptation in the world. I don't mean to sound like a Baptist preacher or anything. I think that if you trust yourself and you have people around you who cultivate that in you and trust you too and want you to trust yourself, then it becomes very clear and very obvious. If you don't trust yourself, and you don't have people who trust your instincts either, it's really hard."
"I'm in a really good place."
"It's been a really great thing, and it's been one of those processes - you know when you're doing the right thing it gives you more energy."