Finding the Frequency: A Conversation with Tift Merritt and Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird photo by Amanda Demme; Tift Merritt photo by Alexandra Valenti
Tift Merritt and Andrew Bird met as fellow singer-songwriters early in their careers in New York City. Through the years, they’ve played together as busy schedules and lives have allowed, including a breathtaking appearance on an audience-less The Late Show with David Letterman amid Hurricane Sandy, when they played Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Merritt was part of Bird’s old-time flavored Hands of Glory band for his 2012 album of that name, and Bird was featured on the song “Drifted Apart” on Merritt’s Traveling Alone album that same year.
While their songs are very different, they’ve found common ground in music — in how their voices sound together, in how her guitar playing blends with his violin, in the role they see for their songs in the world. Ahead of Bird’s concert July 13 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, in Merritt’s hometown of Raleigh, Merritt, who will be featured as a special guest, called up her friend to chat touring, songwriting, and reaching people through music. Here’s their conversation, edited for length:
TIFT MERRITT: Andrew, you’ve been touring a ton, how are you doing?
ANDREW BIRD: [Pauses.] I’m all right, I just got back from Europe and I’m feeling a little more out of sorts than usual. I don’t know what it is.
TM: I mean, European tours can eat your soul.
AB: Yeah. This wasn’t a particularly long one, but it was intense. I’ve never been a junkie, so I hesitate to use that parallel. But you know that feeling, when you’re just really tweaky when you get back and you’re kind of disoriented. I’m feeling that pretty hard right now, but I’m OK.
TM: It’s funny, I remember when I was in Hands of Glory, one of the many pieces of joy that I took from that experience was this kind of recognition of the energy, the physical and emotional, that it takes to be a frontperson, and also a fair amount of just responsibility and the judgment and the piloting and the whole thing — it takes a lot. And I just remember how joyful it was for me to be a part of something and be a support player rather than that brunt of all of that, and I don’t think I’d ever had a chance to really differentiate. So I’m always so grateful when I think about all the things that I learned from singing in a band with you.
AB: Yeah, that was a fun time! Hands of Glory was a blast. It was supposed to be a lark, kind of a between records thing. But it was such a great group of people. I remember when I started singing with you, it’s funny, I think about it a lot. All the unconscious inferences you make when you’re adapting to a new collaborator.
TM: Yeah, absolutely.
AB: And I found myself singing differently when I started to sing with you. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but my phrasing was different. I kept thinking I sound a little more like Willie Nelson than usual. [They laugh.] I don’t know why you brought that out in me, something about, instead of singing long tones I was singing shorter tones and the words were coming out more in a half-spoken sort of way. And I don’t know why you brought that out in me, but I liked it. I liked it.
TM: It’s not as much fun to sing by myself now that I’ve had the chance to sing with you. [Laughs.] I think the pleasures of harmony and the power of harmony, emotional and subconscious and human and all of those things, it’s a special thing to sing with somebody.
AB: That kind of theatricality of the duet, too, brings out a different thing. Instead of being a single monologue up there, it’s the interaction between two people in front of the audience.
TM: I think that’s so true. I’m really somebody who, I just work with myself and I don’t necessarily think me being the center of attention is what the world needs in this moment. So yes, having conversation and being part of something larger is such a lovely thing.
TM: I have a question as somebody who has tried to keep up with your musical virtuosity in a band. Are your songs ever finished, or do they keep evolving? Because I’ve seen you kind of sculpt songs in different ways on different nights so many times, and I wonder if you ever get to the place where you’re like, “That’s how it goes,” or if it’s always evolving?
AB: It’s always evolving. It’s by design. I try to do that as a way of pinching myself every night, to say, “OK, just because the album version is thus and so, it doesn’t have to be that way.” Just trying to get to the moment of inception again every night to keep you a little bit on the edge, and I think that’s really important. And exhausting. But whatever went on the album, it’s not the gospel. I count on people in the audience appreciating the evolving nature of the songs rather than the familiarity of hearing what they know on the record.
TM: I think my work is always driven to be direct and emotionally true, not emotionally over the top, and narrative in nature because I’m a writer first, and even plainspoken. And I just was thinking about your writing is such a great example of not those things, and I was wondering if the narrative, is that straightforward aspect really boring to you?
AB: No, no, the straightforward thing is what I aspire to.
AB: Yeah, totally! Well, I’ve got this argument going in my head between the brain and the heart, and the instrumentalist-muso-virtuoso versus the songwriter who wants to communicate universally. Those things are in opposition to each other often in I think a healthy way. But to me the holy grail is if I can write a song like John Prine that distills something and communicates in a simple way without being cliché. But sometimes I have trouble with that because the things I’m trying to talk about are not always simple.
TM: Oh yeah, it’s like looking at the sun — you kind of have to shoot for the left if it if you’re actually going to hit it. And if you do it too on the nose, that’s not valuable either. It’s a really hard balance.
