Tift Merritt begins See You on the Moon by explaining — better than perhaps she knew when writing the song — what makes Merritt's music her own. Her fourth studio album's introduction "Mixtape" seems simple enough. It's mostly backed by a spare, choppy guitar riff and steady handclaps. Merritt compares love to the labor of making a mixtape, "with homemade covers." She references Mazzy Star and Donovan by name and The Pixies by their "la-la-love you."
"My high school boyfriend made me a tape that had Donovan and Sly & The Family Stone and The Pixies," she reminisces over the phone before a break from tour on the North Carolina coast.
She felt drawn to the "sweet and introverted" act of tape-making, the indirect intimacy and dedication of time and effort that went into recording them. In going back to those tapes, she found the roots of her own sonic explorations,.
Old tapes, like the one from that old boyfriend and others, introduced her to the music — like Big Star, the Jayhawk, and Lone Justice & Maria McKee — that would inform a career that has produced four studio LPs and a live album in less than a decade.
But from the beginning of Merritt's career, she has been too eagerly categorized as an alt-country chanteuse. From her days singing duets with twangy Chapel Hill favorite Two Dollar Pistols at the turn of the millennium, through her time fronting The Carbines and into her solo career, Merritt pushed against the confines of the expectations placed upon her. Merritt was proclaimed to be a new Emmylou Harris; she turned out to be something more like a new Mary Chapin Carpenter, country-ish and dissatisfied with confining labels.
Fittingly, commercial success has been hard to come by for Merritt. Lost Highway, the roots-music label that backed her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, and its follow-up, Tambourine, dropped Merritt from its roster, but seemingly for the better. Lost Highway might've felt like a one-lane road, steering Merritt into Americana twang after she'd begun dabbling in blue-eyed soul on Tambourine.
Another Country, Merritt's first release for Fantasy Records, came out four years after Tambourine. She wrote most of the record in Paris, alone. "Another Country was a record that was really personal to me," she says. It delved into Merritt's own doubts — "I'm broken/And I don't understand what is broken," she sang. But it also opened the door for a new, freer approach. "I Know What I'm Looking For Now," she declared, before corroborating herself with "My Heart is Free." She pushed humid Booker T.-style organ chords behind her voice and welcomed brass accents. She still seemed to be searching for something, though.
On See You on the Moon, Merritt found her destination. "I like to think of it as a bunch of stories," she says. Her themes are tried and true: love, death, life, heartbreak. She sings about rain and a three-legged dog. The goal, she says, was to "just write in a really direct way, both in the writing and the writing process."
It's a sparer record than its predecessors, more focused on Merritt's voice and her longstanding rhythm section, bassist Jay Brown and drummer (and husband) Zeke Hutchins. But it's also her least country-sounding. Acclaimed studio producer Tucker Martine (Mudhoney, The Decemberists, Bill Frisell) directed See You on the Moon and helped Merritt pull studio talent as disparate as My Morning Jacket's Jim James and experimental musician Eyvind Kang, (who has collaborated with, among others, drone metal titans Sunn O)))).
Merritt doesn't deviate too far here. "I don't know if you can make a departure when you've only had four records," she says. But her vision is clearer, and she meets her goal. "We didn't want to put too much on the record." What she's found here is a new sense of spaciousness and a streamlined approach, which feels almost like a sense of discovery.
"I just had to get out of the way and hold the pen and get open," Merritt says of piecing together the songs that form See You on the Moon. "You have to be a good shepherd for your work, but it doesn't do what you tell it to do. You do what it tells you to do."
If it works, she says, "it speaks to you, and it moves you." Ideally, it works likewise on others. "With your rational head, you can do all the right things," she says. "But the heart has to be there, too."
In that sense, the music arrives like a gift from a friend, unexpected and telling. And lasting. "We devour stuff so fast these days," Merritt says with a hint of disappointment.
There's still something special about the sentiments that last, that inspire and convey a real emotion, like so many handmade mixtapes.