- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Tift Merritt has a way of selling a place, be it the Parisian apartment where she lived while writing her new album (February’s “Another Country”) or the house in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon that she and her band rented while recording it.

When describing these and other spots she has enjoyed over the years, the singer-songwriter deals in images that resemble dew-covered daydreams and ponders new doors that have opened as the result of her staying at these locales.

The way she speaks or sings about a place, it’s tempting to think that maybe, just maybe, they might be capable of curing all that ails us, too.

When we catch a few minutes with Miss Merritt in mid-March, the 33-year-old is at it again. It’s the first day of Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest music festival, and the musician is holed up at her “favorite hotel” in the world: the San Jose.

The highlight of the annual festival for her isn’t the intimate performances she plays or attends or the creative inspiration that saturates the town; it’s this hotel — “and this Negro Modelo that I have in my hand,” she adds after a brief pause.

What exactly is it about the San Jose? Well, it’s not the stylish rooms, hip lounge or trendy neighborhood. For the Texas-born, North Carolina-raised artist, this place is about friends, connections and opportunities. It was within the hotel’s walls, for example, that the idea for her new monthly public radio show was born.

“I was telling my friend Liz Lambert, who owns this hotel, that I was very lonely being on the road so much,” Miss Merritt says. She recalls mentioning her fascination with 80-year-old painter Cy Twombly and how she longed to chat with him about craft and the greater artistic world.

Not long after, Miss Merritt and the hotel proprietor were flying six hours down the highway to Marfa, Texas, to ask the town’s National Public Radio station if the musician could have her own artist-interview show.

She got her wish in January, when her program (aptly called “The Spark”) first aired. So far, guests have included author Nick Hornby and poet C.K. Williams.

Miss Merritt says the show fulfills her desire to “cross-pollinate” with talents working in other disciplines. It isn’t the first time she has reached into other artistic media. The artist isn’t shy about referencing influences that range from singers Carole King and Joni Mitchell to writer Eudora Welty and photographer Robert Frank. In addition to having studied creative writing in college, she occasionally looks at life through the lens of a still camera.

“I take photographs when I’m on the road because I feel like I need the creative outlet, but it’s really hard to find the time to write,” she says. “I find that really important, especially on tour, to look outside yourself. Being onstage can be really one-sided.”

Being onstage also can be exhausting — as the singer discovered while on the road supporting 2004’s “Tambourine,” a Muscle Shoals-spiked offering that earned her a Grammy nomination for best country album. Of that time period, Miss Merritt writes in the liner notes to her latest record, “Laundry was dirty, suitcases were wearing thin, and so was I.”

She escaped to a flat in Paris, where she hoped to “go to sleep and see some pretty things.” She wanted to stop for a while, she says. “You know sometimes when you’re a kid how you’re turning in circles and you stop and the ground goes all wonky on you? I wanted to stop and have the ground go all wonky and then readjust.”

Slowly, Miss Merritt began soaking in all the lovely vignettes around her and all the musings that were surfacing within. Her hands gravitated toward the piano in her apartment, and songs began to emerge.

The thought crossed her mind not to return to the United States, but feeling an obligation to those nascent songs and her career, she left Paris and began the process of turning her sketches into a full-fledged album, this year’s “Another Country.”

Holding together the record’s quiet, country-tinged tunes is the title track, a showcase of the artist’s pure vocals, deft songwriting and touching sentiment, which largely boils down to the lines: “Love is another country/ and I want to go.”

Miss Merritt says that once she wrote this song, she realized, “Oh, that’s where I’m going” with the whole project. The central metaphor, she says, comes from feeling like a foreigner in both the physical world and internally.

No longer a stranger in a strange land, Miss Merritt sits in her beloved hotel San Jose, gearing up for the start of her new tour. She says she and her band are “a little bit nervous,” but she’s trusting in her recently penned songs. They’ve already taken her to some fairly bewitching places, both internally and externally.

This certainly bodes well for the future. Miss Merritt plays tonight at the Birchmere (www.birchmere.com). The Everybodyfields open the 7:30 p.m. show.

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