Tift Merritt may have left North Carolina for New York City almost three years ago, but the Triangle-area singer-songwriter never really left North Carolina behind. She returned to Durham to record her new album, "See You on the Moon," which came out Tuesday. Her bassist, Jay Brown, and her gear still live here.
With songs about friends and family who have passed away and worn cassettes she discovered in her mother's basement, "See You on the Moon" is lovingly haunted by ghosts from her life here. The title track is about a friend who died eight years ago, while "Feel of the World" was written about Merritt's grandmother.
"She was dying. (My husband) Zeke's grandmother had just died and Jay's grandmother had died, too. We were all getting married, and it was this moment of endings and beginnings happening all at once," says Merritt, who married drummer Hutchins in 2009.
"My father was at her bedside and I felt really helpless. I wrote this song thinking about my grandmother and her life, and when I finished it, I thought this is my grandfather's song, not mine. He passed away in the '70s. It's him saying I'm waiting for you and I'm here for you."
Despite some sad topics, "Moon" isn't gloomy. It rings with warmth and love. The two opening tracks - "Mixtape" and "Engine to Turn" - are signature Merritt, a mix of classic soul-pop and alt-country.
"I have a suitcase of four-tracks and mixtapes people made for me. I realized how special those tapes were," she says. "It was such an act of friendship and care, because it took forever to make and because they introduced me to music that's so important for me now. I wanted to celebrate that introverted pleasure of making things from hand that you loved. Now you make a playlist. Bam bam bam. It's like the difference between eating fast food or making a cake by hand. You can feel that person's fingerprints on that cassette tape."
"See You on the Moon" doesn't so much recall the era of the mixtape as it re-creates the cohesive, restrained vibe of classic albums of the '70s. Even Merritt's simple, stark black-and-white portrait on the album's cover is a reminder of the '70s LPs of Fleetwood Mac, Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt.
"Most of the songs we would lay down with an acoustic guitar and build out from that. We wanted to open space to be a band member," Merritt explains, citing '70s hit maker Bill Withers as a reference. "I wanted to make a record that didn't have any nonsense on it."
It's hard to believe, four albums and a Grammy nomination into her career, that Merritt almost pursued another track. When she met Hutchins at 22 (he was 25) both were about to abandon musical aspirations. "His band was breaking up and he was going to be a teacher and I was gigging in bars by myself, which is not the most fun, and I was just like, 'I think I'm just going to be a writer.' I was so full of doubt."
Hutchins helped her get over the hurdle. "Zeke was such a pivotal person for me. He was my 'partner in crime' and gave me confidence and time to get comfortable in my own skin doing this."
Want to go?
WHO: Tift Merritt.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Visulite, 1615 Elizabeth Ave.
DETAILS: 704-358-9200; www.visulite.com