Inviting Melodies In
TM: I was thinking about all of the instruments you play with virtuosity, and I was wondering how looping informs your melody formation. All your melodies are beautiful, but these melodies [on this year’s My Finest Work Yet] are really beautiful.
AB: The looping wasn’t as much a part of the process as previous records. I will say that the looping by nature helps me embrace repetition, which I generally always hated about pop music. Before I got into looping, my songs would take so many detours and oftentimes not return to anything you might call a chorus or a refrain. And looping kind of forced me to do that. But I use the looping to work out rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint, so I kind of improvise with that until I find an interesting pattern. But most of this record was written on the couch with the guitar, to be honest.
The looping is a compositional tool. That’s originally how I saw it, and then I started using it on stage because I couldn’t get a band one night. And then I was like, “Well, this has got some potential.” But I don’t know, I’m kind of weaning off of it a bit live as well. For a while, I would hardly ever pick up the violin without it being plugged into that Line 6 DL 4 [delay pedal], so it is kind of an extension of myself. Because it takes this linear instrument and allows me to go vertical with it. And you can’t argue with how helpful that is. You know, there’s a reason why a guitar is a go-to for songwriters. I mean, it’s not pressed up against your vocal cords, for one …
TM: Oh yeah, I didn’t even think of that!
AB: It’s so easy to just pick up and sit on the couch and casually strum away and kind of tool away at the songs for months, you know. So the melodies, though, they just come, whether I’ve got an instrument in my hand — oftentimes whistling or just humming or doing the dishes or something that occupies my hands is usually helpful. The more unconscious and casual, the better.
TM: You know, I agree so much. In fact I’ve gotten to the point where I really want to not have an instrument near me when I’m working on a melody because I feel like I have this muscle memory that you end up fighting when you’re trying to make something new, and I don’t want to do the things I did before. I don’t want to frame it with what my hands know. So I really am trying to — you know, walking or driving or making dinner or whatever — just allow that worm in my head to come out and pay attention to it. And I feel like that’s such a better way to invite melody into the world.
AB: For sure. Without an instrument in hand your melodies tend to break out of the 8-bar phrase pattern or the same three chords or, yeah, just the muscle memory of the instrument imposes itself on your songs pretty promptly. So the best stuff comes when I’m walking in an unfamiliar place or I’m just doing some sort of menial task or some sort of craftsmanship-type thing. Drywalling my barn years ago was the most fertile thing I could have done.
TM: I am picking up drywalling this afternoon! [Laughs.]
Above the Noise
TM: I’m wondering what you’re making of the cultural landscape of the moment. How are you thinking about that?
AB: I feel like it’s kind of helped sharpen my thinking as a songwriter in a way in the last few years. It’s a sense of need and purpose … I used to just sort of try to entertain myself with these internal conversations. I still have those conversations but they just feel more focused from what’s happening. I think you’re talking about our national politics?
TM: Yes, I am talking about our national politics. and I’m talking about sort of how social media can amplify a self-centered sense of experience in the world, and talking about raising children and having consciousness for the future and how to teach them wisely enough to send them out into the world. All of those things. And I think you’re right. There is a sense that the navel gazes, we cannot afford that right now. And I realize that I’m a really lucky woman and my travels as just one person don’t amount to much, and I want to see beyond simply that.
AB: Yeah. I think we’re receiving information at different frequencies, different bandwidths. Some are very low and base, and some have the potential to get beyond the stream of information that’s coming at us, that’s tailored to us, that the algorithm is tailored to what we want to hear and that feedback loop. When I was trying to find a language for this album, I kept using the test of what’s going to be at a frequency that’s above the 24-hour news feed and the things that are pushing us apart? And that took a while to find the right kind of tone and the right language. I found that you just know it when you hear it. When something’s too earnest, too current, is being too explicit about names and dates and places, you’re going to lose people. So you’ve got to find the right way to be both universal but without being trite and — you just know it when you hear it. You know what’s going to lose people.
TM: Thinking about those lower frequencies, that’s such a beautiful way to talk about it. It’s vaguely mystical, really.
AB: The same patterns in human history are reoccurring. The only difference, the unprecedented thing, like you said, is the social media amplifying and sort of turbocharging everything at such a velocity that we’ve never seen before. So the same myths from ancient Greece over the centuries still apply to help us understand why people behave the way they behave. You know, they’re there to help us keep from repeating history, the bad parts of history; they’re instructive.
TM: Well, I know that Sisyphus is really appreciative that you let him let go of that rock.
AB: I was just saying, “Sisyphus, maybe this is going out on a limb here, maybe the gods don’t exist, maybe you don’t have to do this anymore.” May Zeus strike me dead with a lightning bolt right now, but the skies are pretty clear. [They laugh.]
TM: Andrew, I am so, so glad to talk to you, and I hope that when I gather my next lower frequencies, I can call you up and get your advice on that.