Raleigh-raised singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has been compared to classic folk and country artists like Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. Now based in New York, Merritt, whose tour with Justin Townes Earle brings her to the McGlohon Theater on Friday, spoke to the Observer about her approach to songwriting, the changing industry and her new album, Traveling Alone. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What does Traveling Alone refer to?
On one hand, it was a period of time where I had to stand on my own, but wanted to. Its also a metaphor for your emotional life. I think it ultimately means we are all responsible for our own lives and happiness.
Q. Was it written in that way traveling alone?
I think being a writer or an artist is a solitary kind of traveling. I always write by myself. It makes me feel dirty to think about writing with anyone else.
Q. So, no co-writing?
Im not against collaborations. I think collaborations have to be a whole-hearted thing with the right person. I have a record in the spring where I put a concert together with a classical pianist. Shes very smart and such a musician of depth. I enjoyed that and learned a lot. Being in a band with people is a whole-hearted collaboration. Writing is the most private thing I do. Its a really fragile thing, and it has to be natural and organic, or whatever is trying to be born disappears. Its not the moment where you want somebody you dont know that well thinking about money in the room. Thats not the kind of writer I am.
Q. Thats sort of the classic romantic idea of being a songwriter as opposed to the whole industry of co-writing in Nashville.
I come at this as a writer first and a musician second. I think cultivating your own point of view is a lifelong pursuit. I dont think about the business side of it except when I look at my bank account.
Q. You have songs on this album that are very intimate and folky and others that are more rocking band songs. Do you write in a direction knowing which way youll take a song?
I think a song has to stand on its own in the beginning without any drums or guitars. They all show up and have to stand on their own in the simplest way before I even take it to the band. You can kind of sweeten something up and put a lot of music and noise on it, and maybe it doesnt say anything to begin with.
Q. Did your move to New York affect your writing?
I live in a really quiet place where I can think with some good quality silence. When I lived in North Carolina, I lived in the middle of nowhere. Thats one kind of intensity. I find that in a city, its easy to disappear into your own world, but its less lonely. You can touch base by ordering a coffee or saying hello to someone on the street or talking to the butcher. Theres something I find comforting about that.
Q. How do you feel about the changes in the industry since you started out?
When I started, it was the old-school world of the record business. There were people throwing money around, and that was kind of fun. What was nice about it was that people bought records. I dont know if its better or worse now. I dont know if I was that happy being in that world, either. You had less control, and I dont like not being in control or being part of the system. Its nice to have your own thing, to be left to your own devices and see where you fit in the world. Theres less ego in it.