A meritorious spirit

Songwriter Tift Merritt returns to Colorado

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly




Tift Merritt is haunted by ghosts. But not in a bad way.


Parts of her new album See You on the Moon were inspired, for lack of a better word, by the death of grandmothers.

To make things even more interesting, the deaths occurred around a couple of her musicians’ weddings, in spring 2009. Merritt married her longtime boyfriend and drummer, Zeke Hutchins, and bassist Jay Brown had just gotten engaged. All three lost their grandmothers within a period of three weeks.

“They are so meeting up at a card game,” Merritt says of the old ladies, laughing. “There’s some sort of bridge circle.”

Merritt says the intensity of the emotions related to marriage and death contributed to the stark honesty on the album.

“Life and death happen all at once,” she tells Boulder Weekly. “The good happens while the bad happens. People tend to tune out one or the other. … We weren’t trying to be precious and hoity-toity with this record.”

At least a couple of the songs on See You on the Moon have the fingerprints of ghosts on them, Merritt adds. The title track was written for a late neighbor and friend who had a three-legged dog, and “Feel of the World” is a song from her deceased grandfather to her grandmother.

“I feel his presence at the piano sometimes in the middle of the night,” Merritt says of her grandfather. “I feel that there are some good ghosts that are sometimes interested in what I’m doing.”

But the album, and Merritt’s folk/country/rock sound, is far from macabre. Maybe haunting at times, but again, in a good way.

Those who didn’t catch her at the Folks Festival in Lyons a couple of weeks ago will have another chance when she opens for David Gray and Ray LaMontagne at Red Rocks on Monday, Aug. 30.

It will be Merritt’s first visit to Red Rocks, and she is looking forward to it.

“On this tour, I’m getting to play some of the most beautiful venues in the country, and it’s something I couldn’t do as a headliner,” she says. “I’m such huge fans of both [Gray and LaMontagne]. I’m excited to play these shows, but I’m more excited to sit on the sidelines and watch these shows.”

While she has never been to Red Rocks, she has ties to Colorado. In addition to appearing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Aspen jazz festival in the past, her brother George lives in Denver and works for Mayor John Hickenlooper.

“I just think you guys have such an amazing community for music,” she says.

The Houston native had lived most of her life in North Carolina before moving to New York City a few years ago, “while we could still live in an apartment and think it’s fun,” Merritt says.

She explains that the big city provides a lot of song material, but she still needs her solitude, especially when writing.

“I am so happy being a hermit,” Merritt explains. “I love people too, but I can spend a month by myself and not even blink an eye.”

She laments that spending time alone is usually “the first thing that gets sacrificed” in people’s lives.

See You on the Moon features the Anne Murray cover “Danny’s Song,” which Merritt says landed on the album rather unexpectedly after a band session in which someone made fun of Murray, and another came to her defense. The line, “And even though we ain’t got money / I’m so in love with you, honey” seemed especially meaningful during that marriage-filled spring of 2009, she says.

Merritt says she would love to do more covers. “What a great way to have an excuse to go to a record store and listen to records all day,” she laughs.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that Merritt is working in the tradition of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but she demurs when compared to great songwriters and musicians.

“Get back to me in 20 years,” Merritt says. “Those are really accomplished people. I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

She’s already played with the likes of Elvis Costello and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, but when asked who is on her wish-list of collaborators, she doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“I’d really love to spend the afternoon with Tom Waits,” Merritt says. “We don’t have to record anything, just hang out.”

Then she mentions another ghost. “I was also very sad when Ray Charles died,” Merritt says. “He’s a giant. I would have loved being in the same room with him.”

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On the Bill

Tift Merritt opens for David Gray and Ray LaMontagne on Monday, Aug. 30. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $47.85.

18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 720-865-2494.