Early last year, Tift Merritt was at a place where you might expect at least a temporary pause. She’d been pumping out albums at a steady pace for close to a decade and doing the requisite touring in conjunction with each one.
Her last album, 2010’s “See You on the Moon,” was another solid effort, but didn’t break through commercially. By the time its promotional cycle wound down, Merritt found herself without a record label or a manager for the first time in years.
There were plenty of other things she might have focused on – her radio show, photography, even prose writing. Instead, Merritt had another album come together with surprising speed, the aptly titled “Traveling Alone” (Yep Roc Records).
After assembling the songs, Merritt put together an all-star band featuring guitarist Marc Ribot (best-known for his work with Tom Waits). Recording took a brisk eight days because, Merritt says, “I couldn’t afford a ninth day.” That must have been one heck of an eight-day week.
“Well, it came out of a moment where I did find myself alone, and I wanted to tend to things that were important to me,” Merritt says. “What’s interesting to me is real performance, and not having the studio be the only place it happens – for the writing to be strong enough for it not to require sugar-cream frosting, and for me to be woman enough to take the band to that place.”
Merritt pauses to laugh.
“I had no label and no manager, and there was a certain quiet in the room where before there were sometimes conversations about my work,” she continues.
“I found that extremely freeing and empowering, to my surprise. No one was telling me anything was good, but they weren’t saying anything bad, either. So I decided I might as well do exactly what I wanted to do.”
The result is a quietly arresting album, one of the best in Merritt’s catalog. Producer Tucker Martine’s arrangements frame her voice in the warm glow of measured, atmospheric accompaniment, from the quiet staccato of the title track to the chug-a-chug rocker “Still Not Home.” There’s not a single note out of place.
“I was pretty thrilled that this band came together for the record,” Merritt says. “Yeah, it was pretty dreamy. And there’s a difference between just coming together and coming together with love and tenderness and care. I think you can hear it from the songs, the way they played from the heart.”
Of particular note is “Drifted Apart,” a duet with Andrew Bird (long-ago sideman to Squirrel Nut Zippers) that goes right to the edge of pathos without going over. Despite the low-key vibe, it has an operatic feel reminiscent of Roy Orbison’s epic tragedies.
“We wanted that song to be not over-dramatic,” Merritt says. “Just one man and one woman speaking to each other. I think not overdoing it gives it even more of a heart of sadness.”
With “Traveling Alone” set for an Oct. 2 release, Merritt is cranking the touring machine back up. She plays tonight back in her former stomping grounds, Carrboro Commons, followed by dates all over the country. That will probably stretch into next year and then start all over again when Merritt’s collaborative album with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein comes out in March.
At some point, that expected break might become a reality. A hiatus might be what it takes to get Merritt back to photography, which she had to set aside in recent years. Asked if she’s been able to take any pictures of late, she laughs again.
“Come on, now,” Merritt says, “how much can one woman do?! I’ve not taken a picture in I can’t tell you how long. I feel like I have to take some time off to write before too long, and that’s probably when I’ll get the camera out. I do wonder if I’ll have to take a deep breath and stop for a while after this. But I’m relieved and glad to get this record out there now.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat