In late 2005, North Carolina native Tift Merritt needed a break. She wanted to escape from her comfort zone. So she holed up in Paris for several months — not exactly a hotbed for country musicians such as herself, but it worked. “I was completely free from cultural ideas that I had, and I was really all by myself, and was writing by myself,” she says, her Southern accent still strong. “The physical dislocation makes that more possible.”
Living in Paris put her in a space where she was uncomfortable: not only as a songwriter, but also personally, too. “I would be so floored by just going to the post office,” she says. “I would take that infatuation with everyday communication back to the keyboard. And I think that carried throughout that whole process — simple and unfettered ideas; that's the trail that I sort of followed along.”
Indeed, when listening to Merritt's third album, Another Country, its simplicity is striking. In the past, she sounded like she was conforming toward the stereotypical alt-country songwriters, unsure whether to take the Gillian Welch approach to traditionalism or the Shelby Lynne style of Southern rock. With Another Country, Merritt has ditched the twanginess of her debut Bramble Rose and follow-up Tambourine's slick production. But don't think lo-fi. Instead, think earnest and sincere, with a warmth that's hard to rival. It sounds like Merritt has grown up, and in doing so, has pulled the plug on trying too hard. Here, piano ballads complement soft drums; other songs display a laidback, folksy flair, centered on her light, rhythmic guitar strums.
Lyrically, Another Country finds Merritt reflecting on internal changes. She's coping with loss and wrestling with moving on, often in ways that are optimistic and endearing. Her most tender moments come during the title track, where she muses on a solo journey of sorts: “And when you walk away from me, you're further than another country, and I want to go, too.” “Broken” highlights another feeling of disconnection as Merritt confesses, “I'm broken, but I don't understand what is broken.”
Her voice has gone through a metamorphosis, too, and with the stripped-down nature of Another Country's arrangements, she's becoming more comfortable letting it glide over the accompaniments. On “I Know What I'm Looking for Now,” it sounds as if Merritt is deadpanning the titular line, giving her a voice an air of authority. Moments later she gently repeats the same line, this time giving it a softer delivery. “I don't want my voice to be affective,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I want it to be true. Just like the way you would want to speak to a person.”
After this tour, Merritt returns to New York, a place she's called home for the past year. “There is a slight bit of pressure there,” she says. “And I wanna keep moving forward, in an unconventional direction.” Manhattan offers Merritt the same metropolitan excitement that Paris yielded — but this time, without the language barriers.