Tift Merritt was tired. The glassy-voiced, country-informed singer/songwriter was burned out on increasingly demanding press requests and what had begun to feel like a never-ending tour in support of her Grammy-nominated sophomore album, Tambourine (Lost Highway). So she packed a bag last winter and boarded a jetliner for Paris. The sabbatical was supposed to be a two-week trip. "I was in France for about three months," Merritt says. "It was the most intense period of creativity I've ever had. Part of it is that I had this amazing license to leave. I didn't do much emailing, I didn't know anybody and I didn't have my telephone. It was this sensual, elemental thing where I was alone with my thoughts. But then when I needed to find that buffer in the world around me, there'd be these amazing churches and strange streets and people speaking a different language. Sometimes those experiments of going off by yourself can go horribly wrong. This one didn't."
Among her Parisian keepsakes were the seeds of her third LP, Another Country, released in February on Fantasy Records. Merritt's current tour for the album brings her this week to New Orleans (8 p.m. Friday, March 28, at the Parish at House of Blues), where she also is scheduled to participate in two creativity symposiums at the 22nd annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival: a master class titled "The Art and Craft of Songwriting" (3:15 p.m. Thursday, March 27) and an "Art of Song" panel with Nashville tunesmith Jim McCormick and New Orleans musician Paul Sanchez (1 p.m. Friday, March 28).
In both the class and the panel, Merritt, who studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, plans to share her unique perspective on the creative process of songwriting. The 33-year-old Texas native explains that while sequestering oneself in Europe certainly is a luxury, writing during a grueling tour is, for her at least, a near impossibility.
'Let's get [Paris] put in the rider, please!" she says with a laugh. "Everybody always tells me, "You need to learn to write on the road.' And they might be right. I think when you are really out there being an honest performer, you're leaving the best part of you onstage that night. That's the job you're doing; there's not much left. So I'm not sure that's what I am going to set my sights on — being the person writing a song on the back of the bus."
Merritt is something of an oddity in the music business. Where many artists tend to treat inspiration like an egg — something to be handled gently with kid gloves for fear of damaging it — her constant inquisitiveness is more intent on cracking open the shell to discover what it is, where it comes from and what's inside.
'I do think that my work comes out of questions," Merritt says. "And the big question is, "Why am I doing this?' I've always wanted to understand why I needed to do this, and what about my environment, what was affecting me culturally, made me do it. I think it's a big mystery."
She's also just as interested in why other people do it. In January, the Marfa, Texas-based station KRTS 93.5 FM launched The Spark, a monthly public radio program in which Merritt interviews a different cross-genre artist while traveling the country on tour. Her guests thus far have included High Fidelity scribe Nick Hornby, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams and California acoustic group Nickel Creek, a group that speaks to Merritt's fascination with the duality of music and prose.
'I believe that writing songs is all about editing and economy of words," she explains. "You can tell a story in a thousand words, a thousand pages or three sentences — which is what a song is. I really think that I'm probably more of a writer than a musician. Rhythm and melody and harmony, I feel like they're all elements of telling a story, like character or setting. And then I think there's this added magic with music that you can't explain. The more you hone those skills, when something simple and inspirational comes to you, you know how to react."
For details about Tennessee Williams Festival panels visit www.tennesseewilliams.net