Back in September (2005) I went to the open discussion Tift did the afternoon before her show at UNCW (which, of the six I've seen, was the one most driven by audience enthusiasm). No more than 20 of us sat in an otherwise-empty music classroom with her for about an hour and she talked about writing songs and we asked her questions. The "workshop" was primarily intended for songwriters, but was open to the public, so I made the terrible sacrifice of taking it upon myself to represent the fans. Being the unassuming person I am, I got there first and took the center seat. This of course had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that for almost a year at that point I had been absolutely ga-ga over this woman's music and had already seen her play four times in that year.
This was informal--all she brought was some notes so she would have something to remind her what she wanted to say--and we got about as good a sense of what she's like as your average joe is likely to. She was nervous and admitted it right off--typical of her when she first shows up in front of a crowd--and Zeke came in with her but didn't stay. Some of the things she said about songcraft were things she's said many times in interviews, so I won't repeat those, but she also said a lot of stuff I haven't ever heard or read elsewhere. She started by saying she wanted to talk about the artistic side of it because that's what she loved and not the business side of it because she HATED the business side of it. She made it clear that she felt totally lucky to have "made it" as far as she has, but she balanced that with the natural frustration that being her would carry with it. Of course that has mostly to do with what I call the "genre fetish" of today's music industry, which is bad news for artists like Tift. She compared writing music for only one genre to painting pictures only in green. Some songs are country songs, some songs are rock songs, some songs are soul songs--they just come out that way. Without coming across as negative at all, she didn't sugar-coat her lack of use for the music bidness and the crap on the radio. I recall making a crack about how there might be two songs worth listening to on commercial radio at any given time and she immediately shot back something to the effect that I was being too generous. Though she has maintained in the press that she is her own harshest taskmaster, and didn't say anything to negate that, she did reveal that she still goes through the uncomfortable process of demo-ing songs for the record people, to be told that they "don't hear a hit." And she'll say, "What's wrong with it? It's got a good tune, a good hook," etc. but they won't be enthusiastic. "Don't ask me how to write a hit," she said, half-jokingly. "I have no fucking CLUE how to write a hit." Along those same lines, I liked this one: "Nashville scares me. Nashville is a place where you make an appointment to write songs." Her advice to aspiring musicians was perseverance and dedication--which of course anyone who knows her story knows she's a pro at. Someone asked her if she was ever asked to record a cover as an attempt to get a hit. She said, Many times, but I would only do it if it really felt right--if I could really do the song from the heart, and I wouldn't do it to get a hit. She said that's not a good way to go about getting an audience--you may get a temporary audience by doing a song that's really not you, but that audience will go away fast. She said that most assuredly she would stubbornly keep doing her thing her way, and take what came along by way of rewards for that. Someone asked her about compromises--specifically, if she let other people edit or change her songs. She said no. She said if you're going to be in the business, you have to make some compromises, but for her those did not include her art. She drew a circle around that and that was off-limits. She said for her, compromises had to be on the business end--yeah, I'll play that shitty gig, or do this interview, or do something else I don't want to do, but that's all peripheral. She said that the creative process involved shutting herself off from people, going away, and setting up boundaries that tended to "make people think you're not a very nice person."
She also reminded everyone--again without being the least bit self-pitying about it--that her life was not a glamorous one. She said that they all live in a van and manage to stay in business by dividing the money they bring in such that by the time it's divvied up everyone gets "a little."
After mentioning the oft-repeated bit about her father's teaching her four chords, she sat down at the piano and played them, and sang the opening lines to You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman by way of demonstration. She said she is trying to keep the chords and structures of her songs simple, because she finds that to be a consistently effective vehicle for them. She mentioned Ain't Looking Closely as a song with a lot of chords and said she doesn't feel the need to try to do that now. (She also mentioned her father as someone who was very picky--and very honest--about which of her songs he liked and which ones he didn't. "Nope--don't like that one," she said he would say.)
Someone asked her about the Internet and music, and she said she enjoys being able to find music easily on the Internet, and she likes the accessibility it provides, but that she is an old-fashioned album person, and though she recognized the digital music has pretty much killed the album as a marketing tool, she still believed in it as an art form, and would continue to make albums that were designed to be listened to as albums, not as random collections of singles, because that's what she likes.
She repeated her early experience of being pretty much scared off the stage because she didn't know how to handle drunk men, and I said, Does anybody? To which she immediately answered with evident self-satisfaction, "Oh I'm a pro at it now."
I think the longest anecdote we got had to do with her earliest attempts to "make it." She had either not yet started college at UNC or had had one semester--I've forgotten which--and she was waiting tables here in Wilmington (at a place called Water St. which is owned by former mayor Harper Peterson--irrelevant trivia) when she met this guy who was doing web design and wanted someone to make some music for his projects--in New York. So she got all excited and went to New York to do this and told her mom that this was it, that she was going into the studio and was going to get to make her record. To which her mom, totally unimpressed, informed her in no uncertain terms that what she needed to go was come home and get her degree. Tift replied that she didn't need to go to college--that she was in New York and she was going to make a record, and her mother said, "Tift Merritt, you get yourself home and you finish school, or you'll NEVER have your own record." As it turned out, she said, same old story of young girl, big city--the whole thing turned out to be a shady scam and of course she didn't get to make a record and she very reluctantly drove home and showed up for classes at Chapel Hill, where she walked into an American lit class (if I remember right), late, and said to herself, well, here I am--I'm going to make the best of this by finding the best-looking guy in here and sit next to him. "And that was Zeke, my drummer." (More irrelevant trivia--a good friend of mine's ex-wife worked with her at Water St. and he remembers going to her downtown apartment where she and her musician friends had set up a makeshift jam space--this would have been probably 12 years ago--when we saw her at UNCW, the evening of this same day I'm describing, he and his new wife went with us, and after the show Tift recognized him even though they hadn't seen each other in years--that was pretty cool.)
As far as her demeanor goes, it confirmed what I'd observed about her all the times I'd seen or met her--she has that complex ambivalence in her such that on the one hand she loves to perform, needs to, and of course does so at the highest level, but on the other hand she's obviously quite shy and introspective by nature; she isn't pulled to be in front of and around people the way extroverts are. She doesn't walk into a room like a natural-born theater person with her arms flung wide and a big huge grin on her face, because being public drains her. (I get this because I'm the same way.) She's poised, and personable, and reasonably comfortable, but that has all been acquired. She squirmed and fidgeted non-stop--I wonder if she gets razzed for that the way I do. I think her confidence is still developing--she takes care of business just fine but on the other hand it's hard for me to imagine her walking out there like Tina Turner. If I ever see her do it, I'll be thrilled, but on the other hand, she's awfully easy to relate to the way she is now (was then, anyway).
Anyway, at the end a middle-aged guy sitting next to me (who, I later found out, is a local singer-songwriter), said the sweetest thing to her, which he was enough older than she to pull off: He said that she was just adorable, and obviously very talented, and that we appreciated her letting us get this close to her, and that she was obviously going places and we wished her the best. She of course was genuinely moved by that, and she thanked us all for being there and said "you flatter me." She had to go to an interview, but was happy to stand around and sign some stuff and take pictures, after begging for a bathroom break (she'd been drinking Diet Coke the whole time).
So there's some "real Tift" for what it's worth.