Tift Merritt's life is not without contradictions. While Bramble Rose, Merritt's debut on the then-fledgling Lost Highway label, was chosen by Time as one of 2002's Top 10 albums, and its follow-up, Tambourine, received a 2004 Grammy nomination for Best Country Album, Merritt herself was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the pressures that come with that level of success.
"Despite the auspices of my job, I'm actually very introverted and very much a hermit," says the singer-songwriter, who subsequently exiled herself to Paris for several months and thought seriously about giving up her musical career. "I've always been really bothered by the vanity that goes along with what I do, and I think that being the center of attention changes your point of view, you know? And as a writer, I don't want my point of view changed."
Asked if she was depressed at the time, Merritt says, laughing: "Yeah, I think that's fair to say."
All the time she spent sleeping or walking around could have been a tip-off.
"Yeah, that sounds like depression, doesn't it?" she says. "Or actually, it could sound like the best vacation ever!"
The North Carolina-bred artist says she never felt lonely in a city filled with strangers. Instead, she appreciated having time to herself.
"There are so many different kinds of loneliness," says Merritt. "The kind I find very hard is when you're surrounded by people, yet you feel disconnected.
"I love touring and I get an enormous amount of energy from the audience. But after a year of doing it, when you haven't seen your family and you haven't spent time with your best friends, there's an intimacy in knowing someone really well. And an audience can't fill that place."
What about a drummer?
"A drummer?" says Merritt, laughing at the reference to longtime boyfriend and bandmate Zeke Hutchins, to whom she recently became engaged. "Oh, I was kind of grumpy with him. But he's done a good job of it."
An American in Paris
Many songs on Merritt's exceptional new album, Another Country, were conceived on the piano that came with her Parisian flat.
"I'm not that good as a guitar player," admits Merritt, who, being more of a rhythm guitarist, finds the instrument suitable for composing only the most simply structured songs. "When you're sitting down to write, not only is the piano big and the sound just rings through your whole body, but you're also apt to just accidentally find a melody. Of course, when I write on the piano, chances are the rhythm and the groove are not the strongest suit, so I go back and forth between the two instruments and that's how the song grows."
The chorus to one of the album's most beautiful songs, "Keep You Happy," finds Merritt's sweet yet soulful soprano slipping into an upper range that recalls a more subdued Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush.
"It's funny, that song snuck up on me really gently," says Merritt. "I don't often get a song in my head, you know; it usually comes from the instrument. But this was one where the melody came around in my head and I didn't go straight away to an instrument."
For the record, "Keep You Happy" is not a sequel to her first album's "Supposed to Make You Happy."
"But obviously it's a fixation of mine," she laughs.
Working again with George Drakoulias, who also produced 2004's Tambourine, Merritt seems to have reconciled her first album's country-rock style and its successor's more soul-oriented arrangements.
"I had been on the road for four or five months with a very introverted album," she says of the Bramble Rose tour, "and I wanted to take a step forward and tap into this killer rock 'n roll energy. I wanted my writing to be introspective and genuine, but also strong and loud, and working toward soul music was really a very natural way to follow through with that. I just didn't want to be the sort of wilted young lady who can't raise her voice."
On the road again
Songs like "Broken" and "Morning is My Destination" may not be the happiest Merritt has ever written, but the new album nevertheless conveys an undercurrent of optimism.
"I think," says Merritt, "that this album is actually the most personal record I've done."
It's also her first for the Fantasy label.
"The music industry is changing so much," she says. "I was one of [Lost Highway's] first signings, and whatever anybody was thinking in 2001 doesn't hold quite the same water in 2008. I'm really thankful for all the good things that began at Lost Highway, but I think things turned out for the best."
Meanwhile, touring again, how will Merritt keep from running into the same problems as last time?
"I have no idea," she says. "I'm feeling my way through it, and I have The Spark [a monthly public radio side project in which Merritt interviews artists], which I think helps. And you know, I'm just trying to get better at it.
"But at the end of this, if I can run to a foreign country and write an album that I'm proud of again, then I think it'll be OK."